Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hablo Ennui's Top 20 Albums of 2008

1. Portishead – Third: As the year has gone on, this album still sounds as bracing as the first time I listened to it. The classic spy movie meets trip hop sound of the first two Portishead albums is intact. What makes this even better are the challenging dissonant parts that sometimes mesh with the basic foundation, but often clash in the most interesting ways, with Beth Gibbons, all the while, wrapping herself up in anguish and pain.

2. Pas/Cal – I Was Raised By Matthew, Mark, Luke & Laura: This sprawling Detroit band purveys complex pastoral pop in the vein of the classic Kinks by way of more modern folks like Lilys. These songs wind along a convoluted path without ever falling apart, making them inviting journeys not just opaque art rock. I’m still peeling back the layers on these songs.

3. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago: Justin Vernon didn’t set out to his father’s remote Wisconsin cabin to become a critic’s darling. It just worked out this way. This effort fits in with contemporaries like Midlake and Fleet Foxes, but stands out due to the emotional intimacy that captured on every track of this relaxed yet intense folk-pop.

4. Sparks – Exotic Creatures Of The Deep: The catchiest thing the Brothers Mael have unleashed since 1982’s Angst In My Pants, this manages to sustain the baroque orch-pop themes of the predecessor Lil’ Beethoven and Hello Young Lovers albums, in a more user friendly fashion. Moreover, Ron Mael’s lyrics are sharper than they’ve been in quite a while.

5. Jay Reatard – Matador Singles ’08: This is high energy rock that is speedy, hooky and perpetually teenage. I’ve heard comparisons to the glammy side of early punk (whether it be Radio Stars or Dickies) and the perky side of the Flying Nun brigade, and that provides only a taste of what’s going on here.

6. Steve Wynn – Crossing Dragon Bridge: While Wynn can rock with the best of them, as a recent Chicago show proved in spades, this collection of primarily acoustic songs, many augmented by swooping orchestral parts, shows the depth and breadth of his songwriting. Some of these numbers highlight the Dylan/Reed side of his muse, but this isn’t imitation, as he comes up with music that is, at times, pretty challenging.

7. Silvery – Thunderer And Excelsior: This is frenetic Brit pop from a band that name checks, among others, Sparks and Cardiacs, and you can hear that in song after song. The melodies swoop and careen like a rollercoaster coming off the rails, and the more I suss out the lyrics, the further enamored I become.

8. Alejandro Escovedo – Real Animal: Escovedo again shows the benefits of working with a strong producer. Last time around it was John Cale; this time, it’s Tony Visconti. Escovedo’s songs are a mix of storytelling and wise advice. His roots music is augmented by smart arrangements. He might very well be making his best music now.

9. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive: It’s inspiring to see these guys getting 15,000 indie rock fans to wave their fists like every punter at an arena rock show in the past 30 years or so. Of course, the music demands it, as this band has honed its approach to Ginsu knife sharpness. Meanwhile, Craig Finn is simply one of the most compelling lyricists in rock music.

10. Lindsey Buckingham – Gift Of Screws: I didn’t think he could improve on the blissfully intimate Under The Skin. Some of that gossamer pop magic remains, but the bulk of this album sounds like a teaser from a great lost Fleetwood Mac album, the one where they let their personal disputes go and just had a lot of fun.

11. Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple: Unlike the Beck/Danger Mouse collaboration, where the respective strengths of the two talents were somewhat duplicative, the Mouse and Cee-Lo bring out the best in each other. Cee-Lo’s soul chops and Danger Mouse’s creative backing tracks are a perfect blend, retro fitted in short sharp shots and awash in lyrical paranoia. It doesn’t feel like formula yet, so I hope the lack of a megahit doesn’t prevent a third Gnarls album.

12. Liam Finn – I’ll Be Lightning: Finn doesn’t shrink from the legacy of father Neil and Uncle Tim (of Crowded House/Split Enz fame). Indeed, based on this album, one would think that penning killer melodies and hooks was hereditary. Liam takes this pop legacy into contemporary times, having clearly absorbed the texture and prickliness of a lot of the best recent indie pop-rock. And if Liam really takes after his elders, he will only get better.

13. British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?: The anthemic power of the band’s first album is melded to the mature songwriting of the second album. Everything comes together on this third effort, with British Sea Power becoming the rare post-punk revivalist to have staying power. Stirring stuff.

14. Santogold – Santogold: A lot of folks are trying to imbue this debut with more depth that it actually has, in some weird attempt to legitimize the album. It doesn’t need any elevating. This isn’t a powerful statement. It’s a made for summer pop album, with a singer with tons of personality trying on a bunch of different styles and having fun with all of them. In a better world, this would be the new She’s So Unusual (Cyndi Lauper’s debut, remember?)

15. David Byrne & Brian Eno – Everything That Happens Will Happen Today: This isn’t so much the sequel to My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, as it is the follow up to Brian Eno’s collaboration with John Cale, Wrong Way Up. Okay, it’s more rhythm oriented than the Cale team up, but otherwise, this is two arty guys making really smart pop music. And David Byrne’s warmth and empathy becomes more inviting as I get older.

16. Hawksley Workman – Between The Beautifuls: While I wish Workman would go back to making more glammy, new wavey music (and he did a bit of that on his other 2008 release, Los Manlicious), I have no complaints about this lovely collection of piano pop. Although Workman will probably never be a direct lyricist, the words and metaphors resonate emotionally in a way his prior music never has. This is due in large part to his classic songwriting and warm vocals, with just enough quirks to keep this from being too slick.

17. For Against – Shade Side, Sunny Side: More like Prickly Side, Pissed Off Side. Instead of shimmering guitar swirls, the guitars and vocals cut through the sonic space with lacerating power. A lot of these songs are about love gone wrong, manipulation, and so forth. The total commitment of the band gives the tunes considerable power. Dream pop that focuses on nightmares.

18. Erykah Badu – New Amerykah, Pt. One: 4th World War: Definitely an album that must be heard all the way through. Badu has always tried to be more than just a throwback, and here, with the help of some able producers, she mixes her neo-soul classicism with a ton of modern beats. Throw in some trenchant social commentary, and you have an album that brings together everything that has been good about hip-hop and R & B in the past 40 years or so.

19. The Dirtbombs – We Have You Surrounded: I came way late to the Dirtbombs party. Yes, the ‘bombs are garage rockers. But garage rock is just a jumping off point for all sort of aggressive music, from neo-glam to new wave homage to techno-disco beats. This is all held together by the aesthetic vision and terminal cool of frontman Mick Collins.

20. Katjonband – Katjonband: This has most of the hallmarks of any recent Jon Langford record: forays into rock, country and folk and lots of pointed political commentary with a dose of good cheer. What elevates this is the collaborator, Katrin Bornfeld of the Dutch avant-garde band The Ex. Bornfeld is a masterful drummer. Her beats swing and she’s pretty darned creative. The songs are rooted in basic structures and the interplay between Langford and Bornfeld, both vocally and instrumentally, make this a total success.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Pitchfork 500

The Pitchfork 500 -- Edited by Scott Plagenhoef and Ryan Schreiber (Fireside)

I'm sure I'm not the only person who, upon hearing that Pitchfork was putting out a book of the top 500 songs since 1977, thought that those Pitchfork boys (and boys is appropriate -- only five women contribute to this tome) had gotten a little big for their collective britches. It's easy to take shots at Pitchfork, since it has become the dominate website for all things indie music. But this book, although flawed, reflects very well on the website.

It turns out that making this a top 500 songs book was a pretty ingenious idea. On the surface, it seemed like this would create more controversy than a list of the top 500 albums. In fact, it is a lot less controversial. This is primarily due to the inherent absurdity of identifying the top 500 songs out of the umpteen million released in the past 30 years. Might as well make the list the top 1000, or 2000, or...you get the point.

Anyway, what's great about the concept is that it lends itself to storytelling in a way that might not be as easy with albums. While this book could be considered a reference, it's really just the tale of punk and its indie aftermath. In choosing the songs, the Pitchfork folks cover a lot of ground as rock music exploded into seemingly hundreds upon hundreds of subgenres. Are there songs that are missing? Well, yes and no. It's silly to quibble over the songs, for the most part, and amongst the songs I knew, there are only a few really head scratching selections.

The book is divided into chapters which chronicle a slice of a few years. The songs are then discussed, but not in a strict chronology. Each chapter tends to group songs by style or genre, winding around a bit (from hip-hop to indie to electronic to reggae to pop to hip hop to death metal and so on). I like how they did this as it emphasizes the variety that became the norm in the post-punk era and is greater than ever today.

Every chapter has a sidebar that focuses on a genre or some other aspect of music (like songs where bands jump the shark or obscure genres). Most of these pieces are worthwhile, though it would have been helpful if the writers didn't presume that a reader would know what every subgenre is. A little description would help. A couple of these pieces try to be funny, and they aren't. Leave that for The Onion.

The writing is inconsistent, but if you read Pitchfork reviews regularly, that shouldn't be a big surprise. One problem is that there is no single approach to the entries. Do you talk about what the song sounds like? Or why it was influential? Or the background of the artist? Or something else? Admittedly, there's probably no one correct way to do this, but some entries certainly fail to explain why the song being written about is special.

That being said, the percentage of well written pieces is fairly high. In many respects, writing about an album is a lot easier than focusing a few hundred words on a song. It's the difference between summarizing twelve songs in a long paragraph, versus really going in depth on one track.

So this isn't the greatest piece of rock writing out there. Nevertheless, I really liked this book. While it's not a classic reference book, it is a great overview. While there may be some folks who know every type of music in this book in depth, for the vast majority of us rock fans, this provides a slew of recommendations to follow up on. After the holiday season is over, I'm going to be checking out a lot of the hip hop, electronic and dance tracks to add to my surface knowledge in those styles.

Any time a music book gets me interested in checking out new (to me) music, it's a success. I can't quite call The Pitchfork 500 essential, but if you want to expand your horizons, it's worth checking out.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Various Artists -- Titan: It's All Pop!

Various artists -- Titan: It’s All Pop! (Numero Group)

Had I written this review after only two spins of this two disc set, it wouldn’t have been very favorable at all. This collection of everything recorded for Titan (i.e., released and unreleased stuff) is four square power pop. Those who are allergic to anything in the vein of The Raspberries are best advised to stay away.

The Titan label achieved cult status. The label heads, Mark Prellberg and Tom Sorrells, mined the talent in Kansas City, Missouri and the surrounding area and put out a succession of flop singles. And a flop compilation, Just Another Pop Album, which kept the flame alive for the tiny label, long after it went under.

The Numero Group, known mostly for its great compilations of obscure soul music, but also for the fab fifth volume of Jordan Oakes’ Yellow Pills series, gives Titan the deluxe treatment -- full liner notes and careful mastering. These sides might not have had top flight engineering and mixing, but they all sound designed for a transistor radio, and the two CDs accentuate that attribute to the fullest.

While a few more plays have made me look more favorably on this collection, I must say that not every song recorded for Titan deserved to be heard again. It’s not so much a matter of the music here not having aged well, as it’s that a fair amount of the songs on Titan were not that good.

Moreover, for the most part, the label’s acts worked a very narrow seam in the power pop mines. I suppose you can hear some Dwight Twilley Band and Pezband in these tracks, along with the aforementioned Raspberries, but the artists here were good craftsman, rather than innovators.

The best of the bunch was Secrets*, whose sole album I snagged in a cut out bin based on a positive Trouser Press review. And as enthusiastic as the scribe was about Secrets*, they weren’t Shoes or The Knack or The Sorrows by any stretch of the imagination.

What they were was solid meat-and-potatoes power pop and the crafters of the strongest hooks on this collection. The whole shebang starts out with the strongest Secrets (I’m dropping the gimmicky asterisk now) song, “It’s Your Heart Tonight”. The song starts with a simple riff, the drums move on in, and then the singer intently gives advice to a buddy, before heading into the chorus, which works a variation on the opening chords. For a song with such pep, the lyrics are cautionary, painting this woman (and perhaps all women) as a maneater. Hmm...

The Secrets had some other songs of almost equal caliber, such as “Radio Heart” and “Get Your Radio”, which are appropriate, since they were the Titan act who most deserved to hit the airwaves. The two other artists who shine the most on this comp are Gary Charlson and The Boys.

Charlson kicks off the second disc with the Dwight Twilley composition “Shark”. This song has a bit of a ‘50s rock and roll vibe with great lead guitar accents. The dreamy melodic middle eight takes this song out of the revival context and into classic pop territory. I also really dig the dramatic “Burning In You”, which sports a terrific arrangement. It’s a shame Charlson never got to wax a full LP.

Meanwhile, The Boys sometimes did not sound like men, due to a reliance on high pitched vocals. The band is a bit more hit and miss than Charlson or Secrets, but the good songs are really good. “We’re Too Young” starts off with some killer harmony vocals before moving into a smoother and more anglophilic take on teen angst than The Scruffs. The falsetto is out in full force on “Hold Me”, which sports strong lead guitar work and a breathless quality that exemplifies the longing that this song is all about.

Props must also be given to J.P. McClain & The Intruders, who verge, at times, upon new wave territory (a la Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson) and the one ringer in the bunch, former Raspberry Scott McCarl, whose two numbers are swell, especially the killer “I Think About You”.

My final verdict is that this set is really for ultra rabid power pop fans. Titan found some good local talent, but there aren’t enough great songs here. To think that not too far away, a few years down the road, Fools Face sprang up out of Springfield, and outdid all of these guys. Maybe someone can convince Numero to fund a Fools Face box.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Eagles Of Death Metal -- Heart On

Eagles Of Death Metal -- Heart On (Downtown/Rekords Rekords)

It’s another trip to Boogie Town in the Eagles Of Death Metal’s way back machine. Mustachioed Jesse Hughes and chrome domed Josh Homme have this retro groove fest down to a science. As such, it’s hard to deem any EODM record to be essential. But this is yet another album with its fair share of pleasures.

The song that leapt out immediately to me is the shimmy inducing “(I Used to Couldn’t Dance) Tight Pants”. This song is built on funky shuffle drumming and a typically stupid guitar part. Hughes and Homme know a good groove when they find one and they ride it out with, just adding a falsetto “I don’t want to do what I’m supposed to/I just want someone to be close to” refrain. The best part is that you can dance to it.

Let me use the word “groove” for the third consecutive time in this review, with a purpose. I think what raises the Eagles from just being boogie revivalists (though the Eagles are decidedly boogie revivalists) are the rhythms. Rather than the plodding 4/4 beats that typified the ‘70s music these guys are celebrating, the drum and bass parts are more modern. Hip-hop and funk and dance music and post-punk lurk in the background of the lunkheaded power chords. That’s what makes this so insinuating.

That and other juxtapositions these two come up with. “Solo Flights” mixes a goofy acoustic blues guitar part that sounds oh so Steve Miller band with intense rocking in the chorus, the electric guitar slashing away. It’s a mix of silliness and monolithic hard rock more akin to Homme’s work with Queens Of The Stone Age. I’m sure they realized that as long as the two parts sounded great individually, cramming them together wouldn’t be a problem.

The Eagles may go beyond Queens territory on the scarifying closer, “I’m Your Torpedo” which leaves the boogie behind for a krautrock drone. The song vibes on trainwreck drums and a relentless bass, while Hughes and Homme add goofy guitar effects, which only serve to amplify the doom coming from all other sides. It’s apocalypse with reverbed slide guitar effects.

This is only a change of pace, as the album is dominated by the typical good timey stuff. “Wannabe in L.A.” is trebly and twinkly, with light percussion and hyperdrive blues guitars, moving along at a very quick pace. Hughes breaks out the falsetto on “Prissy Prancin’”, where the sexy sleaze sounds a bit off, in a good way. There’s even a pensive mid-tempo track, “Now I’m a Fool”. This is a macho slow number in the tradition of songs like Alice Cooper’s “Desperado”.

Three albums in, the Eagles Of Death Metal may be silly at times, but they aren’t a novelty act. Instead, they are a chance for Homme and Hughes to pay tribute to old sounds, while twisting them into new shapes.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Streets -- Everything Is Borrowed

The Streets -- Everything Is Borrowed (Vice/679)

If you didn’t already know that what makes Mike Skinner’s music is the words, not the music, this album only confirms this. Unfortunately, Everything Is Borrowed proves this by being yet another album that plays far away from Skinner’s strengths, with no compelling stories, just dull platitudes and hectoring.

The first two albums from The Streets offered spare grime influenced hip hop with Skinner’s yobbish accounts of a geezer’s life. What made the songs so fascinating was not the intricate wordplay, but how Skinner did such a great job of capturing the little travails and triumphs of real life and looked at the mundane with wit and empathy.

But on The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living, Skinner’s accounts of the life of stardom were, for the most part, neither that original nor witty. And now Skinner contemplates the larger questions of life, and, for the most part, his answers are a snooze.

The worst part about this is that Skinner set himself up for this. In addition to having live instrumentation throughout, which I‘ll discuss further later, he decided to eliminate all pop culture references in his lyrics. In so doing, he guaranteed that the subject matter would be dealt with in general terms. And Skinner’s skill in his dissection of specifics. But, more importantly, part of what made his specifics so fun was that there were no pretensions attached; Skinner guileless protagonists spoke in such a straightforward manner, that the poetry came from the truths that came out, not from a magical use of language.

At his worst, Skinner is strident. There’s the amateur environmental screed “The Way of the Dodo”, on which has a nagging refrain and Skinner’s biggest attempt at really rapping and establishing flow. Sure, the sentiment (we have to do something about climate change) is nice, but there is zero insight.

Skinner shows that he’s been brushing up on his Richard Dawkins on “Alleged Legends”. After a church organ intro, the backing track is oddly compelling, a weird crawling rhythm. But Skinner’s mumbly delivery makes his arguments against the existence of God seem rote. Granted, this is a tough area to tackle (as Andy Partridge once said, the reason he didn’t want to put “Dear God” on XTC’s Skylarking was because you could do a whole box set on religion and not scratch the surface of the subject), but it just doesn’t make for an inviting song.

The nadir of the album is the breezy and empty headed “Heaven For the Weather”. You see, you go there for the weather and to “hell for the company.” With gospel styled piano part and hand claps, the track is really bouncy. The lyrics are just the pits, as Skinner’s tale of negotiating for his soul with Satan is dunderheaded.

This is a shame, as Skinner is showing growth as a composer. There are some really nice tracks here, some which have a bit of jazzy feel to them, such as “On the Edge Of a Coin”. “The Sherry End” is an off-beat slice of ’70s L.A. funk, falling somewhere between War and Kool and the Gang. And “I Love You More (Than You Like Me)”, which probably would fit better on one of The Streets first two albums, is based on a bopping piano track.

All-in-all, this is a better listen than The Hardest Way, but Skinner need to play to his strengths as a lyricist. Since he has threatened to retire after one more LP, he has one last chance to get it right again.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Kaiser Chiefs -- "Off With Their Heads"

Kaiser Chiefs -- “Off With Their Heads” (Universal Motown)

This Nth generation Britpop band has become big in the U.K. thanks to some killer singles. The band’s debut album had the instant classic “I Predict a Riot”. Then album number two contained “Ruby”, which wasn’t as good, but had a massive hook, allowing fans to pogo along with the band’s energetic frontman, Ricky Wilson.

I’m not sure if this album has a clear cut killer. But it’s a very consistent effort filled with good to great pop songs. Heaven knows we can’t have enough albums like that.

If there is a five-star song on this album, it’s the propulsive “Never Miss a Beat”, which features guest Lily Allen amongst a bevy of back up vocalists (co-producer Mark Ronson must have phoned her up to get in on the fun). The song skips along with one man call-and-response vocals from Wilson, singing over a steady rhythm track with a great tag line: “it’s cool/to know nothing.” The track then opens up into a rousing chorus of fiendish simplicity: “Take a look at the kids on the street/they never miss a beat.” Not Dylan-like poetry, but easy to sing along to.

Although the raison d’etre of the Kaiser Chiefs is rousing numbers, they keep getting better at the mid-tempo and the slow stuff. Wilson may not be the ultimate vocal talent, but he radiates empathy and good cheer and that goes a long way on tracks like “Good Days Bad Days” and “Always Happens Like That”.

“Good Days” has a great rhythm track, with an oscillating keyboard line, a rubbery bass line and a good dance beat. The song cooks even though it’s not all that fast or anything. While this mildly funky musical mix is taking place, the Chiefs overlay a sing-song melancholy melody, with Wilson championing the little guy. I love the flip lyrics, which verge on telling working class schlubs to stand up for themselves, but conclude with “If you had a different attitude/you’d still have good days and bad days.”

Then there’s the looking back ambience of “Always Happens Like That”. This is a 21st update on the poppier side of Madness, with a jaunty piano and modified ska backbeat. The words here are sketches, or even sketches of sketches, but a mood and feelings come across. It’s kind of a “man, we were so crazy when we were young, look what we got away with” sort of thing. And hey! Lily Allen adds her voice again.

The mood is more subdued on “Tomato in the Rain”, which has a couple superb chord changes that shift the song in new melodic directions. This is a very warm song (with the tag line “yes I do/know about you/shall I come home?”). An equally good track is the whispery closer “Remember You’re a Girl”. It’s gentle and insinuating, although I’m utterly unclear about what the hell Wilson is singing about. The music is good enough (this time) to overcome this.

This album should solidify the Kaiser Chiefs brand. Although Ronson certainly gets good performances out of the band, I would like the Chiefs to aim a bit higher, the way bands like XTC and Blur and The Kinks did. The Chiefs show enough flashes of lyrical acuity and have come up with enough top drawer songs that they should make a great record, not just another good one, like this one.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Jay Retard -- Matador Singles '08

Jay Reatard -- Matador Singles ‘08 (Matador)

If you already are a Jay Reatard fan, then this review won’t do much for you. You are probably telling every fellow rock fan you know to check this guy out. If you haven’t been, you should.

That’s what happened to me. A friend raved about him, convincing me to show up early for his appearance at this year’s Pitchfork Festival. What I saw was 30 minutes of primal rock ‘n’ roll, the songs distilled to a piledriving essence, with Flying Vs and bobbing heads. I could only imagine how that would have come off in a hot, sweaty club, with the sound reverberating off of the walls instead of dissipating in the open air.

But I would have never imagined that the same guy who turned a pile of chords into molten lava before my eyes was also capable of hook filled pop in the vein of Buzzcocks, The Undertones, Wire, Guided By Voices and so on and so forth. This CD collects the fruits of six slabs of vinyl (snapped up by savvy collectors) Reatard unleashed this year. The music here is compulsive and catchy, with songs never outstaying their welcome.

Folks, Jay Reatard is a pop master. He knows melodies. He knows percussive hooks. He’s a clever arranger. And there’s a variety of moods and atmospheres on this disc.

The spookiest track is a cover of Deerhunter’s “Flouresecnt Grey”. I am not familiar with the original, but I intend to check it out. In Reatard’s hands, this is a intense psych-garage work out, made all the more menacing by the vocals. Jay sounds like a chip off of Johnny Rotten’s block. Great tune, great performance.

But so much of the genius of Jay Reatard is the zippy pop sense that is imbedded in his tunes. The guy has a bevy of memorable guitar parts and he pens direct lyrics that stick in the head and make the songs extra catchy.

I can’t think of the last time that an artist reminded me of Hilly Michaels, but in the midst of the speedy “Screaming Hand”, he throws in a chorus of “you are my hero/you are my hero” followed by goofy “Oh no no no no no no...” backing vocals. These sound like they came off of Hilly’s classic “Something’s On Your Mind” from the Caddyshack soundtrack.

Reatard gets into some ping-ponging rockabilly Fall meets Pixies on the barely over a minute “DOA”, which throws in a bonus hook that comes out of nowhere. Fans of early Doleful Lions and Guided By Voices should slobber all over “Always Wanting More”, with it’s twee pop backing and majestic guitar line. Then Reatard gets all “nyaah nyaah nyaah” in Buzzcocks fashion in the chorus. And he’s all put downs on the acoustic bouncer “Painted Shut”, which has a great electric guitar break.

Not many people have waxed 13 songs as good this year. Get this disc and as a bonus, you’ll get to see some manboobs.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Kicks just keep getting harder to find

If I went through my collection and figured how many artists I was introduced to by Jack Rabid's reviews in his brilliant 'zine The Big Takeover, I have no doubt it would be a number in the triple figures. There's so much punk, post-punk, shoegazer and other sounds that the eloquent and tasteful scribe has turned me onto over the years.

Of course, I don't agree with him on everything. And there's one artist in particular who I have now thrown in the towel on (i.e., not going to spend more than a few bucks on). That artist? Paul Revere and the Raiders.

I can think of no greater champion for these Pacific Northwestern rockers than Mr. Rabid (though I'm thinking that someone else, like Gary Pig Gold, has probably waxed eloquent about these guys). I think Jack has them almost up with the upper echelon of '60s rock -- what I like to call the second tier.

The first tier has mostly obvious selections -- The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Sonics, The Beach Boys, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Bee Gees, Sly and the Family Stone, The Byrds (and I'm sure I'm forgetting a few).

The second tier is pretty amazing too. Or should I say my second tier. It would include The Hollies, The Move, The Easybeats, The Equals, The Yardbirds (who many would kick up to the first), The Small Faces, The Pretty Things, The Zombies, and others.

I wouldn't put Paul Revere and the Raiders in the second tier. Now I'm not saying that they suck. Far from it. They had a some great singles and a lot of good ones. But, for the most part, based on the albums I own by them, that's about it.

And what do I own by Paul Revere and the Raiders? The Spirit of '67, Something Happening, Goin' To Memphis, Alias Pink Puzz and Just Like Us!. I picked up Just Like Us! today and wish I hadn't paid $9 for it. While the album includes the awesome "Just Like Me", which is still great garage rock snarl, the LP is undermined by Terry Melcher's timid production.

The bulk of the record is covers of contemporary favorites such as "(I Can't Get No) Satifaction" and "I'll Be Doggone". With a great vocalist like Mark Lindsay and a hot band, things should be cooking, right? Wrong. The studio was a straitjacket for this talented band, and the playing is tepid. And I think this problem comes through on the other studio sets that I own. While the band's own songwriting improved, the band rarely played to its strengths.

Of all of the studio albums I own, I suppose Goin' Back to Memphis is my favorite, as the mix of R & B covers and originals blends better than on the other albums. Still, it's spotty.

Now, I'm not saying these discs are worthless. They all have cuts I enjoy. But not enough to put these guys up there amongst the best the '60s had to offer.

Yet, I do think that Paul Revere and the Raiders were a great rock 'n' roll band. And that was before they became national stars.

This is reflected on the other disc I own by the band, Mojo Workout. This is a two-CD compilation on Sundazed that captures the band before it was polished into a hit machine. Before that happened, Paul Revere and the Raiders were a frat house party band, playing full throttle rock 'n' roll, fitting somewhere between the grooving Wailers and the psycho Sonics.

The first disc of the set was recorded in 1964. It's the Raiders doing a live set. Columbia Records didn't know what to do with the band, so the label decided to capture the guys doing what they did best. The only bad thing about this disc is that this performance wasn't filmed to show the boys in their costumes going wild. The band takes on everything from "Louie Louie" (they had a regional hit with it before The Kingsmen) to "Don't Be Cruel" to "Do You Love Me" and more. This disc simply smokes.

The second disc isn't quite up to that level. It mixes in early singles, outtakes and more live recordings. And the band is still fairly untamed. This collection shows what this band could do.

So don't take this as a hit piece on Paul Revere and the Raiders. I'm just trying to put them in (my) perspective.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Zoos Of Berlin -- Zoos Of Berlin

Zoos Of Berlin -- Zoos Of Berlin (self-released)

This three song teaser from this Detroit quintet shows that the Zoos not only share a band member with Pas/Cal, they share a sensibility. This is fey pop with a flourish.

Indeed, the classically inspired keyboard part that ornaments “Below the Old House” sounds like it could have been used on a Yes record. Instead, it serves as an instrumental hook on an unfolding song that uses dynamics well and has a real sense of drama.

Another weighty keyboard line from Will Yates gets “Speak Well of Manderlay”, with the band building up to a crescendo, with hard beating drums and vigorously strummed guitars contrasting with the floating melody. Where Pas/Cal evinces a strong Kinks vibe, the Zoos sound to me like a band that is a bit more in step with some of the ‘70s art-poppers like 10CC, Sparks and Genesis. I suppose part of it is the grandeur that suffuses all three of these tunes. Which is not to be mistaken for pomp or prog, heaven forbid.

The last track, “On Large Amusement”, is haunting and atmospheric, showing off a totally different side of the band. The downcast guitars still have that grandeur I mentioned earlier. Although this is a pithy number is has a real emotional weight to it, just by the sweep of the guitar and piano chords.

From a musical standpoint, this rates highly. I can only see the band sharpening its approach, and the songwriting is ambitious but accessible. Where I'd like to see the band pick it up a bit is in the lyric department. The lyrics don't quite connect at times, either coming off as too obscure or lacking in the memorable phrase department. To put it another way, the words are okay, but the music is very good, so I'd like to see the words move up to equal the tuneage. Because that would be quite something.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Katjonband -- Katjonband

Katjonband -- Katjonband (Carrot Top)

Jon Langford is a Chicago treasure. Ever since he relocated The Mekons here, he’s reliably cranked out song after song of politically aware folk-rock, which then gets transformed into whatever style he and his mates are working in at the time. It might be the rock or country of The Mekons, the twangy garage of the Waco Brothers, the western swing of The Pine Valley Cosmonauts, or perhaps something different on a Langford solo project.

The Katjonband was foreshadowed at the Touch & Go Records 25th Anniversary Festival at the Hideout in Chicago. There, Langford did a short set with Kat Bornefeld, the spectacular drummer for The Ex. And, pun totally intended, she’s the ‘X’ factor here, as her creative percussion takes Langford’s music into some new areas.

The album is bookended by songs that show how Kat’s drumming brings a fresh snap to Langford songs that tread upon familiar territory. Or rather, familiar but necessary territory, as Langford looks out for the little guy and calls out tyranny where he sees it.

The album opener, “Do You?”, is insinuating as hell, with Bornefeld pounding out the polyrhythm, with Langford jabbing at his guitar in sympathy. The two chew on buzzwords and cliches in a call-and-response duet, showing that cynicism can be funky and full of frivolity.

It takes a while for closer “Red Flag” to hit full force. The song starts off with a Gang Of Four-esque guitar squall and then builds the atmosphere, as Bornefeld’s soft drumming gets faster and faster and Langford keeps pace on the guitar. The song then settles into ranting vocals and smash-and-crash drumming with a seething militaristic fury underneath. The song simmers and boils over in appealing fashion.

And the appeal is more than musical. The delightful “Conquered” is a melodic duet with Langford playing the imperialist lover and Bornefeld the occupied nation. The lyrics are quite clever. But they don’t push the colonialism disguised as a dysfunctional romantic relationship card too hard, helped by Bornefeld’s appealing vocals. She has a stately quality to her voice and a real warmth, and she and Langford have true chemistry.

“Crackheads Beware” has a real poppy appeal. The song has a subtle ‘70s R & B bounce to it, aided by Bornefeld’s crisp drumming and a terrific guitar hook, aided by the easy to sing to tag line: “howling along/with the popular song.” This is pretty fun, and if you’re not careful, you might learn something.

While the bread and butter of this disc are the drums/guitar work outs where these two really cook (another example of this is “Machine Gun & the Ugly Doll”), but the duo also finds some time for jazzy twanging (“Moonscape Dave”), a dramatic rendering of a traditional folk song (“Albion”), and a nice mid-tempo country love (or not-in-love) song (“Hey You Don’t Love Me”).

This disc is so good, that I hope that it isn’t a one shot. But can Kat and Jon carve out the time from their busy schedules?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Smart One vs. The Cute One

A couple of issues ago, Rolling Stone published its list of the 100 best rock vocalists of all time. Like most such lists, there were plenty of arguable choices. The list was selected by a panel of "experts", including a lot of big names in the rock world.

I could quibble with plenty of the choices, but, for the most part, they hit on a lot of great singers, missed on some (as if 100 is a large enough list), and had a few objectionable selections. But I don't want to go into all that.

There is only one bone that I wish to pick. Both John Lennon and Paul McCartney made the list. But I heartily disagree with the panelists on the rankings. John Lennon came in at number five and Paul McCartney at number eleven.

Lennon v. McCartney is smart versus cute, style versus substance, "Imagine" versus "Silly Love Songs". And I think it clouds some people's judgment on the talents of these two giants.

McCartney has been so pigeonholed as a lightweight, causing people to disregard his awesome talent. Yes, Macca has penned some dire lyrics, but he also wrote "Yesterday", "Penny Lane" and "Hey Jude" (which he wrote, ultimately, because Mr. Lennon wasn't exactly father-of-the-year to Julian), just to name three fairly smart rock songs.

And let's not forget that McCartney is arguably the best bass player in rock history. I'm not saying he is the best, but if you made a Top 5, after John Entwistle and Paulie, you would get a wide range of nominees.

Finally, McCartney is an incredible singer. He can sing rock, he can sing with soul, he can sing the mooniest pop song (and has often), he can croon, and he does so effortlessly. Or should I say, he can be at peak intensity on a classic like "Maybe I'm Amazed" and if you watch him, there are no histrionics. He can just hit the right level every time.

Now John Lennon was a great rock 'n' roll singer. His hoarse, blow out version of Chuck Berry's "Rock And Roll Music" is just Exhibit A, as Lennon was an intense presence on rockers and ballads. And as The Beatles went from rock and pop to more experimental stuff, Lennon was a definitive vocalist.

But saying all that, Paul McCartney is a better singer than John Lennon. Or most rock singers ever -- very few could do as much as McCartney. I realize this should be something left to the ear of the beholder, but I'd really have to hear a compelling explanation as to why someone would think Lennon was better. Like, for example, "I'm Yoko Ono." I could understand that.

But what do I know? If I was in charge of the list, Robin Zander of Cheap Trick would be in the top 10, and Brian Connolly of Sweet and Russell Mael of Sparks wouldn't be too far behind.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Hawksley Workman -- Between The Beautifuls and Los Manlicious (2008)

Hawksley Workman -- Between The Beautifuls and Los Manlicious (Universal Canada/Isadora)

It’s hard to keep up with the various twists and turns in Hawksley Workman’s career, especially because his records aren’t released here in the States. Here’s a singer-songwriter who can pen some pretty mainstream material, who is also capable of over-the-top rock of great cleverness.

On his second album, (Last Night We Were) The Delicious Wolves, Workman emphasized the rock persona a bit more and was rewarded with success both in his home country and certain parts of Europe. But his attempt to consolidate the success with another rock album, Lover/Fighter, fell a bit short, as the rock was a lot more conventional.

He then got back to his singer-songwriter on the delicate Treeful Of Starling. And now, in 2008, Workman has released two albums. Between The Beautifuls came out earlier this year, and it’s the most accessible full length that he’s put out yet.

The album is blessed with basic songcraft. Workman's vocals are a wonder. He has such an effortless range and a certain quirkiness that makes him so distinctive. While he's capable of slyness and cleverness, on Beautifuls, he is achingly sincere, without becoming cloying.

This is evident on the lovely "All the Trees Are Hers". The song is grounded in a simple piano part, augmented by gentle guitars, a pedal steel and some synthesized strings. The melody always seems to be reaching, even moreso on the passionate middle eight. The song is steeped in nature imagery, a motif that is found often on the album.

Such imagery is also used, to a lesser degree, on "September Lilly". Spanish guitar mixes with more weepy pedal steel, on a song that sounds something like a standard. This is a song of pure devotion, with Workman vacillating between doubt, wondering if he's "beautiful enough/for you to kiss me true," while also noting that "I see your dark side/I see the reasons." What mainly comes through is he wants her, oddly noting that "you're fragrant and lovely/like an ending."

The romantic streak gets even wider on "Oh You Delicate Heart". The song is tender with spare instrumentation and Workman's voice at the front of the mix. It's very intimate and a great showcase for his expressive vocals. Again, as with "September Lilly", the melody is so classic that it sounds like this song came from an earlier era.

But don't think that Workman has become a simp. Not many other balladeers would center a song around the line "Don't fuck around anymore," as Hawksley does on "Pomengrate Daffodil". He isn't joking, his voice straining early on. The song then accelerates into a gallop for a good while, a peppy piece of piano pop, before heading into a dramatic bravado ending, with Workman pulling out all of the stops.

Yeah, Beautifuls is a heck of an album. An it shares three cuts with Los Manlicious, a further indication that the latter album was somewhat thrown together. One of those songs, "Piano Blink", is a soulful ditty with Workman showing off his falsetto, while "The City Is a Drag" is a plaintive plea for a simpler life. This is chock full of smart observations such as "it's bright and shiny and improved/with no room left for me to move." Good stuff (and I already told you about the third, "Oh You Delicate Heart").

These three songs provide some contrast to the more energetic material on Manlicious. The album bursts out of the gate with the sexy, guitar fueled "When You Gonna Flower?". This song has a gigantic fuzzy guitar riff and a rumbling rhythm, and Workman moves from insinuating vocals to pure passionate shouting. Meanwhile, little keyboard and guitar bits are brought in for variation on the almighty riff. A great start.

That is one of two tunes that Workman co-wrote with John Southworth. The other one is a delightful slice of '80s styled pop called "Kissing Girls (You Shouldn't Kiss)". It sounds like Private Eyes era Hall & Oates, with an automatic chorus and fluid bass lines.

Another somewhat retro-ish track is "Lonely People". It starts off with an a capella chorus before the mid-tempo beat gets going. But for Workman's vocal acrobatics, this is a very mainstream sounding track (think The Cars circa Heartbeat City without the Ric Ocasek lyrics). Then the harmony vocals kick in on the chorus, followed by crunchy guitars and it doesn't matter, because the song works so well.

The album ends with "Fatty Wants To Dance", which, true to its title, has a good beat to move to and poppin' funk bass. It's kind of a dumb song, but it's also fun, and by this point, Workman has earned the right to get stupid.

All in all, it's pretty impressive that Workman can put out one stellar album, and follow it up with a pretty good effort in the same year. Workman has always been prolific, even selling discs of unreleased material at shows. These two albums show that he should make sure that all of his recordings are widely available, even if no one in the U.S. is smart enough to put his stuff out here.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Clash -- Live At Shea Stadium (2008)

The Clash -- Live At Shea Stadium (Epic/Legacy)

So we finally have a legitimate release of a full Clash live show. It’s too bad it’s not one of the best Clash live shows.

This recording is taken from the 1982 gig where our heroes opened for The Who. This was the Combat Rock era, when the band was at the peak of its popularity. But the band was splintering, for both musical and personal reasons.

One thing that is immediately striking is the composition of the set list: Early single/first album: 2 songs; Give ‘Em Enough Rope: 2; London Calling: 5; later single: 1; Sandinista: 2; Combat Rock: 2. This gives you an idea of where the band’s collective head was at around this time.

As shows go, this certainly wasn’t a bad one, but I’m sure most big Clash fans have heard a prior bootleg that has a lot more going for it. I think that Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune makes a good point that Terry Chimes (a/k/a Tory Crimes) taking over for Topper Headon lead to a drop off in the drumming. Chimes is alright, but, for the most part, he was not very forceful.

This would explain why most of the better performances during the gig were songs like "The Guns of Brixton" and the blended pair "The Magnificent Seven" and "Armagideon Time". Here, the rhythms were funkier and Chimes seems to take to them more. Yes, this does seem odd, since Chimes cut his teeth on the earlier powerhouse rocking material from 1977.

That being said, "Spanish Bombs" isn’t exactly a burner, and it’s the worst performance on the album. It sounds like it’s in the wrong key and the band can’t get a handle on how to tackle it (more forceful? more chipper?). Yet this is followed by a pretty good take on "Clampdown".

The other disappointment on the album is "London Calling". Granted, this song is so perfect on album, that recreating its magnitude on stage was never easy. Still, the band sounds tentative.

I don’t think this is due to lack of commitment or engagement. It’s hard to imagine Joe Strummer ever being less than intense, and Mick Jones is spirited in his vocal turns. I think it’s more a by-product of playing in such an unwieldy venue. You can hear the cheers in the background, but this had to be a crowd that mixed in fans with some geezers looking at their watches and wondering when the guys with broad accents and combat duds would get off the stage for The Who.

This is fairly entertaining, but I hope that someday, some better full gigs come out legitimately. Until then, I’ve got a 1979 show from the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago to enjoy.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Parties -- Can't Come Down (2008)

The Parties -- Can’t Come Down (Rainbow Quartz)

This California quartet has its sound down. This is Jangle Pop 101 with a minor in harmony vocals. The first name that comes to mind when hearing The Parties is The Byrds. This is followed by great harmony groups such as The Hollies and The Searchers. While I don’t think the harmonies here rise to that standard, they are pretty good.

The band has enough personality, reflected both in the playing and the compositions, to make this a fine listen. This is demonstrated on “Breaking Hearts”, which brings the jangle to a fevered pitch. In a manner similar to The Last, The Parties play this dramatic tune with a great deal of intensity (especially in the lead vocal), which makes the hooks hit that much harder.

Speaking of hitting hard, “Radio” is a spirited number with a strong guitar riff propelling the proceedings. This song actually has two strong hooks, one in the bridge to the chorus, and then the chorus itself, which relies on riding a rhythm guitar and call-and-response vocals. This song also illustrates the superb production on the record. Chris Dunn and the band should take a bow, as they guys take stereo separation seriously, in a way that allows every instrument to get its due.

The second half of the record is stronger than the more-than-fine first, on the strength of songs like “Waterfall” (which comes close to the great lost Hollies song bliss of the like minded band The Resonars), the pretty folk rocking “Gotta Get Out”, and the Grip Weed-ish (Grip Weedy?) “Damned By the Sunshine”.

Again, let me reiterate how well recorded this is. Of course, if the songs weren’t so good, that wouldn’t matter much, I suppose.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

10 Quality Rock Reads

Today, I just finished reading the original Christgau's Record Guide, covering Robert Christgau's '70s reviews. In 1978, I started reading Creem Magazine, and that's where I discovered Christgau. When the Record Guide came out in 1982, a promotional copy was sent to my high school radio station, along with a publicist's number. I called the number and got an interview with Christgau.

About all I remember from the interview is that near the end, I heard some pounding on the outside door. It was a Saturday and the outer door was locked and my friend Dale needed me to open it. I wrapped up the interview quickly. I only remember one quote, when Christgau told me that punk rock saved his life. I understand that more now then I did then.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Steve Wynn -- Crossing Dragon Bridge (2008)

Steve Wynn -- Crossing Dragon Bridge (Rock Ridge)

While probably still best known as the leader of Dream Syndicate, Steve Wynn has built quite the resume as a solo artist. After I picked up his latest, I realized I have almost all of his solo releases. I guess I’m a bigger fan than I thought.

And Wynn seems to getting better with every album. His last studio album, Tick...Tick...Tick, was an explosive rock platter. This new album is a pure songwriting album. In the liner notes, Wynn details how producer Chris Eckman (founder of The Walkabouts) had Wynn come out to Eckman’s home studio in Slovenia. Eckman sought to boil Wynn’s songs down to an essence -- just Steve and his guitar.

But this wasn’t just something out of the Rick Rubin with a classic artist playbook. After recording these songs in a spartan manner, phase two of the recording involved adding whatever other elements would be needed to enhance the song, whether it be strings from a Czech orchestra, or Chris (ex-Green On Red) Cacavas’s keyboards, or percussion from Linda Pitmon.

The resulting disc might be Wynn’s best yet. Of course, this is probably the third or fourth time I’ve written those words in a review of a Wynn album. That’s because he’s that good.

The album mixes eloquent and inspiring tracks with just enough of Wynn’s rock leanings. Early on, Wynn illustrates his capacity for the grand gesture on “Manhattan Faultline”. This bittersweet symphony uses the notion of an NYC earthquake zone as a metaphor for a relationship that falls apart all of the sudden.

The song is stately and dignified, with majestic chords and matching lead guitar accompaniment. The track steadily builds and when the strings kick in and Pitmon joins in with backing vocals on the choruses, an enveloping wistfulness transpires. Meanwhile, Wynn is philosophical without being overwrought: “You’d think at a certain point in your life/you’ve learned everything that you’re going to learn/but sparks lead to fires and fires lead to ashes/at least you know for sure you’ve been burned.”

Wynn gets a bit heavier on “When We Talk About Forever”. This is another track with string accompaniment, bolstering a folk structure that is somewhat similar to some of T-Bone Burnett’s early work, with a dollop of Lou Reed thrown in. It’s a lovely song about commitment, which fuses a measure of joy with a sober sense of the task that any couple knows is lying ahead. This is a mature and thoughtful piece of music.

Wynn shows the ability to mess with what he does well on the audacious “Annie and Me”. The song starts off as a spirited acoustic gallop, a tale of two teenagers who merrily live in a world of casual sex and petty crime. This could have appeared on other Wynn albums. But then the song then shifts into a totally different mood, with a slower tempo. In this second part of the song, and it appears that the protagonist is now older and full of regret, as if the upbeat part of the song is actually a flashback. This interlude comes to an end, with Kirk (Dumptruck) Swan’s twangy guitar in overdrive, and the defiant lyrics of the first part now meaning something entirely different.

On “Love Me Anyway”, Wynn looks at trust issues. Specifically, how tough it is to open up to someone: “Tightly wound and careful/surreptitiously/knowing that you’re knowing/only part of me/love me anyway.” These uneasy feelings are set to a slinky and funky blues rock rhythm, as if the music is supplying the intimacy the protagonist is seeking. Wynn is full of wisdom, observing about love “if it seems that easy/you’re not doing it properly.”

What makes this such a wholly satisfying album is that Wynn is at his peak as a lyricist, looking a personal relationships with acuity, wit and empathy, and expressing himself in terse phrases that cut to the heart rather than merely sound glib. The carefully crafted music gels with the lyrics to the point where they seem to be organically connected.

I’ve been steadily listening to this album for about two months and I’m still finding new nuances that add to my enjoyment. This record is one of the stellar achievements of 2008.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Fujiya & Miyagi -- Lightbulbs (2008)

Fujiya & Miyagi -- Lightbulbs (Deaf Dumb and Blind)

The low key electro-funk of this British band is pretty insinuating. Funk is a hot music and they play it cool, without sounding stiff. You can certainly dance to it. But can you mix funk with Kraut rock?

The deadpan approach extends to the vocals and the simplistic lyrics. How simple? Fujiya & Miyagi are probably only a notch or two above the mechanistic German ‘70s disco band Silver Convention. This approach is both a help and a hindrance. On one hand, the minimalism makes it catchy. On the other hand, the songs often convey their message in the first two minutes or so. Then it’s all up to the groove. And this is where the chilly vibe may hurt some of the tracks. Funk grooves work because they cook. They stir the listener. The measured approach of F & M makes this likeable but makes it hard to get fully engaged.

So the album is a bit of a mixed bag. A few songs announce the groove and then don't really go anywhere. This includes songs like "Pussyfooting", "Knickerbocker" and "Pickpocket". They all have enough to be memorable, but, as I alluded to earlier, after about 90 seconds, I've heard all I need to hear.

This is especially true of "Pickpocket", which has exceedingly stupid lyrics, even relative to the rest of the words on the album. "Why do you put your hands into other people's pockets," David Best sings in his typically muted voice. I dunno David, maybe because he can't convince people to buy his CDs? Illegal downloading is a bitch, you know.

Not all of the grooves run out of steam for me. "Sore Thumb" sounds like a demo for an old Shriekback tune, with a nice hook, as the groove stops for Best to sing, "My favorite song is "Strange Times"/sticks out like a sore thumb." The instrumental break rides the beat while some poor man's Bernie Worrell keyboards work their magic.

And "Uh" is the song that deserves an extended 12" mix for the clubs. Lee Adams' drums are crisp and the entire quartet commits to the rhythm, and the rhythm rewards them. Thumbs up.

My other fave rave is the one real change up on the album, "Goosebumps". This is a pretty slow song, with spacey electronic backing. If Wire collaborated with Goldfrapp, it would have sounded something like this. It's the classic chilly yet warm vibe that you can get from well deployed electronics, and Best's whispering vocals are perfect for the track. This is one of two tracks which show how F & M can become more well-rounded.

The other is the instrumental that closes the album, "Hundreds & Thousands". This track demonstrates the potential Fujiya & Miyagi have as a four piece band. Steve Lewis plays some simple keyboard lines, with compelling melodies, contrasting with the metronomic rhythm track. I'd love to hear more songs in this vein.

I generally enjoy the basic Fujiya & Miyagi sound, but the band's base sound does not wear well over the course of an entire album. The tracks that deviate from the formula show the potential for growth. Of course, there is also the matter of the lyrics, but one thing at a time.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Ben Folds -- Way To Normal (2008)

Ben Folds -- Way To Normal (Epic)

When Ben Folds broke on the scene, he was a piano popster with a bit of an attitude. Not edge, but attitude. He was truly sophomoric as his energetic songs seemed to capture the world of a 20-year old guy and the rationalizations and foolishness that go along with it.

Folds quickly added dimension to his persona, with the hit single “Brick” showing off a mature lyricist and a tunesmith capable of achingly good work. And that second dimension has been his only addition. He’s either a smart ass or a sensitive guy.

And the smart ass thing is losing a lot of its appeal. This new Folds album is frustrating, as his clever arrangements and melodic ingenuity are still winning. But his writing has become increasingly insular, as if he has lost some of his purpose. There has always been a tension between the smart ass and the sensitive, and as the smart ass gets more annoying, the sensitive seems to sound a lot more insincere.

I just don't know what to make of a song like "Errant Dog", where Ben gripes over a rollicking piano part about a canine pain-in-the-ass. But it seems like Folds is intent on seeing what he can rhyme with the word "bitch" or coming up with lines like "sometimes I wonder why I put up with his shit/if I could, I would become a lesbian." Yeah, Ben, whatever.

Album opener "Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)" is another strained exercise in cleverness. The song is about Ben falling down on stage, apparently into an orchestra pit, in Hiroshima. This tale is told pretty straightforwardly, and, as it stands, it's not very compelling. So Folds spices things up, as indicated in the title, by setting his mundane words to an homage to Elton John's "Benny and the Jets". Okay, that's not bad source material, I suppose. But the whole thing never coalesces.

I do enjoy a couple of Folds's snarkfests, though I'm digging one of them grudgingly. A spoken word set up somehow makes "Bitch Went Nuts" tolerable, despite Folds potty mouthed for the sake of being potty mouthed lyrics (look, I'm no prude, but Folds' willing use of so many FCC unfriendly words robs them of any power). In the intro, the Asian accented narrator (who's a bit less offensive than Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany's) explains that when a women breaks up with a guy, she'll attribute it to specific problems with the guy. But whenever a guy break up with a gal, she went nuts. This is true more often than most guys might want to admit. So I laugh in spite of myself.

Then there's "Free Coffee", in which Folds makes the observation that being rich and famous affords one more privileges than when one is not, even though, because one is rich and famous, the perks are unnecessary. This unremarkable observation is made in an unremarkable fashion.

But the music is sublime. Folds plays pretty piano figures on top of a ridiculously inventive percussion track that mixes drums, electronics, sound effects and who knows what else. Man, it sounds great on headphones. This is simply cool.

Folds saves his softer side for the end of the album. But neither "Effington" or "Kylie From Connecticut" fully connect, even though both are infused with solid Folds melodies. "Effington" is lush wide screen pop, as Folds moons over the joys of a small town life that he is not living. The song seems to attempt to cross breed a little Burt Bacharach sophistication with Billy Joel drama. This song sort of works for me, again, because of the terrific music. But I'm baffled why Folds decides to sing about the Illinois town of Effington, Illinois, when there's a real Effingham, Illinois, and, more importantly, why he felt the need to devote the first verse to singing about people "effing" in their cars, yards and trailers. Well, maybe not baffled, but the immaturity is a drag.

"Kylie" comes off a bit better. It's about a housewife who clings to love from 35 years past. The narrative lays out some details and otherwise leaves a whole lot of blanks that I wish he had filled in. So much drama is built up and I don't think the words full resolve it. The song has a nifty instrumental break, where a heavy Folds piano weaves in with a great string arrangement.

This really typifies the frustration I have with this album. Folds would benefit from a producer who could pull out the best of what he can do. He is capable of true insight and fabulous music. Yet it only comes through intermittently. There are tracks here that simply work well, like "You Don't Know Me", which has a cameo from Regina Spektor, and the boppin' "The Frown Song". But there simply aren't enough of them. And that just shouldn't be the case.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

New Radiant Storm King -- Drinking In the Moonlight (2008)

New Radiant Storm King -- Drinking In The Moonlight (Darla)

I hadn’t heard anything from this veteran band in quite a while, so this album is a pleasant surprise. The King is a classic purveyor of college radio rock. The music isn’t explicitly pop, but it doesn’t burrow into any trendy genre. Instead, the emphasis is on intelligent songwriting with strong melodies. Often, this sort of band might lack some vocal personality, relying on hooks and guitar lines to draw the listener in. Who else falls in this category? Let me give you two examples, Dumptruck and Kingsbury Manx.

The band has two frontmen, for lack of a better term, who share such a common sensibility that they are practically interchangeable. Matt Hunter and Petyon Pinkerton, the latter who is familiar to many as the lead guitarist for Pernice Brothers, have warm voices that fit the low key tunes.

Low key doesn’t mean boring. Far from it. What makes these songs work is the precise interplay between the instruments, particularly Hunter and Pinkerton’s guitars. While many of these songs would probably sound fairly good on a couple of acoustics, the guitarists and the rhythm section really shape them into something really compelling.

Nothing is more compelling than "Eight Steps Closer". This song is a classic example of building tension to a climax. The two lead guitars play tense leads with a wan melody on top. Meanwhile, J.J. O’Connell is in near metronome mode on his drum kit. Eventually, the song moves into a more forceful melody with equally strong guitars. And then it’s back to that prickly feeling. One of the best tracks I’ve heard all year.

It’s followed by "After the After Hours". Here, a reverbed guitar part is offset by some acoustic noodling. The main hook of the song is a series of quickly strummed chords, which abruptly halt. I get the impression that these guys devote a lot time to the underpinnings of these songs, and then figure out the melody and the lyrical thrust. This song is steeped in atmosphere and the band builds on it very effectively.

One song that let’s the melody take the lead is "Fall Prey". It is a piano driven pop song that comes from the same territory as Harry Nilsson and Kevin Tihista. The King constructs the song a bit more loosely, and the tight pop construction of the chorus makes the stretching out of the song more than tolerable.

"Fall Prey" evinces good feelings, and "Islander" is even more cheerful. This song sounds like it was designed to fit between R.E.M. and The Church on a 1985 college radio songlist. The song has a bevy of hooky parts, especially memorable guitar parts. But this band knows how to grab the ear with tempo shifts and rhythm tricks too.

I don’t have enough of the band’s albums to assess where this ranks in the catalog. But if they have better albums than this, it’s incumbent on me to check them out.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Silvery -- Thunderer & Excelsior (2008)

Silvery -- Thunderer & Excelsior (Blowup)

This is caffeinated pop of the highest order. Silvery comes from the same place as bands such as Sparks (who they have cited as an influence), Roxy Music, Split Enz (during the Phil Judd era), Cardiacs, Supergrass, The New Pornographers and The Features. This is rock and roll sent careening through the funhouse, with plenty of energy and some distortions, which manages to stay intact due to strong compositions and a bevy of hooks.

The album plays somewhat like an A-sides/B-sides compilation, and, indeed, the band’s terrific singles lead off the disc and the tail end of the album shows that they can handle more than 2:30 bursts of excitement.

The album gets off to a cracking good start on "Horrors". The keyboards dominate on a song that sounds like a collaboration between Gaz Coombes of Supergrass and Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks. The song has two distinct melodies and goes from verse to chorus (and thus, the hook) speedily.

Next up is "Devil in the Details", with a rising and falling melody, and singer James Orman quivering and going up in his range while keyboardist Simon Harris mixes church-style organ with horror movie sounds. This song has about four separate parts to it and the arrangement is clever as there is so much going on in the mix. And the hook is, again, indelible.

The band then moves into punchy Maximo Park territory on "Action Force". Here, the tinkling ivories contrast with Orman’s dirty sounding guitar. Things finally slow down a bit on "Penny Dreadful". The opening riff is a two-chord wonder, a la Sparks’ "I Predict", with the song opening up into a whirligig chorus that reeks of Split Enz.

These songs alone guarantee a good album. But there are more treats further down the road. "The Nishikado" turns one of my favorite tricks, resolving a somewhat dissonant verse with a rambunctious sing-a-long chorus. Well, sing-a-long if you can make out all of the words.
On "Star of the Sea", Silvery adds a ska beat to the proceedings, but only for a while. This is a mini-epic, with changing tempos and multiple parts. The journey culminates in a rousing ending, making the build up pay off.

I wish I could make out a bit more of the lyrics, which I only catch in a snatch here or there. The best songs have at least one memorable turn of phrase. But it’s the form that wins out over the substance. Silvery has a sound that is evocative of some of favorite pop music ever. And the songs have stuck in my head from pretty much the time I first listened to the disc. If the comparisons I made at the beginning strike a chord in you, you really should check this out.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Fall -- Imperial Wax Solvent (2008)

The Fall -- Imperial Wax Solvent (Sanctuary)

The second album since Mark E. Smith sacked his entire band (except for the missus) on an American tour, and things are looking up. The last album, Reformation Post TLC, was made with some of the musicians who filled in on tour after Smith had fired a top flight band. The band had no snap or power, which didn’t make too much of a difference, since the songs were equally lifeless. It seemed like The Fall was nearing the end of its usefulness.

Well, Smith has again both added and subtracted to the dole, with another new set of musicians -- Peter Greenway (guitar), Keiron Melling (drums) and David Spurr (bass). This band is a bit more supple than the Reformation crew. While Melling is still not up to the level of the best Fall drummers of the past, he and Spurr do seem to have a great sympathy towards each other.

The songwriting is better this time around. Not consistently so, as it seems like Smith and his new cohorts are taking measure of each other. Over the course of the album, the band investigates various Fall sounds. At times, this approach yields some fairly generic stuff. But there's some very worthy material here.

There is a snap to some tracks that can only be The Fall. "Is This New" has a punch to it that sounds like it came from the Light User Syndrome album. On "Tommy Shooter", the band locks into a percolating groove that is a mid-point between the band’s garage rock and Kraut rock influences, with Elena Polou’s keyboard parts synchronizing with Greenway’s dirty guitar, creating some unusual textures. It’s effective.

The album opener, "Alton Towers", is a change of pace. Rather than the usual clangor or proto-rockabilly, this song is grounded in David Spurr’s tension building bass playing, with Keiron Melling playing creatively on his drum kit, not laying down a beat so much as decorating the atmosphere with percussion.

The album reaches its peak early. "50 Year Old Man" clocks in at 11:33, which could have been very ugly. On Reformation, the lengthy "Das Boat" was an embarrassment, a drunken demo that played more like a bad parody of The Fall rather than the real thing. Thankfully, Smith may have learned from that mistake. Or he may just have forgotten it entirely.

This is typically rambunctious Fall tuneage. The band rumbles along as Smith rants about the drawbacks of becoming middle aged, even as he defiantly enjoys his stature. Wasn’t it Abe Simpson who said that the reason God let us grow old was so that we could point out everything that is wrong with the world? Smith was a curmudgeon in his 20s, so this song is a natural. Now I’m not sure why he thinks Steve Albini and the train system are conspiring against him, but he’s pretty steadfast about that.

The song has three movements. After the initial burst, there’s an out-of-nowhere banjo interlude. The band then goes back to the woodshed, but instead of pounding out the song, Poulou’s keyboards take more prominence. The track then breaks down into ambient shambling for a couple of minutes, before reaching the conclusion, which is a rockabilly-ish jaunt, as Smith proclaims that "I’m the type of guy/who knows what is on CD/how dare they lecture me?" This is a pretty impressive track.

Then Poulou gets her best moment as a member of The Fall, courtesy of her husband, a rare sole Smith composer credit. "I’ve Been Duped" is, plain and simple, a fun piece of garage rock. Poulou’s accented and artless (and enthusiastic!) vocals are the perfect compliment for this song about being pissed off. And the song is catchy as hell.

This is followed by "Strangetown", a cover of a 1970 track by The Groundhogs. I can’t say that I’m familiar with the original. But this sounds like it was tailor made for The Fall. It’s wobbly rock, Smith really tears into the lyrics, and the decision to add weird static and buzz (like a faulty radio transmission) adds to the coolness of the track.

Not all of the tracks are so distinctive. Still, there’s enough here that I hope and pray that Smith keeps this aggregation together for a couple more albums to see what they can produce. This is a very encouraging start for the band that keeps reinventing itself while always sounding like no one else but themselves.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Sign Of The Fox -- For Anybody Else (2008)

Sign Of The Fox -- For Anybody Else (The Sound Of Sounds)

This veteran L.A. band plays a laid back brand of rock that sounds like it could have been recorded on the back porch. Let me be clear here -- "back porch" often implies a blues orientation, and that’s not the case. And "laid back" might connote some sort of soft rock. And that’s not the case, either.

This is just relaxed, yet it’s still enthusiastic. This sounds like some punky vets who are having a good time, playing songs about love and love lost, among other things. The result of this approach is that the album kind of snuck up on me.

It started with the penultimate cut on the disc, "World Shakin’ Girl". The song is based on melody that probably goes back to the heyday of Merseybeat, played at a slightly slower and heavier tempo. This is backed up by a heavy and greasy guitar part. Lead singer Jack Polick is characteristically enthusiastic as he sings about the gal who changed his world. This song has a shaggy dog appeal to it that typifies what these guys are about.

Soon thereafter, I got into "Magnetico". This song has a beefy guitar line that is Latin inflected, with the Latin character sifted out. The song contrasts this catchy guitar part with a piledriver chorus. This is basic build tension and release songwriting, that works pretty well. But my favorite part of the song is the instrumental break where these Foxes cut loose.

Although these two songs first hit me, the song that has hit me the hardest is "Loosen Up". This tune verges on power ballad territory, but it has enough rock attitude and a melody that harkens back to classic late ‘50s and early ‘60s rock and roll that keep it from being cheesy. Everyone from Cheap Trick to Splitsville to E’Nuff Z’Nuff, just to name a few, has done a song in this territory. And there are a couple of twists here to keep this from being a pro forma genre exercise. Moreover, this is the most passionate performance on the whole album.

It took me a bit longer to appreciate the quieter side of the band. There is a lot to like when Sign Of The Fox dials it down a bit. "Answer" is a loping mid-tempo song with some reggae inflected guitar. On "The No Talk Tango", the melody reeks of desperation. Polick isn’t the rangiest vocalist and that works to his advantage on this track, as the strain on his voice really sells the sadness of the song.

And the album closer, "Close to Home", has one of those melodies that sounds like it has been around forever. It probably has, but not precisely in the form it takes here. It’s a sweet song, and a swell conclusion.

This is a nice, but not great, album. If there were a few more killers like "Loosen Up", it would really be something. But I certainly enjoyed it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Bamboos -- Listen! Hear!! The Bamboos Live!!! (2008)

The Bamboos -- Listen! Hear!! The Bamboos Live!!! (Tru Thoughts)

This Aussie soul revue is in fine form on this concert document. This was recorded at the Metro Theatre in Sydney just over a year ago, and the seven piece band, augmented on some songs by vocalist Kylie Auldist, is a well oiled machine.

Okay, during the opening instrumental medley, it is a bit jarring to hear a distinctive Down Under accent greeting the audience, and talking about "super soul." But the guy ain’t lying. The medley includes snippets of Sly Stone and James Brown and allows everyone in the band to show what they can do, especially the three piece horn section and Ben Grayson on the Hammond organ.

Lance Ferguson’s chicken scratch funk guitar gets things going on the second instrumental medley, which essays a variety of funk sounds with some strong jazz overtones at times. This medley (of "Hot Pants Break Down", "Captain Buckles", "Upstairs on Boston Road", "Ghetto Funk" and "Sister Janie") may strike some as a bit too slick. The Bamboos are certainly not the grittiest outfit out there. I think that’s because the band’s brand of funk emphasizes the rhythm section and the Hammond organ, rather than the dirtier sound of the guitar. I think it works pretty well.

It works even better when Kylie Auldist is thrown into the mix. Auldist, whose 2008 debut showcases a terrific modern soul singer, has a honeyed voice that adds a bit of grit to The Bamboos’ recipe.

Auldist steps in, appropriately enough, on "Step It Up", an original Ferguson composition. This song is a workout, with a prominent bass line and the horn section punctuating Auldist’s invocations of the title phrase during the chorus. Ferguson also gets a chance to play a fast and clean solo over the constant moving rhythm. This isn’t a song -- it’s a work out.

Grayson and Ferguson composed the languid "I Don’t Wanna Stop". This is a perfect Young-Holt Unlimited or Rascals-type summer soul shakedown. On this track, the melody rules the day and Auldist is so darned inviting.

She shows off her more rugged side on "My Baby’s Cheating (I Sure Get the Feeling)". The band’s James Brown inspiration comes through yet again. The funk isn’t quite as hard as what The Godfather and the Famous Flames and the JB’s could cook up, but Auldist needs a bit more space (as opposed to Brown’s gospel cries and funk grunts) for her voice.

Her best performance is saved for last on "Never Did I Stop Loving You", which is featured on her recent solo album. This is a great soulful pop tune, somehow balancing the fizzy joy of Northern soul with the earthier vibe of Southern soul. Auldist, as always, does not oversing and conveys every feeling perfectly. As good as her album is, Auldist is a notch or two better live.

This album makes me want the price of gas to really go down so The Bamboos can hop on a jet and fly here to the States. But if they would happen to leave Auldist at home, then I’d be inclined to stay home too.