Animal Collective: Fall Be Kind [EP] (2009)
Animal Collective: Fall Be Kind [EP] (2009)
Album Score: 12
I've always been curious about Animal Collective, since they are frequently singled out by some critics to be among the best musicians of the '00s. But whenever I'd grab the bait and listen to the music for myself, I've found Animal Collective to be more off-putting than not. They are a band that strives to create unique sounds that nobody's ever created before, which in itself deserves respect, but sometimes I think they were too focused on sounding unusual instead of actually being enjoyable. (Surely, some people find Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished entertaining, but they're either psychos or people who like to trick music listeners who haven't yet lost the ability to register those ear-piercing high-pitched squeals emitted all throughout that album.)
But this EP shows Animal Collective in a much different light. Now they seem to be creating music that's more mystical and atmospheric in nature. Occasionally, they even groove out with full-on tribal chants, in a twisted riff on Peter-Gabriel-esque world-beat. Of course they haven't abandon their quest to create the most unique music humanly possible, but Fall Be Kind is actually entertaining to me. Let's hope that they continue on this vein in future releases.
It's tough to pick a favorite song in this, but I suppose the opener “Graze” has about all I'm looking for. The first half of it consists of mystical, spaced-out singing to a thick synthesizer backdrop of ringing, reverb-ridden synthesizers and tinkly pianos. Given that there are no drums or other rhythms in this section, you're going to have to be the sort of person who likes to get caught up in these sorts of new-age atmospheres to really like it. But speaking as someone who finds Enya rather boring, I'm engaged with this atmosphere. ...What I like best about that song is the second half, featuring a rapid and mesmerizing flute groove and tribal chant-like singing. Their take on world music is so twisted that it sounds like it's from another planet. Or, more accurately, Earth in a parallel dimension. Very cool, I say.
If you liked “Graze,” then you'll also like “What Would I Want? Sky” which starts out with a similarly mystical/atmospheric section before breaking into a more traditional mid-tempo drums/guitar/singing section. What really gets me with that song is all the work they put into the instrumentation. The beginning is busy with so many indescribable spaced-out sounds going through it that I'm sure you could listen to this for years and still find new things to pick out of it. The second half is just fun to listen to with a mildly memorable melody and background instrumentation that dazzles me with its constantly evolving textures.
The middle two songs, “Bleed” and “On a Highway” are relatively short and concentrates mainly on the echoey, mystical aspects of their songwriting. That would be fine if the atmospheres they create were as compelling as they are on the other songs, so the result is this EP has a rather weak midsection. Given that I doubt anyone would listen to these songs very closely (this as a whole makes great background/study/thinking music), you'll probably never want to skip these songs.
But they make up for that with a wholly immersible closer, “I Think I Can.” It opens with an atmospheric synthscape that Brian Eno would have been proud of before turning into another twisted tribal chant. A song like that literally sounds to me like it came from a different planet, and I can't help but marvel at their uncanny ability to do that! My only complaint about that song (and it's a minor one), is that my interest in it starts to fade out after the half-way mark. Despite their incredibly bizarre ideas, they probably could have stood to find new ways to freshen the sound mid-way through or cut the seven-minute running length.
In conclusion, this EP is out of this world. Well, all Animal Collective albums are out of this world, but this might actually be a world you'd want to visit. Sure, they're treading waters that were pioneered by Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel, but they do have their own unique takes on these genres, and you'll probably like it. (Another good band along these lines is Yeasayer, who has that alien-tribal thing down pretty well and also perhaps slightly more accessible than Animal Collective is... even here.)
Read the track reviews:
Atomic Kitten: Atomic Kitten (2003)
Album Score: 7
I didn't know what to expect when I first heard the name Atomic Kitten. I knew of the '70s progressive rock band called Atomic Rooster and thought perhaps I could expect a lot of loving tributes. Then I saw what the band looked like ... English girls in their mid-20s who were smiling at me. OK, they're obviously some sort of pop band. I listened to the album, and ... yup. They're some sort of pop band.
I sat through this bloody album a few times and for the love of GOD, I grow tired of that stupid drum machine sound. That ultra-clean thwop keeps pounding pretty much the same rhythm in all these tracks, and it becomes very grating to my nerves. Trying to put that little oversight aside, I'm sort of surprised that there are no actual clunkers in this album. I listened to all of these tracks (trying my best to ignore the rhythms) and feeling mildly amused by what they're doing.
These females aren't very good singers. Very weakly voices without much range, and there's a lot of vocal-enhancement going on. But the producers smartly realize this, and they made the songs sound weakly to match the vocals! One exception would be the Kylie Minogue co-penned “Feels So Good” which is given a bolder score to match Minogue's party-time style... but the vocals are too weak to give it real justice. “Be With U” is a well-done nod to the disco movement with those airy vocals and airy instrumentation to match. It's passive but appealing. “Whole Again” has a gospel flavor, but they still make it sound light without fall in the trap of pomposity. Yup, it matches their weak singing voices!
But the compliments to the songwriting ends there. Just because the moods of these songs were kept light and fluffy, it didn't mean the melodies had to be dull as well! I scream for something more memorable in all of these!! While I'm happy to report none of these melodies fall completely flat, they all seem to be too comfortably basking in “mediocrity.” While sitting through this album wasn't a painful or particularly tedious experience, nothing about it was memorably. Why, it's almost as if it never existed! Just to prove how mediocre these melodies are, the album's best melody is a Bangles cover called “Eternal Flame,” which easily wasn't that group's shining moment.
So what good is this album, then? Not much. Though in my recent excursion into reviewing corporate pop albums, this is one of the better ones! But there's still nothing compelling enough in here to recommended it to a broader audience. I'm sorry. The girls are cute, at least.
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Beulah: When Your Heartstrings Break (1999)
Album Score: 11
Five years ago, I stayed in a town called Beulah for five weeks. Awful, awful place. But this rock band called Beulah is pretty good! They're an indie band from San Francisco who likes to write happy pop music. They write fitfully good melodies, but their real specialty comes with their instrumentation. They have a delightful knack for bringing in a variety of sounds in their songs. “Sunday Under Glass,” for instance, contains at different times a swinging Burt-Bacharach-style horn section, a flute, and a jangly keyboard-vibe in addition the typical upbeat drum and guitar patterns. All of this is produced excellently creating a smooth, ear-appealing, and texturally rich mix.
Their general purpose as a band, it seems, is to write principally upbeat music that's designed to put a smile on your face. Yup. I like these guys! I'd much rather listen to happy music than evil, violent music! But at some point, I grow leery of listening to all these upbeat songs in a row. They start to sound awfully alike by the end. While I marveled at the involved instrumentation style of “Sunday Under Glass,” they use that same sort of instrumentation on most of these songs. It's always a lot of fun, but it doesn't exactly aide in making them sound different. ...It almost seems like they're one-trick ponies. (This is the only album of theirs I've heard out of four, so that's a tentative statement.)
There are only two songs in this album that aren't classified as “upbeat,” because they don't have fast, bubbly drum patterns: “Calm Go the Wild Strings” and “Silverado Days.” The former happens to be a song I like a lot because they stepped out of their zones a little bit and orchestrated it using mainly Eastern instruments. It's a tuneful song (particularly the uplifting chorus), but it's not especially memorable. “Silverado Days” is quite boring, unfortunately. Slow songs are a rare occasion on this CD, and listening to that one gives me an indication why: they weren't too great at it. Not only does it have an unmemorable (but still likable) melody, but it's instrumented boringly. They even seemed bored as they were playing it. ...I can just picture that bassist, thumping those strings *doop* *doop* *doop* *doopy doop* and falling...... aslee..............
My favorite song has the longest title: “If We Can Land a Man On the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart.” It was a great pick to end the album with. Of course it's energetic and fun, but it also kind of explodes. It takes my senses and launches them into the atmosphere. It starts with a quirky drum groove and a funny horn loop. Not too interesting by itself, but quizzical enough to grab my attention. Then that suddenly stops, and an involved drum rhythm, vocal melody and exceptionally well orchestrated string section comes in... Later some fuzzy guitar... Even later a piano solo... Later a fun horn section... In other words, it exemplifies beautifully what I mentioned earlier about their instrumentation abilities. Also, I really liked the album opener, “Score From Agusta,” which puts us in a very good mood right away. (Now if only there were bittersweet or sad songs in the middle to accentuate that brightness...)
As a whole, I'd say this album is likable, melodious, and well-produced enough to earn a weak 11. It's nice but not especially compelling. I read on Wikipedia that these guys were frustrated at never achieving gold status with their albums, and they quasi broke up in 2003 because of that. ...I know it's not easy trying to make it big in a rock band, but there was surely enough raw talent evident here to have warranted making some more stabs at it! I liked this album pretty well; it just seems like they needed to do something to make it stand out more. Things that would have improved this album substantially would have been more experimentation, invention, diversify, and stronger melodies. I don't see how anyone would have expected this to have made it big. It's just too typical!
I seem to have a little extra space, so I'm going to use it for a plug! (I must have some sort of OCD... These days, it feels wrong publishing a review if it's a paragraph short.) There's another band similar to Beulah from the '90s out there that I've been listening to a lot lately: The Divine Comedy. Great stuff. They wrote baroque-pop music very similar to Beulah, but for my money they did it much better. Their melodies were a lot stronger, they were more innovative, and (my favorite thing) their albums tended to have more diversity. Definitely worth a look, if you are so inclined!
Read the track reviews:
The Bird and the Bee: The Bird and the Bee (2007)
Album Score: 9
If you want to get the experience of The Bird and the Bee without actually listening to it, take a tranquilizer. These are some astoundingly low-key songs! The Bird and the Bee is a male and female duo who specialize in minimalist pop music. Their instrumental ideas usually consist of sparsely programmed synthesizer and jangly, uninvolved percussion. The singer is a girl called Inara George, the daughter of late Little Feat guitarist Lowell George, who has a sweet and very high pitched voice. It's very warm and soothing sounding! Unfortunately, she doesn't have much range, because that's the only way she knows how to sing ... but I could think of worse vocal styles to bear through an entire album. There's those early Yellowcard albums, for example!
The songwriting is decidedly a mixed bag. On one hand, these are all finely crafted compositions. These two songwriters favor “quirky” instrumental standards, and are successful at it most of the time, and they know a thing or two about harmonies. These songs are light and delicate! ... That combined with George's singing style makes it work like eggs and bacon. But at the same time, most of these songs are just too repetitive. They tend to come up with two different “sections” and just repeat them a few time without any significant change-ups. That's just lazy if you ask me! Also, while I like their harmonies for the most part, they haven't quite gotten a handle on melodies yet. There are very few memorable tunes all throughout this disc! The melodies are frustratingly weak. ...So, despite the respectable songwriting, nothing really saves this album from boring the hell out of me sometimes.
“I Hate Camera” isn't boring though. That's a demented-sounding song featuring George's nuttiest vocal performance and a busy, upbeat rhythm. It even has a nicely done melody, and it's generally spicy instrumentation all throughout the song, and thanks to some old-school video game nosies, it doesn't even get boring. Cut-and-paste editing doesn't always work, but that's partly what kept the song so interesting. (There are other moments here where this editing doesn't work that well, but “I Hate Camera” was an exception.) I like “My Fair Lady” for its creepiness. The All Music Guide writers claimed that it would have been a great addition to the film Breakfast at Tiffanys, but I don't see that at all. I think it would've worked better on a horror movie. Those sweet vocals are warm, but the instrumentation is so dark that they seem sinister. Excellent.
Most reviews of this album I read deem “F*cking Boyfriend” one of the album's highlights, but I don't think so! I like the instrumentals, but I just don't like it that much. The instrumentation is quirky and well-conceived, but the melody is mediocre, and it seems to repeat a lot. By the end, I'm just bored with it. A respectable song, for sure. (I halfway wonder if other reviewers just like the unnecessary profanity? ... Oh, and don't buy the edited version of that. They just wiped out the word “fucking” and left an awkward silence.)
I think I summed up the album pretty well, and if you want to know more about the individual songs, there are always the track reviews! I'll tell you that my impressions of this group are not very strong, and I wouldn't recommend this to anyone. However, if you decide to flirt with these human tranquilizers, be sure to give “My Fair Lady” and “I Hate Camera” good listens!
Read the track reviews:
Simon Bookish: Everything/Everything (2008)
Album Score: 13
If a technologically advanced race of aliens came to earth with a device that could scan my brain and then synthetically create the perfect pop album based on my tastes, then I'd imagine it would sound something like this. ...I brought that up not to express to you how much I like this album, but to express to you that I'm having a difficult time gauging how other people are going to react to it. So why don't I name drop some famous artists that this album reminds me of? I would say this Simon Bookish album is fit for anyone who likes musicians who create artsy, complicated and repetitive grooves such as Sparks' Lil' Beethoven, Laurie Anderson's Big Science, Talking Heads' Remain in Light, or one of Philip Glass' typical '70s or '80s works. ...I wouldn't be surprised if Bookish, a British musician who was previously known for his production work with bands like Grizzly Bear, Franz Ferdinand and The Organ before striking it solo in the mid '00s, had thoroughly consulted such works while drawing up this album.
Surely, if you're destined to love this album, you'll probably realize it in its opening song, which is probably the best song of the lot. It starts out with a sort of jazzy fanfare taken on by trumpets that like to settle on four-chords. Quickly thereafter, a light, '70s Kraftwerk style drum machine pops up, which helps confidently drive the song through a myriad of tight synthesizer and horn textures. It seems like he loves the experience of building up songs from somewhat humble beginnings and, occasionally, taking them to glorious heights. In certain spots, twinkly bells or glockenspiels surface, which are sounds that I utterly love. Of course, you'll have to hear it to experience it, since my words can hardly do it justice.
His vocal performances are as much of an integral part of these performances as the arrangements. He's fond of using theatrical and Bowie-like wobbly vocals to a point that it can get positively goofy at times. With that said, he never comes off like he's taking himself too seriously while at the same time also seeming quite passionate. Though, one has to wonder what he's being passionate about since the lyrics are usually quasi-nonsensical. (“Lake Michigan exhibits a meniscus of petrol / Stare into the sun / Blinded by the spectral / Grasp hold the diamond / Sketch in graphite pencils / Print 10,000 copies / Use Xerox, use stencils.”)
There is a point in this album where I get a little tired of it. That point comes specifically at “Victorinox,” which is a quirky and an enjoyable song for sure... but the previous four songs had also been quirky in similar and more memorable ways. Despite the song being well constructed, the tight horn grooves starts to get somewhat obnoxious. ...Fortunately, there's a completely new sort of song that pops up right after it, which recaptures my fascination with the album. “Il Trionfo Del Tempo... (Ridley Road)” is a mystical ballad, which features a harp that plays some interesting patterns while a low-key and atmospheric organ plays dark chords in the background. Bookish's vocal melody there is quite reminiscent of Gregorian chants. Later on, he gives us a sparse piano ballad, “A Crack in Larsen C,” which is utterly lovely. It's not the hookiest piano ballad on the planet, but it doesn't want to be; it reminds me fondly of the piano ballads from Kate Bush's debut album.
Bookish saves some of his best songs for last. Such a strong ending prompted me to raise the rating, which would almost have certainly been a solid-12 …I couldn't possibly give an album a 12 that has a song like “Alsatian Dog” on it, which is surely one of the most delightful songs on the planet earth. He probably took some hints from Talking Heads when he created a tight and toe-tapping bass groove and brought in some funk guitar, which provides some extra, punchy texture... The Talking Heads comparison ends there, however, since the song is mostly based on a tight trumpet groove, which is undoubtedly his established style. “A New Sense of Humor” is another huge highlight toward the end of the album, which starts rather slowly before gradually building up to a brilliantly delivered chorus. It reminds me a lot of a a few songs from ABC's The Lexicon of Love, which is never a bad album to remind me of.
This is Bookish's third album, and unfortunately, I have not been able to hear his previous ones. They are not readily available for purchase. Their reputation isn't terribly high, but they're nonetheless things that I'll have to keep my eye out for in the future. ...Until then, I'll tell you that Everything/Everything is a credit to Bookish's discography; it's one of the most delightfully artsy albums that I've listened to in recent days. It might not appeal to everyone on the planet, however, so I would recommend giving Laurie Anderson's Big Science a listen first to see if such quirky music is a good fit for you. (With that said, I actually find Bookish's album more enjoyable than Anderson's...)
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Michael Chagnon: Michael Chagnon (2009)
Album Score: 9
Michael Chagnon is a singer-songwriter based in Lynchburg, Virginia who admires The Beatles and writes songs about girls. Liking The Beatles is, of course, a requirement if you're going to create accessible pop-rock music these days, and thinking about girls is a favorite activity of all young, heterosexual males. All in all, Chagnon is all that you'd expect of a young, 21st Century singer-songwriter.
Thankfully, Chagnon writes a decent tune, but not very many of these songs are able to stick with me. They don't have the infectious quality of a Paul McCartney song, for instance. (There's the hazard of writing McCartney-esque songs... you have to be compared with him!) However, he comes close enough that I would say that he is quite talented in the songwriting area. However, he loses some of his appeal with his nasal voice that has a tendency of being slightly irritating. It not a terrible singing voice; he's able to hit all the notes just fine. He sounds similar to Colin Meloy of The Decemberists. However, whenever he hits loud and sustained notes, it can send an unintentional, cold shiver down my spine.
Of course, a singing voice is usually not the foremost concern of a singer-songwriter; you're born with the voice you've got, and that's that. The voice aside, he does write songs with decent hooks in them, but many of them are developed rather strangely. The opening song “Gwynneth,” for example, starts as a folk song, then transforms into an upbeat pop-rocker, and then it's concluded with bouncy outro section. Such flagrant style-hopping within a song is not too different than McCartney's style of songwriting throughout Ram, but in that album, McCartney's ideas were able to flow well. Chagnon comes off more clumsy and unsure of himself. I start to suspect that the only reason he changed the groove in the outro was because he didn't know where else to take it.
I suppose it's the uncertainty of the songwriting that is my biggest complaint about this album. He starts a song like “Don't Push Me Away” with a perfectly nice pop-hook, but it's over after only two minutes. It seems like it should have broken into a chorus at some point, but it never does. That contrasts, interestingly, with an unusual 20-second outro section tacked on the end that seems too long.
My favorite song of the bunch is the bouncy and childish “Tired of Life,” which is the album's most lively piece. This style of songwriting also fits well with his unconventional singing style. “Love Me To Death” is a completely different sort of song, a fuzzed-out rocker, but it happens to be another one of my favorites. You certainly can't go wrong with diversity!
But even these songs I like seem like they could have stood to be fleshed out more. Not only increased in length, but with bolder and more organized instrumentation. But of course he didn't have a terribly large budget. I wouldn't be surprised if this was self-produced. It's of demo quality. That's not a criticism; you have to take what you can get in the music industry. And if you get nothing, then you have to create it for yourself. But this album could surely have stood to be cleaned up a bit here and there, because it's awfully rough around the edges.
The one exception to that is the closing song, “Love Knows No Sorrow,” which goes on for a full five minutes. It's one of the best songs of the album, and yet it's not even close to having the album's best melody. It's dark and rather moody, and we're given the proper chance to wallow around in that mood for a good amount of time. It even has an understated drum solo in the final third... and also, surprisingly, that's one of the few drum solos in history that I like. It plays tight, rhythmic patterns that meshes well with the strummy guitars in the background. If all these songs were developed and instrumented as well as that song, then I suspect I would have enjoyed this album much more.
While this might not be a great album, it's a likable one that could potentially show Michael Chagnon as a diamond in the rough. He certainly has a knack for writing melodies, but he seems somewhat unsure about himself when it comes to actually developing his songs. He has a friendly voice, but it needs a bit of polish. This album was going to score an 8 on this scale, but its charm and the final song managed to push it up a notch.
When Chagnon asked me to review his album, he also asked me to review a three-song EP from Geoffrey Osborne, his touring companion. Since I'm not sure how to write a full-length review based on a three-song EP, I'll just tack that review on the end here. Osbourne's songs sound much more polished and fully-fleshed-out than Chagnon's songs, but the melodies don't fascinate me nearly as much. (Why don't these two team up for future albums? One guy's strength is his songwriting, and the other guy's strength is apparently his studio techniques!) One song, “Come Down” is quite generic and reminds me of an ordinary CCM song. Another song “Astrophobia” is more punchy and it even features a fun ELO-style vocoder effect in the final third.
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Country Teasers: The Empire Strikes Back (2006)
Album Score: 12
This band is so obscure that I couldn't even find lyrics for these songs on the Internet. I even went so far as to type in word-for-word sections of them on Google, and nothing came up. That's a shame, because the lyrics I've been able to make out come across as sort of dirty, provocative and amusing in a dark way. In other words, they're great! Musically, they'd almost certainly be classified as art-rock or post-punk or … whatever.
You can bet an entire cow that they're fans of The Velvet Underground and The Fall. The guitars are messy and ugly, and their style of songwriting is primitive. They're definitely not for average Mariah Carey fans, although you might have been able to determine that from the album cover, which appears to just be a scan of an old book they checked out from the public library.
And when I say their songwriting is primitive, it's not a put-down. It could have been a put-down, except these guys are amazingly able to write ugly songs that don't make me want to tear my eyebrows out. I know that isn't such a glowing endorsement, but I'm mentioning it because it's exceptionally rare that I would fully enjoy an album such as this. “White Patches” for instance is an almost dizzying song that shifts back and forth between a violent and wonky two-note riff and a bizarre, synthesizer led pop section. Usually that would make me go nuts, but I find it mesmerizing, not only because of the repetitiveness of the simple riff, but because they clutter it up with interesting guitar textures and distortion noises.
That's hardly even my favorite song of The Empire Strikes Back. I really enjoy “Good Looking Boys or Women” with its heavy, marching drum beat and a disgusting riff. Best of all, it gets uglier and dirtier as it progresses, which means it develops. The closing song “Please Ban Music/Gegen Alles” is positively mesmerizing and evil at the same time. Seriously, if you're going to write a song that sends cold shivers up my spine, the least you could do is include a heavy drum beat and an amazingly creepy bass line.
“Hitlers & Churchills” might just be my all-time favorite of the album although that's mostly because I find it quirky. (Maybe I'm not supposed to think of it like that, but I can't really help that.) The riff is poppy and the bass is catchy. It even has a memorable vocal melody, which says something, because most of these songs aren't sung at all but spoken with style. Of course the general atmosphere of it continues to be as drunk and off-key. It's consistent with everything else...
There are only a few spots in this album that seem dead to me, and they're the slow bits. “Mos E17ley,” which I want to classify as an evil piano ballad, is so slow that it bugs me in a bad way, and the rustic folk song “Panic Holiday” doesn't quite seem like it has enough going on in it. But these two songs are hardly what I dwell on when I think of this album, but they are definite lulls.
Certainly if you're a fan of ugly, artsy, underground music, then this is something you need to check out. In fact, I need to check them out more since they had apparently been around for 13 years, and this was their eighth album! (And ugh! Where are my Star Wars jokes? …......Eh, I like Star Trek better, anyway.)
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Crimes in Choir: Trumpery Metier (2006)
Album Score: 11
Crimes in Choir are a '00s instrumental progressive rock group hailing from San Francisco, the land of Nancy Pelosi and gray bearded potheads. It was like they were trying to avoid generating a fan base. But if you listen to how well done this album is and the obvious hard work they put into making it, you can tell that they definitely deserve a few fans, here and there.
Man, are these guys frantic! This is just about the flashiest album I've ever listened to. Every twist and turn these guys take, it always seems to be uncovering something new. I never get bored listening to it. In order for them to have pulled an album like this off with any success, they would have to be great instrumentalists, and I'm happy to say that they are. I wouldn't say they are quite up there with classic Mahavishnu Orchestra, but they are in the ballpark, which I would still say is pretty amazing. As I was listening carefully to these songs scoring the track reviews, the instrumentalist that stood out to me the most was the drummer. Me noticing a drummer in itself was pretty amazing, since I hardly ever notice them. Man, all those crazy fills he comes up with is absolutely dazzling! But it's not just the drummer, but all the instrumentalists are great. There are some really wild keyboard, saxophone and guitar solos strewn all throughout this. Utterly mental.
It's such a shame that the music they were playing didn't project very many distinct moods or atmospheres. If they had, then I think it would have been a little easier to recognize and treasure their noodling abilities. This just isn't a very diverse album. I would be fully justified in generically describing all these songs as “flashy, frantic, prog instrumentals.” Of course, the benefit of making an album like this is that it's pretty much dazzling and energetic from beginning to end, but it also would have been nice if they would have given us a few extended spots in here to catch our breaths. In many of the classic progressive rock albums, such as early Genesis, they have shown that loud, frantic music is much more awe-inspiring when it's the result of a huge crescendo. Not that there isn't the occasional crescendo in Trumpery Metier, but there could have been more of them!
Maybe I'm the only person in the world who would complain about something like that, so slow spots or no slow spots, this album is a lot of fun. My absolute favorite is “Land of Sherry Wine and Spanish Horses,” a sprawling seven-minute piece that seems to take us on a rather tense journey through outer space. I'm more or less sitting on the edge of my seat listening to it unravel itself. I also have a lot of fun with the beginning of “High Thin Circus,” which is a strange waltz that sounds so huuuuuuge that it's like they're playing it for the universe. A galactic circus.
It seems like I should more than two tracks in this review, but I can honestly say there's nothing else that greatly stands out to me. That goes to show how rather samey these songs sound to me, as exciting as they are. I wrote my impressions of all the songs in the track review, but I struggled trying to come up with new things to say about them. So, the track reviews probably aren't too interesting. But at least they're complete. Good old track reviews...
In conclusion, this is a terribly good instrumental prog-rock album, and if you're at all a fan of this sort of music then you should check them out. More than that, I'd wager that this album is so fun and dazzling that it might even appeal to the non-prog-heads. Of course there are a lot of snobs out there who probably think there can be no such thing as a good progressive rock album in the 21st Century, but I hope listening to this album might prove that notion wrong. It was definitely on the border between an 11 and a 12. It didn't really speak to my heart, so I went with the 11. (Oh god, I'm turning gooey...)
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Cut Copy: In Ghost Colours (2008)
Album Score: 10
It's evident in the first few milliseconds of In Ghost Colours that this group from Australia were profoundly influenced by techno/pop music of the late '80s and early '90s. (Oh no! C + C Music Factory has returned to haunt us all!!!!) I suppose if they had to exhume techno's corpse, this was the correct way to go about it. Unlike most actual techno acts from the late '80s and early '90s, Cut Copy had the ability to orchestrate their songs beyond basic dance beats and their songs tend to be complex and atmospheric. Also, they've incorporated pretty advanced things in their music such as sampling and track-overlays into their work. This is techno music that is designed for you to listen to as opposed to just being a nice beat to dance to. And I appreciate that. That, in philosophy anyway, is something that I can heartily endorse.
But for the love of GOD, I get tired of their sound. I like awesome techno music with dreary/drugged-up instrumentation just as much as the next person, but listening to 50 minutes of it without a break is apparently too much for me. In Ghost Colors is a well-constructed, intelligent, and thoughtful album, but it lacks variety. As I was listening to it as background music, in preparation of writing this review, I found it to be a lot of toe-tapping fun, but I also found it to be rather long-drawn-out and dreary. As I paid more close attention to it, it only got worse...
So, In Ghost Colours isn't really my cup of tea. That doesn't mean this album stinks or anything. Quite the opposite. I admire this group's uncanny knack for creating fun and infectious bass-lines, as anybody should. Also a whopping huge point in their favor is they have a lead singer whose delightfully slick and smooth vocals are a near dead-ringer for Simon Le Bon's of Duran Duran. Cut Copy are also quite good at delivering melodies, but they're also limited in that category. Even in their best of times, they never approach the soul-filling heights of early Duran Duran. I know that most bands don't get that high. But any band who write music of this sort will only achieve great heights if they get their songwriting on that level. I'm just saying...
Speaking of the individual songs, I like a good deal of them. “Feel the Love,” “Out There on the Ice,” “Hearts on Fire,” “Nobody Lost, Nobody Found” shall get thy bottom jiggling. But even the songs that I like have their fundamental flaws (beyond what I already mentioned about the limited melodies and overdoing the drugged-up/dreary sound). They have a terrible tendency to find its comfortable groove and stick with it pretty consistently through a sizable running length. (Hmm... I suppose, what did I expect from a band who call themselves “Cut Copy?”) There aren't anything huge that challenges me or delights me. After the first minute listening to these songs, my brain seems to want to switch off, and there's usually little excuse for it to switch back on. Mind you, my foot hasn't switched off; I'm still tapping it, because I like the beat. Listening to this album is, really, some sort of great battle between my brain and my foot. They do seem to reach some sort of compromise, though, which is why I can say I enjoy the album. That is more than I can say for Erotica, in which my brain pretty conclusively won the argument.
There is one exception to that. The chorus to “So Haunted” is delightfully bright and jangly. The transition between the more violent verses section to that chorus is rather sudden and awkward. But I don't mind the awkwardness of it; whenever I get to that chorus, it feels as through I had finally struggled free and become airborne. So, there's a moment.
Despite my rather negative comments toward this album in general, I still think this is overall respectable. Not great, but good. If you're looking for fun '00s indie music with dancey beats and good bass-lines, then you're looking in the right place. Unfortunately, I can't report that this album made a great connection with me. I read other reviews of it, and it looks as though my lukewarm thoughts are a little bit out-of-the-ordinary, so maybe there is something wrong with me. If you want to bypass my opinion, then you surely have the basis to do so. (This album was actually recommended for me to review... I think I understood why he thought I'd love it... But he probably didn't know about how my foot and my brain and everything...)
For me, I suppose, its first problem was that it largely concentrates on techno, a genre that I wasn't too wild about to begin with. More than that, it seems to be a little bit too long, and it doesn't have enough moments that particularly challenge me or delight me. It's just good music to tap your foot to. The druggy/dreary sound is a good one, but they're so over-reliant on it, that it gets bloody depressing. With that said, I would highly recommend this to anyone who's sampling music for some sort of dance party. You've got a lot of good songs to choose from! Just as long as you throw some other ones in your mix as well. ...Maybe a little bit o' Michael Jackson. ...People at your party can do the Moonwalk...
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Delays: Faded Seaside Glamour (2004)
Album Score: 12
British guys in a whiny indie rock band called “The Delays.” The lead singer has a falsetto voice. ...This is bound to be awful, right? ...................................... OH BUT HOW WRONG YOU ARE!!!!! These guys are so good that it makes me happy. I believe anyone with any taste in music will have a bone or two to pick with whiny indie rock, but this might just be an exception. It's better than Coldplay at least...
Listen to “Wanderlust,” the first track of the album. The song opens with a somewhat stilted steel drum loop and some watery guitar chords, but the moment when the lead singer's falsetto comes in, it's like rainbows coming out of your speakers!!!! (...OK, maybe not “rainbows.” I'm not a hippie or anything.) Almost amazingly, when it comes right down to it, “Wanderlust” isn't so different from the current brand of whiny indie-pop music. It has the same sort of guitars ... the same sort of drums ... the same sort of singing (except this is a bit high). The big difference between “Wanderlust” and the vast majority of songs is that it's actually brilliant songwriting. It's melody, I'm sure, will linger on with your for ages, and the atmosphere is incredible. And I'm not lying when I say that this is the most-played song currently on my iPod! (Although I reset that a few months ago... but still. This is the first time in three years a Kate Bush song didn't have that top honor.)
Sometimes bands make a song like “Wanderlust” and pad the rest of the album with substandard material. While nothing else here quite tops “Wanderlust,” there is a surprising amount of other excellent material to prove that the Delays might be worth keeping track of. “Nearer Than Heaven” is a sweet, angelic song that's an even more compelling use of that falsetto. The third song, “Long Time Coming,” is even better. It's a memorable and upbeat tune with very smart arrangements.
In my mind “No Ending” and “There's No Water Here” is what clinches the fact that these guys are excellent songwriters. Both songs have the strict, acoustic, singer-songwriter feel to them. And they both represent some of the best work here. I often run across albums with such songs on it, and you can always tell the poseurs immediately. While poseurs can convincingly pull of an upbeat, glitzy song, their fakeness always surfaces when they these “genuine,” “feely” ballads. But the Delays are a great group... and nothing is better than an acoustic song that's compelling from beginning to end.
Now that I spent this whole review with endless praise, I'll have to bring back the reigns just a little bit. This isn't a perfect album... “You Wear the Sun” is a weak song that doesn't capture my interest much at all. While it's a formidable song, it disrupted the inspired flow the album had going thus far. The final two songs are also vastly disappointing to me. “One Night Away” is very routine and rather flat. The final track “On” is too repetitive and devoid of interesting ideas. I felt a little betrayed by the ending... I was expecting something a little more magical considering what happened in the album this far!
I don't think the Delays is going to change my opinion about whiny indie-rock. I'm still looking forward to the day when the trends rock 'n' roll starts gravitating to a less teeth-grating sound... Or some hypothetical new form of music comes about and revitalizes the public interest in music. But the Delays are a very welcome exception... Based on this debut album, their hearts were fully into this, and they have plenty of songwriting talent to go around.
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Douyé: Journey (2007)
Album Score: 8
This album was described to me as “R&B,” and I was worried that it was going to be of the Alicia Keys bland fakeness variety. Thankfully I got something much nicer: this is sultry lounge-jazz that's perfectly suited for middle aged people. (I'm very sympathetic toward this, because I was called middle aged by someone for the first time in my life a month ago. Oh, God.) Good thing she's singing this sort of music, too, because she has a perfect voice for it. She is able to hit every note she attempts with gusto, and her beautiful voice has the tone and texture of smooth, chocolatey caramel. ...Man, I am starved for some candy.
While most of this music is nicely performed, there is nothing particularly special about the songwriting. Everything is strictly run-of-the-mill. The only album of this variety I've listened to before and loved has been Sade's 1985 debut, which hit a quirky alien vibe that made its lounge jazz seem different than everything else. Douyé on the other hand seems content with being ordinary.
Her session musicians were fine and well polished although I start to feel a little bit of acid riling up in my stomach whenever I get a whiff of a Kenny G style bedroom-soul saxophone. Blech!!! Nitpicks aside, all of these songs sound nice, and they were well written. The wandering melodies are usually fine. This is “easy listening” in its purest form.
The lyrics definitely could have used improvement, though. Five years ago, reading something like this would have made me puke: “I feel so high / When I'm around you / It's so real, you and I / Can't believe I found you / If I could fly away / I would want to go / With you, with you, with you my love / If I could fly away / It would be so great, baby / Fly away”. I'm apparently middle aged now, so my cookies remain intact, but ….... seriously, you only live once, so why not bear your soul?
Those lyrics were taken from the first song of the album, “Fly Away,” which I also happen to think is the best song. Although I would suspect that I might have chosen a different song had she ordered them differently. When I first play it, I think “Hey, this sounds nice!” But most of the other songs sound exactly like it, and thus the album gradually loses its luster. There's a name for this I learned in school: the law of diminishing returns. (Boy howdy, aren't I educated?) I went through the track reviews and tried to assign letter ratings based on my gut reactions, but there really weren't any overwhelming highlights. There also wasn't anything that sucked, so take that for what its worth. This seems like a perfect album for those wanting a safe, middle-of-the-road background music for a lah-de-dah champagne party. I don't know what Douyé's ambitions are in life; that could be exactly what she was after.
But if she wants her music to stand out more, she should think about finding more interesting ways to orchestrate this, experimenting with stranger melodies, and definitely writing more interesting lyrics. She has the voice for this stuff, so she has genetics tilting in her favor. According to her website, she's from Nigeria, and it's not everyday we run across a Nigerian born lounge singer. The weird thing is I would never have even guessed she was from another country if I didn't read that on her website. If I had been able to guess that, then this certainly would have been a more interesting album to talk about.
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Dream Theater: Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence (2009)
Album Score: 9
It seems to me that progressive-metal exploits the worst of both the heavy metal and progressive rock worlds. Progressive rock bands write songs that take time to interweave crescendos, multiple themes and variations. Heavy metal, on the other hand, is more rhythmic and texture-based, and their music tends to be endlessly loud. So progressive-metal bands end up melding the two by writing loud, texture based songs that are excessively long.
Despite such generalizations, I found Dream Theater's Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence to be more enjoyable than I figured it would have been. Even though there's nothing on here that's spectacular or that moved me in any sense, it's entertaining in its flashy and pompous way. They can't (or won't) write interesting vocal melodies or riffs to save their lives, but their tight guitar patterns, frilly drum fills, and flashy scale-based guitar and keyboard solos are sometimes dazzling. Most of these songs are way longer than they had any right to be, but I'm surprised that I haven't been entirely bored sitting through such a 96-minute, double-album monstrosity.
According to the fans, the first disc contains their “experimental” songs, which tend to be loud and based solely on endless drum fills and tight guitar rhythms. The second disc is just one song that takes up the span of an entire album. It's kind of like Thick as a Brick and Tubular Bells except the songs don't flow that well together. (I suspect they were written separately beforehand and then spliced together in post production.)
This is a pretty ridiculous band, though. A recent photograph of theirs currently displayed on Wikipedia depicts one member, without any detectable irony, sporting a keytar. Even more ridiculous is that the opening instrumental of the concept album sounds like mediocre title music to a corny anime film. ...And if you're able to hold onto this concept album until its final moment, you might also be amused to discover that it takes them a full two minutes to finally get around to fading-out that final chord. While their songwriting might be atrocious, I'm entertained by the way this whole thing is played and presented. It doesn't matter if I was supposed to be amused or not.
That keyboardist is seriously awful, though. He can play technically well and fast, but the synthesizers he picks sounds like they belong somewhere on The NeverEnding Story soundtrack. That might have been acceptable in the mid-'80s, but in 2002, it's just plain goofy. Whenever he has a full-on solo (which sometimes is fulfilled with a real piano), his playing comes off as dead and emotionless. I've had similar complaints about Genesis' Tony Banks, but he's small potatoes compared to Mr. Keytar. Furthermore, he doesn't bother exploring interesting harmonies in his solos. They're just forgettable. They're not much higher on the artistic ladder than dead air. But I have to admit that it's sometimes fun listening to the keyboards scale up and down flagrantly through the course of these songs.
I can say similar things about the lead guitarist who seems more content with playing empty scales and patterns instead of trying to search for interesting melodies to keep our ears perked. There are a few instances, such as in “About to Crash,” where the guitar plays something resembling a melody, but that isn't too impressive when you realize that it's merely mimicking the vocal melody that came before it. Handily the most useful member of this band (at least in the era this album was released) is the drummer. He's just as pompous, if not more so, than everybody else in the band, but all these tight fills he keeps coming up with saves many of these emotionally dead songs from growing tedious. In fact, I'm positive I would have hated this album if the drummer wasn't there to hold my hand through it. And I'm not saying he's particularly inventive... he's just fast. I mean, he's nothing compared to Phil Collins who was capable of turning out inventive fills at the turn of a dime. Most of these songs are rhythmic-based instead of melody-based, and it helps that the drummer was capable of directing much of that.
So there's my spiel on Dream Theater's Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. I didn't get into that much detail about the individual songs, but I've written extensive track reviews to take care of that. In conclusion, I found this album to be lacking greatly on the musical front, but their presentation was flashy and entertaining enough to keep me from growing terribly bored with it.
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Edan: Beauty and the Beat (2005)
Album Score: 12
Well, here it is: the first hip-hop album I've ever given a serious listen to. From what I've gathered about it from online sources, this isn't typical for the genre. It doesn't seem like too many other hip-hop acts even dare to touch '60s psychedelic music, and Edan might very well have been the first to do so in such a dedicated fashion. While this is not typical for hip-hop, I cannot imagine that there is a more perfect place for me to have finally dipped my pinky toe into the genre for the first time. After all, what on earth is better than '60s psychedelic music? Nothing, I say!!!! That is, I guess unless some rapper somewhere decided to sample Beethoven... (On second thought that sounds disgusting. If somebody's actually done that, please don't tell me.)
And this is an extremely enjoyable album as well. Not only are the backing beats danceable with tons of hooks (the primary requirement of good hip-hop), but the atmospheres are so tantalizing and trippy that they rival early Pink Floyd. Take the opening number, “Polite Meeting” for instance. It of course has a heavy drum beat and rhythmic rapping, but the background instrumentation contains an evolving synthscape, some drunken keyboards, a scaling harp, a spoken radio interview, zippy space noises, and other things I might not have yet noticed.
“Funky Voltron” is one of the album's main highlights, mostly because it's funky. It samples a hooky old '60s funk groove and raps over it with an array of zippy sound effects. I think it's safe to say that I've never had that much fun with hip-hop. But as far as picking a favorite track, for my money it doesn't get better for me than “Torture Chambers.” It has the atmosphere of a scary horror movie, and the rapping over it sounds so epic, it's like he's narrating the end of the world. It is very, very cool.
Easily one of the best qualities of Beauty and the Beat is its replay value. I've given a few examples in this review (and many more in the track reviews) of what went into creating many of these songs, and I tried to be as detailed about it as possible. But as I'm writing this now it feels like I could have described them much better, like it needed a good 50 more listens for me to properly soak everything up. Well time doesn't go on trees, and my current assessment of Beauty and the Beat will have to stand . However, I hope I inspired you to take a bit of time yourself to take a listen to this and hope to unravel some of it for yourself!
I should also mention something about the lyrics. Like most music I listen to, I have an almost impossible time trying to make out everything without looking at a lyrics sheet. But I will say that they flow nicely, and they seem to rhyme. For those of you who really love lyrics, here's a small portion of “Rock and Roll.” (“With the bloodshed that led to where the Little Feat fled / To lost places, thoughts lost for all ages / Where Small Faces sit on the walls of tall mazes / That overlook the 13th Floor with long gazes / Connected to earthly core through elevators / Check it, the Underground is made of Velvet / Where butter-soft brothers talk though on wax but ain't sell shit / Every cracker that rap ain't the Elvis / My Aqualung cultivates the Blue Oyster shellfish / I design my Pearls Before Swine.”) ...OK, you could probably tell why I chose those lyrics to highlight... me and '60s and '70s rock 'n' roll are tight.
I will say that while I usually adored his use of psychedelic effects, it seems that a few of these tracks like “Smile” and “The Science of the Two” are a little too heavy on the spacey sound effects and not particularly fun to listen to. My favorite songs on here are always the ones with the strong beats and hooks. This is just a minor nitpick, however, and doesn't greatly hinder the overall album. As a whole, I'd say this thing is a gas. Listen to this even if you're like me and like '60s music but usually want nothing to do with hip-hop. You might be surprised.
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Feist: The Reminder (2007)
Album Score: 9
I've heard a lot about Feist over the past few months, and I thought I'd take a moment to check them out. I even noticed that they made a lot of music magazines' Top Albums of 2007 list, so apparently this has struck a chord with the hipster-crowd. They've even had some commercial success with a song featured on an iPod commercial (“1234”). Yup, Feist is onto some good times! And to avoid confusion, “Feist” is a solo-artist, a girl whose real first name is “Leslie.”
I hate to sound so negative, but if this is some of the best stuff that 2007 had to offer, then this must not have been a very exciting year. It is 100-percent respectable, but I sat through it bored outta my mind most of the time! The melodies are generally OK, but she doesn't provide very many hummable melodies. She does the generally smart thing and goes the minimalistic route with the instrumentals. Unfortunately, the orchestrations are similarly uninteresting, and the whole album is quite bleak as a whole.
“So Sorry,” the album opener, is the typical sound of the album. It's a slow ballad with with some quiet, subtle textures that help give the overall work some depth. It'll take awhile for the song to soak up ... but once I've invested that time, I'm left wishing she could have delivered something a little more melodic and less distant. “Feel it All” is a tad better, but at least that has a quicker temp and louder snare drums! My vote for the album's highlight is “My Moon My Man,” which for my money has the album's most endearing textures. It starts with a dark, robotic groove, but eventually metamorphoses into something busier and nuttier. But even for a highlight, the melody is still woefully inaccessible and the harmonies aren't very rich at all.
But Feist is at least the creative sort, which you can witness in all its glory with the bizarre “electro-gospel” “Sea Lion Woman.” A very funny sort of song that starts out with a singing and clapping gospel choir (who are singing pretty much the same note), and a few minimalist robotic synthesizers occasionally going off. “1234” is obviously a “fan favorite” and I'd dub it the album's second best tune. That has the album's most memorable melody (which is a step up) and has a snappy pop-rock rhythm! The instrumentals are a tad more elaborate than many of these other tracks, but it continues to be a fairly quiet song. It's a good little song.
And all these are “good” songs for that matter... There are a few bits where the mellowness gets way too overbearing such as “Water,” which only features Feist on an acoustic guitar. It goes on for too long, and it goes nowhere. “Intuition” has the exact same problem. Sure, I would call both of these respectable, but that's just a more polite name for “brain-bashingly boring.”
I hope Leslie Feist doesn't think that she reached her peak already, because she really has a lot of creative ideas all throughout this disc. I can go for the whole “mellow and bleak” feel as long as the music is interesting. But this album just isn't that interesting. I'm sorry. The harmonies are too bleak, the melodies are weak and the instrumentation (while decidedly smart) aren't quite enough. I respect this album, and I think it has plenty of endearing qualities... but I hope her next album addresses a few of these issues.
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The Fore: Black & White (2008)
Album Score: 11
My guess is all four members of The Fore spent a lot of time laying in bed at night dreaming about being in an authentic rock 'n' roll band from the early '60s. This album consists of all original music, and it sounds like it came right out of 1964 (but with quizzically clear audio quality)! More than half of the tracks sounds like The Beatles, but others seem to take their influence from The Animals, The Dave Clarke Five, The Ventures, and other bands from the era that I haven't heard yet.
The first song is a direct early-Beatles impersonation, “Love For Sale.” Everything about it reeks of The Beatles. It's two and a half minutes long, it opens with a clean guitar riff, it uses complicated vocal patterns, there's a middle-eight section... Structurally, this is spot-on! The only two areas where they come up short are the melodies and the vocals. The melody is actually very good on most standards, but it's still not as good as a Beatles melody. The vocals are also rather weak sounding. But then again, is it really fair to make such comparisons? Exactly how many bands out there were like The Beatles? Yeah, one. The important thing is that I enjoy the song.
I also like the ballad “If I Show You Love.” The melody could have been catchier, but not much, and they really mastered those vocal harmonies! I sort of wish they would have done more of those since the album is a bit too overladen with mid-tempo and fast songs. But I also have to marvel over how well they mastered the raucous, fast paced early rockers with “I Got a Girl.” I can't imagine The Beatles doing that one, but this was definitely The Animals!
“A Girl Like You” certainly could have been a hit. If they only had a time machine! That's such a tight, fun and poppy song with very solid hooks. Even that middle-eight section is just as catchy as the central melody. Possibly the most surprising number is “Little Louisa.” It sounds exactly like a Bo Diddley song with those pounding drums and tight guitar riffs, and it took some convincing to believe that it wasn't! Of course, they play it just like a British Invasion band would have...
Some of these pop melodies are a little weaker than others. “Man of Few Words” and “In So Deep” don't have the Beatles-esque complexity, and so probably more accurately resemble The Dave Clarke Five. The only song of the album that doesn't quite have that '60s authenticity is “Someone New.” There's just something about it that's out of place. I think it's the chords. Well, it's a perfectly good Barenaked Ladies throwback at least!
Naturally, the cost of being Beatles imitators is that they're going to suffer by comparison. While they write good melodies, there's nothing here that comes remotely close to those to even the Fab Four's lower-quality stuff. ...It's hard to explain the “magic” in Beatles' melodies, but these songs don't have it. Again, that shouldn't come as a surprise, and I'd imagine that not many other modern bands would get this close to it. If their only aim was to master the sound of early '60s music, then they've succeeded wildly. Naturally, the album isn't original whatsoever, and I can't really give it more than an 11. But at the same time, I can't harp them about it because that was kind of the point.
I have to say, all in all, Black & White was a highly amusing experience. I can't say there's much of a fan-base out there for stuff like this (I mean, the Dave Clarke Five catalogue remains unreleased to this day, right?), but as an academic exercise, The Fore did mightily impressive job. So, good job.
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Fruit Bats: Mouthfuls (2003)
Album Score: 11
The '00s was a good decade for folk music, and The Fruit Bats were right at the beginning of that push. They seemed to have developed quite a fan base too, but I'm basing that observation solely on reading nice things that people have written about them in YouTube comments. (YouTube comments are, of course, the world's #1 source of reliable news.)
This is The Fruit Bats' second album. Their debut was difficult for me to get a hold of, so this review is written in the point of view of somebody who hasn't listened to the debut yet. Based on what I've read from other reviewers, however, the Fruit Bats mellowed out quite a bit compared to their apparently wilder debut. While I can't personally comment on that, such a thing wouldn't surprise me since Mouthfuls is one mellow album! As a matter of fact, I'd say it's too mellow.
They certainly got off to a great start with “Rainbow Sign,” a quaint and tuneful folk-pop song that is instantaneously likable. The melody is homely and sung charmingly; lead singer Eric D. Johnson has rather torn but still an ear-appealing set of chops. It starts out as a somewhat regular folk-pop ditty, but by the end, they bring in a xylophone and a pan flute, which helps keep the song fresh as it reaches its conclusion. The following track, “A Bit of Wind,” is another one of this album's most likable tunes. It starts out as a pleasant Beatlesesque folk-pop ditty that is instrumented simply with acoustic guitars, but by the end, they bring in full horn sections, a rather raucously played drum kit, and a little bit of fuzz.
After those two songs, however, it all seems to taper off into more or less ordinary folk-pop. They don't manage to ever re-capture the pure charm of “Rainbow Sign” nor the excitable creativity of “A Bit of Wind.” But these songs continue to be quite charming and melodious all the same, and thus I'm comfortable in recommending this album to anyone who has a severe affection for folk-pop music. And I mean, you're really going to have to like folk-pop, particularly when it's slowly paced and sleepily sung. Occasionally they bring about cute surprises such as the electronic embellishments in “Union Blanket” and the proggy synth-flutes in “Track Rabbit.” But other than those minor instrumental differences, they're all sleepy folk-pop songs done at the same pace. (The exception is the closing number “When U Love Somebody” which is done at a rather quick pace and it features an organ riff. However it's still extremely sleepy and drowsy, and that riff is dull. Despite their good intentions, it doesn't end up inspiring me a whole lot.)
A little variety doesn't hurt anything, and it certainly wouldn't have hurt this album. Even though I generally enjoyed the experience of spacing out with it, I would have better liked an album with more moments that shook my senses. Certainly a wider range of instruments would have helped make these songs stick out a little better, but I also would have liked to see them play around more with the overall moods. Their main mode is sleepy and lackadaisical. While that sound works fine for folk songs, they work best when they're only few and far between. When they're stacked all together like this, it gets to be too much, and I start to get bored.
That said, they do come across as an intelligent band, and I get the feeling that I might be able to get more out of this album if I listened to it a dozen more times. However, I don't feel much of a desire to listen to this any longer, since it excite me a whole lot. However, based on YouTube comments, people have been able to give this multiple listens and have discovered for themselves the appeal of Mouthfuls. As far as the score goes, I was on the fence between a 10 and an 11. I decided to go with the 11, because I'm under the impression that this album is slightly greater than the sum of its parts.
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Gravity Field: Gravity Field (2009)
Album Score: 8
This is one of those albums a band member, a band manager, or a record label guy sent me for a review. Of all the albums that people have sent me to review over the years, this is without a doubt one of the more professional-sounding ones that I have gotten. The guitars come in very clearly through my speakers, the lead singer isn't great but he's *good*. I did save a copy of that e-mail I sent them, and I very explicitly warned them that I am gut-bustingly honest, so I hope I don't disappoint! (Apologies in advance. I'm an ass sometimes.)
Gravity Field is currently an unsigned rock band that hails from the United Kingdom. They have an affinity for '70s heavy metal music, but they've been listening quite closely to more of these new-fanged bands like Radiohead and Coldplay. This is their very first album, and I'm sure they're excited about it. Will they make it in the industry? I sure hope they succeed. Unlike Rush Limbaugh, I want everybody to succeed. But here's the problem I have with this album: It's boring. I don't like to bluntly write-off albums that people have sent me to review, but sometimes there's no sugarcoating it. Now, let's get into the details.
Listening to the first few tracks, this album comes off fine. They are part heavy-metal riff rocker and part Coldplay-style space music. The riffs don't sound particularly original, but that's excusable because who writes original riffs these days? They're effective riffs and I like hearing 'em. The Coldplay stuff, however, is much less exciting. The vocal melodies are very empty and meaningless. The lushly layered and sound-effects-ridden instrumentation they pack onto them are OK, but they're nothing that we haven't heard before. Usually the purpose of this style of instrumentation is to convey some sort of moody emotion, but I can't claim to get too caught up in it. It would have been nice if they'd have exercised a little bit of creativity.
After the first few tracks, it becomes clear that these guys aren't going to stray very far from that formula. Sure, there's the eight-minute “The Well of Sorrow,” which reminds me of a progressive rock epic from Rush, but the guitars still pretty much sound the same as they did in the previous tracks. Gravity Field also shares Rush's weakness of never really having too many great ideas. (I fear my brain still suffers from the negative after-effects of sitting through “2112” multiple times!) But at least Rush seemed to try. These guys just seem like they're recycling old ideas. Since all of these songs essentially sound the same, I think I'm excused for cutting this review just a *little* bit short!
To answer the question I posed above, I don't really think these guys have much of a chance in the dog-eat-dog music industry, particularly these days when even the bigguns are struggling. Granted, I'm not an expert in this subject, and I wouldn't even call myself a typical rock 'n' roll fan. These guys could make it big, for all I know. But I can tell you that if Gravity Field continues to carry on like this, I'll never become a fan of theirs. They just doesn't seem to want to offer anything new. Taking fresh approaches to genres is the only way you can stand out above the crowd. This album demands more creativity. CREATIVITY!!! Frankly, I don't even know what the point of having a rock band is if you don't want to strive to be interesting.
I feel like I have to keep on apologizing for this review, because it's clear these guys worked very hard at this. Not that there isn't promise here. As I said, this album definitely *sounds* nice. It was a good try, but I think they would be better off if they would try to develop a voice of their own instead of halfheartedly copying previous bands. Most of all, let's see some excitement in your next release. (A few good melodies, too, would be nice!)
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Macy Gray: On How Life Is (1999)
Album Score: 12
Through some twist of fate, I actually saw Macy Gray live. (She was touring with David Bowie, who is among the few rock stars I practically worship.) I didn't think much of her at the time, and neither did the rest of the audience. I remember the drummer had to work pretty hard to get us clapping with her beats. Well, she had a really awful stage presence for a start. Her head of untamed afro-puff kept on bobbing up and down wildly and her extremely bright smile seemed fake to me. I didn't think much of her songs, either. (She also did a painfully unfunny parody version of the All in the Family theme song that makes Weird Al Yankovic look like James Joyce.) Well, who knows what I'd think of that performance now, but after delving into her debut album On How Life Is intimately I think she's a considerable talent and responsible for making some very fun R&B/pop music.
The first thing any reviewer has to mention first about Macy Gray is her voice. It's weird. She's like no mainstream singer that I've ever heard! (Although take that with a grain of salt ... I haven't heard every mainstream singer out there.) Well, she's certainly unique. She sounds like she would have gotten a pretty fair career as a voice actor for a kid's cartoon if her singing career wasn't a success. I'd say the voice is a cross between Tina Turner and Tommy Pickles from Rugrats. Her range is pretty limited, but this weird sound produces enough novelty effect for the songs to be interesting just for that respect. So, these vocals are weird but in a good way.
Now, let's talk about the music. It's very good! The only song I remember hearing from that concert (apart from that abysmal parody I previously mentioned) is "I Try." It's partly due to the fact that I've heard it before, but that's also a testament to the fact that the track is memorable! Hooray!! If the other songs aren't *memorable* in that respect, they at least make for some considerable at-the-moment pleasure. Every song is tastfully produced; don't expect any of that cheap production that plagued those TLC albums! Take On How Life Is in your car, crank up the volume, and jam with it most vivaceously! Speaking as someone who doesn't always enjoy such mainstream pop music, I can say I could do this without feeling an ounce of guilt. This album is "artistically viable." Nothing about it is throwaway in the least aspect. All hail Macy Gray! I don't hate you anymore for being the boring opening act for David Bowie!!!
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Justin Guarini: Justin Guarini (2003)
Album Score: 4
As you'd expect, this is a clueless album that was obviously designed as a ploy to rob kids out of their parents' hard-earned money. I'd say: Don't waste your time with it. ... Oh dear, why can't I take my own advice?
I can think of three album covers off the top of my head in which the depicted artist appears to be desperately trying to enact a bowel movement. All three of them have been debut albums, and all three of them have been awful. There was Marc Anthony's Otra Nota, Melissa Etheridge and now there's Justin Guarini. I think this sends a message out to young musicians all around the world: Don't look like you're taking a dump on your first album cover. It'll mean your music sucks. Of course, judging from the history of this album, it was probably going to suck anyway.
As you might or might not know, Guarini was runner-up on the first season of American Idol. He came in second to Kelly Clarkson. Shockingly, the Clarkson album is somewhat decent! Someone might have made a mistake, but that album's mildly enjoyable to me. Unfortunately, this loser wouldn't be given the same treatment. Like good old capitalism would have it, they give Clarkson the nice songs and the competent producer and this guy people who shouldn't even be making minimum wage.
If you wanna hear the nadir of pop music, you needn't look further than "If You Wanna." I've heard a lot of bad songs in my day, but that's so bad that it would probably even upset Justin Timberlake. Satan couldn't have written anything more annoying and trashy than that vile piece of vomit. (Jeez, I feel like I listen to horrible pop music for the same reason that kid in Harold and Maude liked going to funerals.)
That said, there are a few nice moments here. "Unchained Melody" is a cover of an overplayed song, and it's poorly produced, but not even those idiots could screw up a pretty song like that. Another highlight is the finale, a duet with Clarkson. That song manages to extend beyond the crappy production and actually work. I also thought "Condition of My Heart" had a little bit of merit --- but that could be because I no longer have brain cells.
I do like Guarini's voice, however. It's has OK range and nice body. It's definitely good compared to that hack who would get first runner-up the next year. (Gosh, if you think Guarini's bad...) Guarini does have a difficult time expressing soul in his voice, but that might just be because the producer doesn't know anything.
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Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová: Once -- Music From the Motion Picture (2007)
Album Score: 12
I saw this movie a little more than a month ago, and it continues to linger in my mind. What was so captivating about the film was not really the plot. The plot was very standard about a musician (Glen Hansard) hard on his luck who tries to record an album. He meets a girl (Marketa Irglova) also a musician who ends up meaning something special to him. What was captivating about it was the album he was recording... One of the most difficult things about making a movie about artists who don't exist in real life is that usually the art they come up with is usually terrible. But not this time. More than that, Once is easily the best film I saw about music making. I also enjoyed Hustle & Flow, but Once can slap that movie around with no mercy!! But we shouldn't get carried away. This album really only has about three great songs. The rest range from pleasant to somewhat boring.
They don't beat around the bush. All the gems are stacked at the beginning of the album! They even start the album with the one that got the Academy Award. “Falling Slowly” is that sort of song that starts normally, but then somehow it manages to launch itself onto another plane of existence. Something that's beyond our world. In other words, it's *music*. You know, the sort of stuff I want to hear when I'm writing these reviews, which frequently evades me! It's a remarkably simple song with a simple melody and simple instrumentation, but it spontaneously catches fire. Wonderful!
“If You Want Me” is a fantastic follow-up. This melody happens to be quite a bit more captivating than the Academy Award winning one, but the instrumentation doesn't quite make it for me. Irglova sings the vocals. While not as accomplished a singer as Hansard (obviously), she has heart. And that's all you need, of course. “When Your Mind's Made Up” is the last of the holy trinity. They tapped in the same vibe as they did for “Falling Slowly,” but what put that one over-the-top for me was its melody! Instantly memorable. Wonderful pop-rock music.
The rest of the songs aren't quite as notable, and sitting through the last half of the album is almost trying at times. Though give them credit for having a little bit of variety. “Gold” is a Celtic-flavored folk song (the only track that wasn't written by either of the two leads). “The Hill” is a sweet piano ballad with a convincingly broken-hearted performance from Irglova. “Fallen From the Sky” is a foofy pop song with a beat programmed in a tiny Casio keyboard. “Trying to Pull Myself Away” is a perfectly convincing and catchy indie-pop song.
The filmmakers did a pretty good job focusing the film's attention on the most captivating tunes. Those three served as the most memorable scenes from the film. Many of these other songs really require actually seeing the film. Hansard has a funny habit of “scream-singing.” He's pretty good at it, but that can be very off-putting hearing in an acoustic setting. It's not quite as much when you're watching his face turn beet-red while doing it in the film.
If you haven't seen Once yet, you really should. It's a very small, low-budget indie film that looked like it was recorded by hand held camcorders. Hollywood pumps millions of dollars into a movie, and can't hope to come out anything one-tenth as genuine. Film critic Michael Phillips called it his favorite music film since Stop Making Sense. Now, that makes sense.
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Heavy Jack: Multiply (2008)
Album Score: 8
This is a heavy metal band that covers “Jumpin' Jack Flash.” What do they call themselves? Heavy Jack! It couldn't get more straightforward than that! Now, why did someone from this band write me an e-mail asking me to review a heavy metal album? Didn't they notice that I have a pretty extensive page of Iron Maiden reviews where I state repeatedly that I don't like heavy metal? I have no idea! But he wanted a review. So here it is.
THE ALBUM COVER! ...Ugh! The least they could have done was to spare me of that earring! I guess if I can put up with those Iron Maiden album covers, then I can put up with this. ...But I don't like it!!
Now, I'm going to complain about the lead singer. He has pretty capable cocky chops that would have worked well in a hair metal setting even though they're more of an aristocratic whine than something with more of an appropriate growl. The tone of the voice isn't the world's finest, but it's adequate I suppose. What I have a problem with is the way he uses that voice of his! He's going all over the place! I'll bring up their cover of “Jumpin' Jack Flash,” since everybody in the world knows that song. Mick Jagger was being a cocky bastard when he sang that, but this guy is trying to out-cock 'im! He adopts these overblown, random and flashy patterns, and he's constantly filling it with words like “yeah-yeah-yeah,” “wooo!,” and “baaaayyyybbbbyyyy!” He's like a more annoying version of Survivor's Dave Bickler (of “Eye of the Tiger” fame), and that guy was pretty annoying as it was. His vocals aren't torturous or anything... they are more of a nuisance...
The guitars are OK, but they're not great either. A few times, such as in “Bandits in the Night,” they seem to tumble over themselves as though they are trying to handle more than they could. But all things considered, I like what they do. The hair-metal soloing at the end of “Blood Red Sun” is derivative but the guitars pull their weight and keep it from growing too tedious. The wobbly guitar tones they adopt for “Fly Away (Black Crow)” are engaging even though their noodling is as crowd pleasing as it gets. (I suppose I should stop associating this album with hair-metal, because it really isn't. Most of this music seems to take its inspiration from '60s hard rock before Led Zeppelin went in and spoiled everything.)
Wait a minute! Did I just say that Led Zeppelin spoiled everything? Yeah! I don't care much for Led Zeppelin. There's more proof for you that I shouldn't have been asked to review this album. If anyone is going to enjoy the hell out of this album, it's going to be people who also enjoy the hell out of Led Zeppelin. ... But at least I can be grateful that Heavy Jack refrains from those tedious acoustic folk ballads and concentrates solely on being fun. And in that lies the greatest strength of this band.
It's fun! I sorta think I'm missing out on the experience, because I'm listening to it in my bedroom. The best way to enjoy a band like this is when you're half-drunk in a crowded nightclub. How else are you going to appreciate the outrageous vocal performance on “Jumpin' Jack Flash?” But to Heavy Jack's credit, I can enjoy a song like “Peace Soldier” well enough when I'm stone-cold sober! That's a raucous closing number, if there ever was one! The opening song “Bushfire” is pretty good, too; it's energetic through and through. Although I wish they would've axed those Neil-Young-isms in the coda... That's giving me Arc flashbacks! Brr!
The songwriting leaves something to be desired. Apart from “Jumpin' Jack Flash,” I wouldn't call anything on here very “catchy” or “memorable.” They do a pretty formidable job, at least, of keeping the textures evolving even though sometimes it can be pretty jarring. In the case of “What's in a Name,” their constant textural shifts are utterly unfocused! But whatever. They're trying. Some of it's interesting, some of it isn't. That's the order of things. This album earns a pretty high 8. It might have been a 9 if they weren't trying to show off all the time.
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Ist: Toothpick Bridge (2009)
Album Score: 9
I was asked by Ist to review this album because, they said, I showed some inclination toward writing about lyrically driven music. I'm assuming that was an e-mail they sent out to everyone with a website like this, because I rarely listen to music just for the lyrics. Not that I'm incapable of being moved by them, but I usually have to think a song has rich and meaningful melodies and harmonies before I ever let the lyrics work their way into my heart. Nonetheless, I took this band's word for it, went on their website, read some of their lyrics, and I'll have to be honest with you; I didn't understand them. They seem to reference an awful lot of things I'm unfamiliar with, and much of their imagery didn't connect with me. But then again, what do I know? I took a Brit-Lit course and read a lot of poetry in there, and I didn't understand much of that either.
Even though the lyrics are laden with obscure references, Ist are more or less a standard pub-rock band who seem to collectively aspire to be the next Elvis Costello. They offer fitful vocals to match these lofty ambitions, and every single one of these songs has at least one good pop hook. Most of these songs even have an excellent beat you can tap your foot to, which makes them fun. However, the prevailing impression I have is these songs could stand to be loosened up a bit. Everything is smooth, polished and professional, but this is rock 'n' roll. Do we really want it to be professional?
Their e-mail to me also mentioned that this album jumps from style to style, but I get the opposite impression of it. After listening to the first three songs, they've pretty much covered the entire spectrum of styles that they're ever going to cover on Toothpick Bridge. I mean, occasionally the guitars adopt different tones; “The Boy's Not Right” has a cleaner sound than “Remington Steele,” for example. But the songs are all basically the same style of pub-rock apart from the occasional ballad. About a third of these songs also contain a swinging horn section, and I like swinging horn sections in pub-rock!
This album is remarkably consistent in quality, but the one song I seem to like the most is “A Scotsman in a Church.” The melody is punchy and bright and that horn section makes it extra bubbly. I'm also inclined to liking their horn-led instrumental, the curiously titled “Yer Man's a Bingo Caller,” which wants to be nothing more than to be something fun to listen to. They are also prone to writing passionately sung, confessional sounding tunes, and reading articles music journalists have written about this album, this sort of song would seem to be their specialty. Unfortunately, I don't really get the impression that the singer believes what he's singing even though he's certainly singing them loudly.
Without a doubt, Ist come across as an earnest band who want to write music that people enjoy. They claim to be a confessional lyrically driven band, which is an aspiration I admire, but they're trying too hard. Loosen up! Write lyrics than an average listener can connect with! The melodies are excellent, but they don't take an awful lot of chances. I think they might achieve a more distinctive identity if they did.
I had an awfully lot of negative words to say about an album that I generally enjoyed, and I apologize for that! I suppose I was mostly reacting against what I read in the e-mail they sent to me! (Ooo, I've been to journalism school, and I know about the art of interacting with the press! They did a good job, but unfortunately I can be rather stubborn.)
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Janet Jackson: Discipline (2008)
Album Score: 5
Not that I was expecting to get much out of listening to a Janet Jackson album, but I was a little surprised at how well the album started. It took much longer for me to get annoyed than I thought it would. It opens with an “interlude” featuring Jackson talking to a computerized voice. It's like a bad sci-fi movie, except you don't have to watch all those distracting special effects! And then “Feedback” comes next, which is a decent piece of electro-pop. It's a surprisingly well-constructed and rather enjoyable. The electronic vocal embellishments (which is all the rage these days among pop singers) are a little bit unnerving, but I've heard worse.
Even better is “Luv,” the highlight of the album. It's so good that it sounds like it could have been on a real *musician's* album. Jackson's vocals are sweet, and the vocal embellishments are (for once) actually constructive! The problem with it is the unimaginative instrumentation... but that's no surprise considering this is a standard substandard diva pop album. “Rollercoaster” is OK, but the instrumentation is very flat... The producers should've rethought that one. They round these good tracks with “Rock With U,” very much a throwback to the '80s. A good choice considering that's where this sort of music should have stayed.
But after that, the album drops off considerably. “Can't B Good” is a ballad that features a late '70s-style electric piano with some annoying drum machines to litter it up. Plus, the melody is awful. There's not only anything to like about “Can't Be Good,” but the experience ends up being grating to my nerves. As if that wasn't enough, “Never Letchu Go” is practically the same song, and just as bad. “Greatest X” is a slight improvement, though. It's the only thing worth hearing on the second half. The lyrics are stupid, of course. (Jackson had the guts to show the world her nipple on network TV, but doesn't have the guts to go ahead and print “Greatest Sex?” What a strange, strange woman!) But what can I say? The unintentional humor of the lyrics combined with a corny melody gives it plenty of camp appeal.
“So Much Betta” is a nightmare. It's an electro-dance hell featuring a rapping demonic minion with a lung full of helium. I would call it the epitome of terrible, but it's epitome of evil is eclipsed by the title track. That song is the album's *real* piece of crap. It's a turgid, mid-tempo affair that was apparently arranged by someone who wasn't listening to it. That's the only thing that could explain its mindless, hookless droning quality. Making it worse is it lasts five minutes long. ...One compliment that I have for this album, in general, is they keep the songs at or below four minutes. But when it came to the most annoying song on the planet, they couldn't hold to that principle. Bastards. They conclude the album with another bland and tuneless song called “Curtains.” It's yet another ballad that never takes off. Yawn.
I'll mention this is some sort of half-baked concept album. It comes in about a billion “interludes,” which mostly serve as an excuse to litter this thing up with sci-fi noises and stupid computer conversations. The “plot” is so non-liner that it's pretty clear they weren't even thinking about it. That's no surprise since little thought ever goes into these albums. There are other, unrelated “interludes” as well. One of these is called “Bathroom Break,” which, judging the dialogue, was a literal bathroom break. Yup. Appropriately, that's about where the album started going down the crapper.
If you've been reading my pop dive reviews, you'll quickly learn that it's no surprise I didn't like this album. Why I'm always reviewing stuff like this that I don't like, and writing so much, is a mystery even to me. Perhaps it's for the same reason that some people are attracted to the devil. It's a sinful weakness, but I think I survived this one with my braincells intact. Apart from a small handful of passable numbers that occur at the beginning, Discipline just isn't worth your time.
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Jil is Lucky: Jil is Lucky (2009)
Album Score: 11
Jil is Lucky is a folk-pop band hailing from France, but they wouldn't be classified as a French-pop band, because they sing in English. They also seem to specialize in writing poppy music with a homemade flavor to them. So in a lot of ways, they are like a French Sufjan Stevens.
There are a trio of songs on here that that I might call my favorite, but I think “J.E.S.U.S Said” just edges the others out. It's an upbeat pop song with sardonic lyrics, swinging horns, and a good tune that gets stuck in my head. Those horns he brings in have a distinctly homemade and organic feeling to them, which immediately reminds me of similar sorts of pop songs from Illinoise.
Easily the most appealing aspect about Jil is Lucky is its diversity. Every song sounds like it was influenced by a different world culture. At the same time, all of these songs still have a rather distinctive homemade flavor to them. The result is, in spite of the diversity, nothing seems too out of place. “When I Am Done” takes its influences from Spanish music; it is a cute song, folksy songs with trumpets, Spanish guitar, and bongo drums. While it's an entirely likable song, its only drawback is its melody, which I don't find particularly memorable. “
Judah Loew's Mistake,” as you might guess from the song title, takes its influence from Jewish music. Its characterized by a light and wandering violin line, and an enjoyably playful vocal performance. I particularly like that folksy choir they have coming in for the chorus, which makes it extra charming. “I May Be Late” is nothing more than a slow pop-rock song that seems to channel later Velvet Underground songs. They play a slow, druggy riff and the lead guitar has an loose feeling to it. Even the lead singer seems to be channeling Lou Reed with a rather talky vocal performance. It isn't the great shakes, but they get away with doing it because, simply, that's the first slow pop-rock song of the album, and thus it contributes with the album's diversity.
“The Wanderer,” another one of my easy favorites of the album, has a distinctive Middle Eastern flavor. The violin solo at the beginning is similar to the passage that opens They Might Be Giant's “Istanbul.” However, the remainder of the song consists of a charming folk song with a wandering melody, and as it goes along they continue to layer instruments on top of the mix, to always keep it fresh.
They seemed to get a bit classical at the end. “Don't Work” is a slowly paced pop ballad predominantly featuring a cello playing slow and sweeping notes throughout. “Supernovas” gets even more classical, as it's a full-fledged string quartet. Except, naturally, they provide vocals, and the lead melody is quite hooky. I like both of these songs, but I suppose they could have stood to be a little more exciting.
The only moment where I'd say they went overboard is the closing track, a 10-minute slow-rock song called “Hovering Machines.” While the melody is well-developed and flows well, it's too plodding for my taste. The fuzzed-out jamming at the end doesn't do much for me, either. Perhaps the biggest complaint I have about it is that it sounds so cold whereas everything else was more of a cool temperature. It's engaging enough to keep me from completely checking out when it's playing, but it's still a bit of a bummer.
While I doubt this album would move anyone in any huge ways, it's nonetheless a well-written album with its fair share of nice melodies, and they seem to enjoy drawing from a diverse bag of influences. If you're a fan of Paul McCartney's Ram or Sufjan Stevens' Illinoise, two similarly diverse albums that sound homemade, then you might want to take a listen. If nothing else, just take quick listens to “The Wanderer,” “J.E.S.U.S Said,” and “Judah Loew's Mistake.” Those three songs are the ones that floated my boat the most, and perhaps they'll float yours too!
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Kayo Dot: Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue (2006)
Album Score: 11
Oh, the coldness! This album makes me shiver to my bones. When it isn't sparse, it's psychotic, and when it isn't psychotic it's normal. But how can an album like this ever be normal if we know that intense loneliness or utter craziness is just around the bend? I'll be perfectly honest with you and admit that this is an album that speaks more to my brain and less to my heart.
On a technical standpoint, it is as impressive and diligent as it gets. The musicianship is first class. They have guitarists who know how to noodle. They have a drummer who knows how to constantly come up with tight, inventive fills. They even have a horn player and a violinist who bring in sometimes startlingly unique ideas and textures to the mix. All five of the songs in this 60-minute album evolve and develop impressively. If I were a professor of rock 'n' rollology and these guys were my pupils, they would surely get an A+ and win a scholarship to tour the nation with Iggy Pop (who I am best friends with in my imagination as a professor of rock 'n' rollogy). But do I actually enjoy myself as I'm listening to this? Usually, but not all the time.
By far my favorite song of the lot is the opener, “Gemini on the Tripod,” which is freaky fusiony psychedelic music like you've probably never heard it before. You'll have to wait awhile for it to really get going and start trying to drill holes in your brain, but once you get there I think you'll be impressed. It's almost entirely an instrumental, but midway through it starts to become evident that there is a singer emitting long-drawn-out, tortured noises that are reminiscent of something like freaky alien Buddhist chanting. Or maybe it sounds like somebody's slowly trying to rip out his heart from the inside? Whatever it is, it sends shivers down my spine, and I'm sure it would do the same for you.
Occasionally these guys hit a strangely normal note such as the middle of “Immortelle and Paper Caravelle,” which sounds like a subdued pop song in the vein of Burt Bacharach. Also, you can hear more or less straightforward jazz fusion in the middle of “Aura on an Asylum Wall.” Given what I said earlier, these “normal” sections are merely precursors to less conventional music, so if you're really into this album I'd imagine you'll listen to those songs with clenched teeth.
I had no problem fully enjoying their psychotic/alien diversions and the normal bits are usually fantastic. I suppose the one thing that prevents me from enjoying this album completely is all the sparseness. Quite a lot of this album is taken up by sections where a whole lot doesn't seem to be going on. On that note, I'm grateful that there was sparseness in here to help me recover from those violent/psychotic parts, but maybe they could have engaged my brain a bit more? ...Eh, what am I talking about. I already confessed to you that I am probably not the best audience for an album like this. Believe me, if you really like this album, you're part of an elite group of music listeners.
One thing I had completely wrong at first listening to Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue was that I was listening to it on my iPod while walking around outside. While I enjoyed “Gemini on the Tripod” and smatterings of the other songs in that environment, a lot of it didn't come off too well. Especially the repetitive power chords and drum rolls in the last half of “___ On Lipid Form.” You just don't get to hear the textures and atmosphere evolve as well when you have to pay close enough attention to your surroundings not to run into other people and the sides of buildings.
This is an album you should listen to in a dark room while you're in a semi-lucid state. Close your eyes and give it a chance to open your imagination. ...Speaking of me I don't see that this album does a whole lot of wonders for my personal semi-lucid states in dark rooms, but it was definitely close. It engaged me well enough that I didn't have to struggle to come up with content for this review. Always a good sign.
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KK: Telescopes (2008)
Album Score: 10
I received Telescopes from the artist himself, a British guy named “KK.” The press release says that he's a technical wizard who has worked with master technical geeks Brian Eno and Bjork. Press releases are sometimes dubious, but after hearing the album, it's pretty clear that this guy is a technical geek first-class. The mixing, instrumentals and sound effects are some of the most dazzling displays I've heard. This a sci-fi concept album with plenty of geeky lyrics, and it sounds a lot like David Bowie's 21st century masterpiece Heathen. (Apologies to anyone who wanted to know what the concept is about. I'm not that interested in deciphering it... I haven't even gotten around to trying to figure out what Thick as a Brick was about.) There are so many colorful ideas and instrumental developments jam-packed in relatively short tracks that it's insane. Amazingly so, these wild, unpredictable developments are so well-done that most of these tracks hold together very well. Take “Dust” for instance. It's just four minutes long, and it's as though he worked pretty extensively on exploring different atmospheres and textures to fit in there. It's really fun to listen to.
But “Dust” also has a problem that's fairly universal throughout the whole work. When you strip away all the instrumentation, all that's left is fairly bleak songwriting with rather awful harmonies. At least half of these songs are just two-chord works. Most of the remaining songs only use three- or four-chords. Nothing too exciting. You can try to mask that with technology as much as you want, but it can't improve the fundamental songwriting. That's a bit of a major downer, and it only served to make the album much bleaker and uninteresting than it needed to be. (Part of the reason I loved Heathen so much was those unquestionably cool harmonies.) That was a bit of a downer.
That said, “Magic Spell” is a masterpiece! If you're a sucker for dream-pop/shoegazing stuff, it's worth going out of your way to hear it. It's one of the album's most wild examples of this scatter-brained instrumental development, and I actually like the harmonies. I hear plenty of chords in that one, plus I adore that intoxicating, sort of atonal groove that pops up every once in awhile. There's even a slight chorus of sorts. Really nice stuff! “Andromeda” is a fun, cinematic instrumental that sounds like a Starship Troopers battle piece. It's not too great on the harmony front, but that driving militaristic drum beat and those Medieval chants have their charm. “Ancestor Simulation” is also a sort of cinematic song, with an obvious Asian influence. The ties to world music gives it a cool, exotic flavor. We can also pick up on some Indian influences in a pair of back-to-back songs “Infinity” and “Codebreaker.” Naturally, they're impressive on the technology front, but these ones don't seem to hold my attention as well as the others.
KK brought his head out of the fishbowl, briefly, to deliver a relatively normal song called “Paradise Found.” A chorus could have served it well, but it's still a very pleasant ballad with a rather gorgeous, earthly atmosphere. The repetitive melody is fine, and has enough staying power to keep it sounding fresh for the whole five minutes. The first 30 seconds of “Pale Blue Dot” is excellent and earns second-place to “Magic Spell.” It's based on four chords, which really raises a sort of mystical atmosphere... and of course, the highly developed instrumentation standards intensifies that emotion. However, it loses its spark after the first thirty seconds, and the chords never evolve. By the end, it has lost momentum, and really drags pretty severely.
By now, I think I said all that really needs to be said. This is a very even album. It's really exciting for me to get an early look at this talent with a fresh debut album, and there's a lot of promise. The geeky lyrics are definitely cool and cheesy (the way they were meant to be), and I was really dazzled by a lot of this. Unfortunately, the harmonies only served to drag down the effort.
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Lindsay Lohan: Speak (2004)
Album Score: 6
I've always been a proponent of the idea that art and the artist should remain separate. That is why Lindsay Lohan's humiliating public persona of wild parties and public drunkenness, will be kept out of this review!
Lindsay Lohan is a shit-faced little git! Between public drunkeness and rehab check-ins, Lohan found the time to record this little pop album. She even co-wrote most of these songs, though I seriously wonder what actual part of the songwriting process she really had. Ah well... It doesn't matter I suppose. Look at that album cover. She's looking an awful lot like Ann-Margaret! Despite that, she still does what's expected and makes an album full of that air-headed teen-beat nonsense popularized by the likes of Hilary Duff. You know, the sort of empty hoopla that's specifically targeted to rich brats with too money to burn and who are too influenced by massive media campaigns.
As you might know, Lohan was once an actress who had some critical acclaim. She even appeared in a Robert Altman movie! ... But she's not really a singer, and she's effectively joining the club with Bruce Willis and Eddie Murphy as movie stars trying to make a second career as a pop star.
Lohan has this annoying tendency to make squeaky sounds as she's singing. I suppose she thought those were “sexy” sounds, but I would be more convinced if they were meant to be painful-bowel-movement noises. Lohan is not the worst singer on the planet, but she's not the best singer on the planet either, and it's clear she's trying too hard. I know this live-hard-die-young person doesn't like to tone things down, but that singing style needs a serious kick in the pants.
Let's talk about the songs now. At the beginning, they're surprisingly solid. It opens with the upbeat “First,” which is inhabited by fake-sounding electric guitars! Lohan does her best to give a “mean girl” vocal performance, and she comes off OK. Rock purists will hate it, of course, but I'll admit to finding the experience overall likable. “Nobody Till You” is even better and suggests that someone in the studio had an interest in musically developing that song! Unfortunately, this mentality wasn't abided to in only a handful of these songs. It all sounds snappy, albeit generic, and the textures are well-crafted. The melody isn't great, but it's adequate. And adequate is good enough for me! Nothing gets as good as the title track, though, which is nearly as great as teen-beat music could possibly get. It's a heavy-driving dance song with a thick atmosphere and an infectious melody. Again, rock purists will hate it, but if you can approach it with an open mind, there's a good chance you'll love it, too.
The music grows staler and more tiresome as the album progresses. The melodies become less interesting, Lohans vocals become more annoying and the development gets clunkier. It all culminates to the disastrous hip-hop oriented closer, which I'm sure is an insult to that genre. It's mixed badly, for a start... If I was to quiet the volume enough to get the bass from violently assaulting my ear drums, I would hear nothing but the bass. Also unfortunately, they seemed to have taken a hint from Madonna's American Life and try out these utterly clueless instrumental breaks ... like a hamster was chewing at my speakers and it's on the verge of going out. It's like vomit to my ears. Disgraceful.
The good news about Lohan's debut album is that it's not all bad news. As an album, it's not too great, but preteens can feel free to download some of this and not have to suffer the consequences of my condescending virtual glares.
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Jennifer Lopez: On the 6 (1999)
Album Score: 5
You know you're in a bad predicament when you're reduced to hiring a “bootylicious” actress not for her voice, but because she looks so great in sparkly panties.......................... The strategy works! O, how I love looking at Jennifer Lopez in sparkly panties!! With that under our belt already, do we really have to address the music? Don't you already know what I'm going to say? The music stinks and you should listen to something else. ... Should I go further? ....... *hangs head* ... OK, OK.
I will tell you that I took this album seriously. I knew that Jennifer Lopez is just a singer who does all she can to appease record companies who want to keep its pocketbook on the verge of exploding at all costs. I gave it hours out of my life, and what did it give me in return????
“Could This Be Love.” As far as syrupy love ballads go, this isn't half-bad. It has a pleasing, laid-back pace and a wispy melody delivered from a singer lacking a great voice, but is not trying to pull any punches, either. The instrumentation is the standard corporate-pop trash, but I can't say I'm repulsed by it. This is an example of a song that manages to thrive by avoiding all the pitfalls most songs of the genre fall into. I like the song for what it doesn't do more than what it does ... so that's not a great song by any means. The album opener “If You Had My Love” is arguably the catchiest song on here although it's a mostly forgettable exercise. I enjoyed the Latin-crossover “Let's Get Out Loud” enough so that I didn't hate it. But that's even a hopelessly uninspired dance song.
Those were the highlights. I'll try to sum up what's bad about some of the other songs with brief descriptions. Kenny G would have enlivened “Should've Never.” Demented hip-hop singers play it straight in “Feelin' So Good.” “Waiting For Tonight” sounds like Madonna. Ineptly concocted Latin “Open Off My Love” is more disorienting than its song title. Corporate songwriters still haven't gotten a clue in “Talk About Us.” And let's just stop it there. We've tortured our brains enough.
Now for a soap box rant that will go in and out of most of your ears: The people who wrote this music don't know the first thing about harmonies. I know this is cheap, plastic pop that we're dealing with! But remember this stuff is billing itself as “music”, and harmonies are an integral part of that. Also, most of these songs sound like someone wrote a 10-second groove and repeated it for four or five minutes. Sure, they plop in a few instrumentals here and there, but they're formulaic hokum that rarely interests me. I know I'm being terribly demeaning, but it deserves it! This is substandard, and somebody's got to answer for it! Your target demographic deserves better! And so does your star, Jennifer Lopez, who looks great in those sparkly panties!!!!!!!!
Now, holding back those reigns a little bit: While this music is offensive, I can't say this experience was an end-all awful. We had Madonna albums released around this time to lower those standards! This is just a pop album. If you like this sort of stuff, then good for you. Don't let me stop you from wasting your brain cells!
Last thing, and more optimistically, there's a bit of a treat in the bonus tracks. An old Diana Ross cover called “Theme From Mahogany.” Lopez fans should listen to that to hear what harmonies can lend to a song ... and it has a pretty melody, too! The instrumentals are, unfortunately, ultra-polished ballad-pop stuff nothings, but that doesn't completely destroy the source material.
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Man Man: Rabbit Habits (2008)
Album Score: 11
I was so keyed up the first time I heard this album, I thought I would end up awarding it a much higher rating. I suppose my enthusiasm for it ran out of steam after the fourth listen or so. But still, Rabbit Habits by Man Man is a mad album, and it gave me pleasure listening to it. Really, does an album need to do anything else? Their sense of arrangements are occasionally bizarre, but usually they're internally diverse enough to at least keep the song from growing stale. That attribute is probably nicest thing about Rabbit Habits. Man Man absolutely refuse to let their grooves get stale. They're always changing it up slightly, or adding a new instrument at every turn. The particular groove or vocal melody might not even be that great, but at least the album rarely grows tedious.
The lead singer, who goes by the name “Honus Honus,” is quite an interesting character. He likes to growl-sing, which probably suggests that he's a Tom Waits fan. The resemblance to Waits even extends to a number of these songs. So, Waits fans might want to take special notice of this. I read that they're being tagged as an 'experimental-rock' band, though for the life of me, I don't see what's supposed to be so experimental about any of this. It's certainly eccentric, but not what I would call experimental. Perhaps I don't understand the term, but most of these songs are merely derivations from well-established genres. Their Wikipedia entry reads that they are “Viking-vaudeville, manic gypsy jazz,” which is about as accurate as any label you could give them!
But enough about labels; let's talk about the actual album. It's very entertaining!! It begins with a number called “Mister Jung Stuffed,” a song that's so delightful that it can hardly contain itself. A rather loudly mixed, primitive drumbeat keeps the song at a rigorous pace as some twisted, Christmasy “la-la-la's” come in to murder our sanity. And then Mr. Growl-Singer comes in to deliver an excited vocal performance. His vocal melody is very simple, very primitive, but incredibly catchy and oddly seems to fit this droning instrumentation. The follow-up composition, “Hurly / Burly,” is more droning, more electronic, and contains a small snippet of funk-singing.
“The Ballad of the Butterbeans” is the first of many jazz-oriented songs, and this is one of the better ones in my opinion. What sets it apart from the others is that utterly frantic xylophone that plays throughout. The singing is also quite notable here, featuring a nice interchange between female back-up singers and a rather hoarse-sounding lead. That's an excellent, and fun jazz-derivative if you ask me, and I do believe the nightclub cats of the '40s would have had a fun time with it! The follow-up song, “Big Trouble” is also a jazz derivative, but it takes its influence directly out of New Orleans. That's why it sounds rather creepy and a little insane... And those lead vocals are positively tormented! “Easy Eats or Dirty Doctor Galapagos” also sounds like it would have worked well in a '40s nightclub (sans some of those screams in the background), and it *is* quite fun with a dash of grime to keep it edgy. That said, it does suffer a bit from comparison with “The Ballad of Butterbeans,” but it's not quite as cute of a song, is it?
To my delight, they found time to include a little bit of piano-pop. “Doo Right” is one that's so tuneful that it might have been a good fit on Paul McCartney's debut album. OK, it might have been one of the weaker melodies on there, but just to compare them to McCartney is compliment enough. The title track is also a piano-pop song, though it's not quite as notable melodically, and that piano starts to get a tad monotonous by the time it's over. Hm.
There are two particularly peculiar songs in the middle of the album, and I can't decide which one's weirder. I suppose “El Azteca” might win since it has a funny robo-beat as well as rhythmic, robotic vocals coming in at odd times. It's so strange and yet so accessible! I wish more bands would be like that. “Harpoon Fever (Queequeeg's Playhouse)” has its own frantic strangeness. It begins with a high-pitched, nursery room piano and some chanting (with a dash of surf guitar) before a wild bit pops up with more of that crazy growl-singing and some intrusive fuzz-synth bass for good measure. Every time they move from the first section to the second, it always seems to make me smile!
Two epic-length tracks appear at the end. While they're both nice, I really don't think either of them needed to be so long. Although how many times that leisurely paced, European-folk derivative “Poor Jackie” changes its central rhythm, it's kept fairly interesting throughout. And there's this really weird part in the end when they went a little nuts with layering instruments, which gave it a dissonant sound. That was completely nailed, if you ask me. The closing song is the seven-minute “Whale Bones.” It's a little more tedious because it never changes its rhythm, but I won't say that listening to it isn't an utterly nice experience. It's very lightly paced, and they bring a banjo and a light accordion in for it. Do I need to say anything else?
In the end, Man Man is quite an eccentric band, and as you probably surmised, they created an album with quite a bit of diversity! That gives them bonus points! Despite me liking most of these songs, I can't say listening to it was a profoundly awe-inspiring experience. But it's creative and entertaining, which is more than I can say for most things. For that, my hat is off to them.
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Man-Made Noise (2008)
Album Score: 9
Some independent record label guy sent me a link to a place on the Internet where I can stream this album. And so I streamed it! And now... I'm reviewing it!
According to the MySpace page, Man-Made Noise is an independent “alternative” rock artist from the United Kingdom. Judging from his photograph, he likes to wear T-shirts, he has unkempt hair, and he's trying to grow an Amish-style neck-beard. Based on what I heard in his debut album, he has a penchant for folk music, and he likes to inject a healthy dose of psychedelia in his songs. The home-made feel of this album is comparable to Sufjan Stevens, and it's kinda quirky, so this album is recommended to fans of that style. He has a capable singing voice that hits most of the right notes with the required amount of power, but it's undistinguished.
If there's one thing you should hear in this album, it's a song called “One Gallon Drum.” The busy, muted calculator synthesizers in the background give it bubbly and alluring texture. The vocal melody is mostly one-note, but the intense way he sings makes it seem more than that! Yeah! The best of the acoustic-oriented ballads is probably “Muddy Water,” a brief song with a sort of dire atmosphere to it. The melody is one of the more interesting ones on the album, but it's hardly McCartney-esque. (I know, it's unfair of me to compare everybody's melodies with Paul McCartney's, but I sorta have to!)
Another captivating ballad is “A Drawer,” which has an especially good chorus. The melody still is a bit undistinguished, but I like listening to it. The jangly acoustic guitars are mesmerizing, and bringing in that bending theremin was a nice touch. I think the six-minute running length was a bit much, but I hang onto it pretty well. The final minute of that song is “psychedelic” featuring an array of backwards tapes, calculator synths, and echoey, inaudible vocals. While I usually like it when artists go crazy like that, this ending seemed kinda tacked on and unnecessary. Hm. In fact, most of these songs get sort of psychedelic in their final minute, a gimmick that starts to get old pretty fast. I mean, it's good to do this occasionally, but this often? Eh.
“Lead Balloon” is a piano ballad, and it's a perfectly normal one. It's sorta boring, but the vocal performance is passionate enough and I like when he brings in those back-up vocals. Skilled? Yes. Inspired? No, but it's getting there. The final three songs are nice acoustic-guitar ballads with well-developed textures and good singing. Again, the melodies are fairly bland and they tend to drag the rest of the song down with them, as well-intentioned as they might have been.
There's also a little bit weird diversity in this album. He tries punk-rock on for size in “Photocopy Machine.” But. *Hck* It's time to put punk-rock back in the closet where it came from! It's not as annoying to listen to as bands like Green Day, but I find that jerky guitar-work jarring. He delivers a rap in “Einstein Wanabe,” and ... well ... it's depressing. That dark synth-scape is captivating for the first minute, but I just get tired of it. I don't like the rapping much, either. But then again, I don't like rap at all, so what do I know?
Well, this probably isn't the most glowing review I could've given an album, but I'd say it's a formidable start from this budding singer-songwriter. The melodies could have been more explosive; that is the principle reason I could only bear to give this album a 9. It's the same rating I gave that one Feist album that everyone was going hog-wild over at the end of 2007, so maybe that's good, if that was the sort of thing he was going for. What I liked most about this album was the creativity. It could have been restrained a bit more, but at least he was thinking out of the box.
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The Land of Pure Imagination (2006)
Album Score: 12
Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. is most notable for being a founding member and keyboard player for the landmark pop band Jellyfish. After they broke up in 1994, he went onto co-founded four other bands: Imperial Drag, Moog Cookbook, TV Eyes and Malibu. (I've listened to and enjoyed Moog Cookbook before, but I've never heard of the others.) 2006's The Land of Pure Imagination, however, marks the very first time he ventured out to make a solo album... and I will tell you that it is a boatload of fun.
He was clearly paying sincere tribute to an array of '60s and '70s pop bands, but there is clearly intelligent, almost tongue-in-cheek undercurrent to it all that reminds me strongly of early '70s Todd Rundgren. Unfortunately, Manning doesn't quite possess Rundgren's inventive nuttiness and certainly doesn't possess his production talent—much of this album's instrumentation comes across as rather airy and plastic—but that isn't ultimately a big deal since this album has so many hooks in it! It seems like there is a catchy, delightful melody at every turn in this album!
It should be said that Manning doesn't have much of a voice. It's pretty weak and he doesn't come across too well when he's singing the heavier rocking tracks, such as the glammy “Creeple People.” With that said, his voice is comfortably warm and friendly that is able to reach all the notes he has written, including the falsetto ones. It's like a slightly brassier version of Al Stewart. It's safe to say that he sounds most at-home as he's singing cute ballads, which constitutes most of my favorite moments on this album.
“Wish it Would Rain” is a beautiful piano ballad that was apparently slated to be a collaboration with Brian Wilson, but it didn't quite happen. It has that Pet Sounds-style beauty to it with its utterly warm melody and gorgeous tight vocal harmonies. I also like the title track, the album opener, that gives off a psychedelic “open your mind and get ready for the journey” vibe, which I find to be utterly irresistible. “In the Name of Romance” is a very sweet piano ballad that seems like something grandma would like, but its tongue-in-cheek pseudo sincerity ought to be enough to entertain us youngins. That is, us youngins who are prone to liking things like that. I am also attached to “You Were Right,” a rather mystifying and somewhat complex ballad with an unexpected but well-received Supertramp influence in the chorus.
He comes off a little weak singing “Dragonfly,” which is a song that would otherwise be perfectly suited for the opening sequence of a vintage '60s James Bond film. Although who am I comparing him to, Shirley Bassey? Other than the voice, that's one of the most delightful songs here. It's catchy, it's fun, it's evocative—when I close my eyes to it, I can't help but imagine curvy women floating around my head in slow motion. You probably think I'm joking about that, but try it for yourself and you'll see that I'm not.
Just like an authentic '60s record, there is a British and American version of this album with different titles and a slightly different track-listing. (The British edition is called Solid State Warrior.) Since I am an American, I concentrated on the American release, but given that the British version has three excellent songs on it, I would surely recommend getting that version if you had a choice. If for no other reason, get it for “What You Know About the Girl,” which is a dead ringer for The Association. In fact, it might even be better than The Association! It has an utterly delightful warm, free-flowing melody and beautifully tight vocal harmonies. If you don't immediately fall in love with it, then … we are completely different people.
While I can't say that The Land of Pure Imagination is a perfect album, it's certainly delightful enough to warrant a fair number listens on your own. This is surely some of the most solid pop songwriting seen by anyone in the '00s and there is a fair amount of diversity on here, which keeps it from growing stale. It's unfortunate that he couldn't have found a better way to orchestrate these songs, but once you listen to these beautiful melodies, I don't that would be an overriding issue for you.
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of Montreal: Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (2007)
Album Score: 12
I've gotta get one thing off my chest about of Montreal. Why do they give a damn if people decide to capitalize that 'o?' It's really awkward using 'of' at the beginning of a proper noun if you're not allowed to capitalize it. ...I might have went ahead and thwarted that stylization preference, but I've recently read a nastily worded letter penned by Kevin Barnes who lambasted a magazine critic for capitalizing their name. Well, if it means so much to you, I guess I can do nothing but comply (while sneaking italics around the word).
Anyway, by far the most difficult thing about listening to an of Montreal record is that I just cannot be too sure how much these guys really wanted to be liked. On one hand, their melodies (on this album and otherwise) are usually fantastic and would sound perfectly at home in a peak Prince or Wings album. On the other hand, the unusual way their songs are presented can be very off-putting for some listeners. Kevin Barnes has a way of singing in an ear-piercingly high-pitched voice, which always seems to be on the verge of going over the top but never quite getting there. Moreover, the instrumentation throughout frequently undergo jarring shifts. For example, “Gronlandic Edit” mostly consists of an infectious, toe-tapping guitar groove, but in the middle—in a matter of a sudden cut—it briefly turns into an ethereal bit with a synthesized choir. ...Not that I think that move killed the song, but did it add anything to it? I was already enjoying the hell out of that groove and hearing Barnes' playful vocal overdubs. Why the shake-up?
Ah, but I suppose I'm worrying a little too much about how other people might respond to this music! If this album is one thing, it's for a very selective audience. However, in the universe of my music blogging, it's only my opinion that matters, and if I've enjoyed the ever-loving life out of an album, then I suppose I ought to be shouting it from the hills.
This album has also made quite a profound impact in my brain this week. Yesterday, I was caught by a stranger at work whispering “Bunny Ain't No Kind of Rider” underneath my breath without realizing it. He gave me one of those looks reserved for... well, for people who are caught whispering melodies to themselves! But even with a melody as infectious as that, we have to put up with a very detached groove and very buzzy synthesizers blaring away in the background. That's not to mention the barrage of dark laser sound effects that opens the song. ...I suppose it's not much of a stretch to say of Montreal's instrumentation standards were inspired more by The Residents than by Prince.
Perhaps the ultimate anti-mass-appeal move they made was through an 11-minute and highly repetitive song called “The Past is a Grotesque Animal.” However, despite my usual lack-of-attention span for lengthy pieces like that, it is easily my favorite song of the lot. The groove is hypnotizing and—what keeps me especially glued to it—is its tendency to very gradually grow more intense as it goes along. It also helps that they give us a wide array of zippy and exploding fireworks throughout in the background. If they aspired to Roxy Music's “Bogus Man” when they created it, then they did a top-notch job.
I also love the way this album begins... “Suffer for Fashion” is a positively exploding opener with buzzing guitars and crystal-clear synthesizer that sound lifted from a classic Cars album. The melody is very weird (thanks to a starkly unconventional chord progression), but it somehow still manages to be infectious. That song ends up bleeding into “Sink the Seine” almost unnoticeably like the songs at the end of Abbey Road. ...And, come to mention it, the bittersweet melody of they bring us there would have made a pretty fitful Beatles tune! I'd reckon I could see that song at the end of Abbey Road if only the instrumentation were more conventional.
“Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse” sounds like it's off a Japanese pop album. It's so blatantly cutesy that it goes waaay over-the-top. (It's even more over-the-top than an AKB48 song. ...Oh, I won't lie; I like watching AKB48 videos on YouTube, because they're like a wet dream. However, their songs sort of dare you not to like them.)
Anyway, of Montreal is one fruity band, and there's really no doubt that they've created an interesting album with Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?. (What does that title mean, by the way? It makes me think of The Little Shop of Horrors except Audrey II hisses instead of sings.) These songs are usually starkly unconventional, but at the same time they consistently deliver melodies that are infectious as hell. I do have some experience listening to of Montreal records, and this is obviously one of their finer records. If you've heard of this band and were somewhat interested in checking them out, this would be a fair place to start.
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Porcupine Tree: In Absentia (2002)
Album Score: 12
Progressive rock crosses forth into the 21st Century. Who wudda thought? Porcupine Tree comes with a pretty high reputation, particularly this album, which I've heard plenty of good things about since its release. It took me until now to finally give it a listen, and yikes! What they have to say about it is true! This is an incredibly lovely album to sit through with plenty of exciting moments and even a big handful of good pop melodies.
One thing I wasn't expecting from this Porcupine Tree album was its extreme accessibility. They've been called a “progressive-metal” band, which I assumed meant that they blared random electric guitar notes through their speakers in some sort of holy “avant-garde” quest. But I couldn't have been more wrong! This album is very easily digestible. The guitars might find some time to play a few heavy metal riffs, but they play an extremely clean tone. There are also a few occasions when this album veers toward lengthy passages of atmospheric synthscapes, they use ultra-pure sounds. This is probably easier to listen to than classic Genesis albums! But on the flip-side of that coin, having a fully accessible album comes at the risk of sounding too sterile. Indeed, that's the biggest complaint I have against some of these songs. That's not a huge concern, though.
Putting aside the fact that this might be a tad too stale, the important thing is that I loved listening to this album consistently from beginning to end. That is especially notable here because the album clocks in at nearly 70 minutes! Usually, when I review lengthy albums like this, particularly ones with a hearty handful of 5- to 8-minute tracks, I make some comment about that the song would have fared better if it was shorter. Maybe one or two songs might have been improved in such a way, but everything is perfect for the most part. I can listen to this album without actually getting bored with it.
It opens with a pure heavy metal song, “Blackest Eyes.” Listening to that for the first time, I thought this was going to be a heavy metal album, but there's no more pure metal after that. It's a very good heavy metal song, though, with a convincing vocal performance, a catchy riff and drums that help make it seem bouncy. Immediately after that track ends (with a sudden ending), we hear someone strumming away at an acoustic guitar and singing a pretty song in a sweet high-pitched voice. It's a six minute song, but the melody is fresh enough to keep it going for so long, and they continuously do something to keep it from growing dull be it a violin, another guitar, another voice or even a classic Mellotron. Nice!
“Lips of Ashes” has to be the greatest song here. That Eastern-tinged soundscape they've crafted at the very beginning draws me in and their alluring texture never ceases. The melody is beautiful and they even start to harmonize their vocals much like Crosby, Stills & Nash. They even find an extremely beautiful use of the electric guitar, without making it seem like elevator music. “Heartattack in Layby” is also one of my all-time favorite ballads here. While it has a downbeat mood, the tightly harmonized choir that pipes up midway through is absolutely heavenly.
Fans of the heavy metal side of things probably might not be too excited that I'm singling out the ballads as my favorite songs. But the faster and exciting “The Creator Has a Mastertape” has some of the finest, hyperactive electric guitar solos ever, and any electric guitar fan is bound to take to it immediately. Fans of the prog side of things will probably take more to “Gravity Eyelids,” which not only uses some of those classic Mellotron-ish sounds and some complicated guitar patterns that recalls classic Rush, but it's also a terribly involving, atmospheric and idea-filled eight-minute piece of music that tells a story.
As I said, this is a long album, and I was only able to scratch the surface discussing the songs up here in the main review portion. Thank goodness I write track reviews, so consult those for more details if you wish. (But even then I probably didn't do a great job. This is the sort of album you should just go ahead and listen to if what I wrote appeals to you.) To conclude In Absentia is an excellent listen from beginning to end. They're wonderful instrumentalists, they know how to write a melody, and they're good at keeping their lengthy songs from getting too dull. This score was calculated to be on the upper boundaries of a 12, and I could definitely be persuaded to up it to a 13 since it probably deserves it, but I'm going to keep it at the 12 for now. Once I review their other releases, we'll see how well this stands in comparison.
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Qa'a: Chie'n (2009)
Album Score: 12
I've been asked to review many albums from bands and promoters in my lucrative years as a web music critic, but this is the first time it was from a psychedelic band hailing from Barcelona. There's nothing wrong with the psychedelia—I really like that type of music—but it's the whole Barcelona part. How could they have looked past the picture I have of Basil Fawlty on my e-mail page? I mean, obviously they looked at it before they sent me an e-mail. Shouldn't they be concerned that I'll yell at them and try to poke their eyeballs out?
But, luckily for them, they didn't have any cause to worry whatsoever, because this is without a doubt the best album that a band or promoter ever sent me to review. This is an artsy-fartsy band with a massive kraut-rock streak who seem to have a ton of interesting ideas and are usually able to keep their songs consistently fresh whether it's a fun funk groove or a full-on psychedelic sound collage. Yes sir, there's a psychedelic sound collage in here, and it's a 25-minute one at that, but don't let that turn you off.
Needless to say, this album is not for the weak of heart, and listening to it will surely take a good chunk out of your day (it's five tracks at 80 minutes). The lengthiness of it is a little bit of a problem for me since there are a few moments that I get a bit tired of, and other parts that make me a little bit sick to my stomach. But this is one instance where I almost have to consider those “sickening” moments all part of the experience.
The first three songs and the last one are about as normal as these guys get. “Eastdown Westdown” opens with a little bit of ambient sound effects before delving into a mid-tempo, rather creepy rocker with whispering vocals and a plodding, evil sounding drum. The zippy and atmospheric sound effects they implant throughout are compelling and its overall groove is hypnotizing. That goes on for awhile, but suddenly they start rocking out crazily favoring that sloppy, screechy and slightly rubbery guitar sounds that were all the rage in underground Germany in the mid-'70s.
They keep a funky groove going consistently with “Speaker Box,” which keeps it punchy for its 15 minutes while they pepper it with a series of minimal guitar noodles. That bubbly xylophone texture at the beginning is my favorite part, and I'm a bit disappointed they didn't let it stay around longer! Maybe the only song I'm rather bored with is “Time is Key” although I'm really only talking about one part of it, a bit in the middle with clean-sounding guitars that sound like a machine stuck in a rut. Other than that, it's a good creepy song to space out to, if that's the sort of thing that turns you on.
The psychedelic sound collage is indeed something to behold, and I'm going on a limb and saying that they did it just as well if not better than their kraut-rock heroes Can ever did. Come to think of it, this whole album seems a little something like a great lost Can album except they actually get quite a bit more intense. Nobody's going to argue that this is bests Can but I'll tell you it at least approaches it. That's really saying a lot.
Even I, speaking as someone who's only really had a passing interest in Can, have been entertained by Chie'n. I found it delightful. When I didn't find it delightful, I found it freaky. When I didn't find it freaky, I found it creepy. When I didn't find it creepy, I found it sickening. Really, it covers a whole range of things! And by the way, the 10-minute “She Provides” sounds like hell ripping open. There's no other way to describe it. Utterly horrific. I wish I could see the expression in my eyes listening to that while fully immersed in its environment.
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Research Turtles: Research Turtles (2009)
Album Score: 10
The name Research Turtles automatically makes me think of laboratories that test an assortment of tortuous toxic chemicals on innocent reptiles, but it's actually the name of a rather formidable guitar-pop group from Lake Charles, Lousiana. This is about as straightforward as rock-pop gets, so this is hardly groundbreaking, but they show to be good songwriters and competent instrumentalists. If nothing else, listening to their debut album will give you a pleasurable experience.
The opening number “Let's Get Carried Away” gets things off on a good note, starting with a huge power-chord before delving into an enjoyable light groove (similar to Fleetwood Mac's “Dreams”). It's hardly ambitious or original, but it's pleasant, snappy, well developed and fun to listen to. The following song is strongly reminiscent The Knack and that includes the somewhat irritating vocals! But at least the singing is always on key, the pop melody is alright, and the guitars are extremely well-polished. “Mission” starts out sounding like The Ramones' “Blitzkreig Bop,” but it quickly delves into another new-wavey, polish pop-rock song that continues to remind me of The Knack.
My favorite bit of the album is a surprisingly good take on Led Zeppelin, aptly called “The Riff Song.” The initial riff is catchy and the central, hard-bluesish melody is actually interesting and well sung. The riff even gradually evolves, just like a Led Zeppelin song, which keeps it from growing too stale. Given that this band (perhaps unintentionally) had reminded me of The Knack, it's surprising that they pulled off a Led Zeppelin type rocker so well.
I can't say that they stopped writing nice songs at any point in this album, but the sameness these songs starts to wear down on me. Not that they recycle riffs or melodies, but many of these songs seem to project such similar atmospheres that I get somewhat leery of it. I will say however, that the addition of the reggae-pop “Tomorrow” smack dab in the middle of the album helped diversify this up even though the song by itself is hardly a showstopper.
As a whole Research Turtles show that they have some natural hook-writing abilities, which is great since they aspire to be pop-rock songwriters, but (in my humble opinion) they should have made this even more hooky. Too few of these songs actually inspire me to sit up and start humming with them. They are fun to listen to, but they just couldn't quite drill holes in my brain. Also, the lyrics are terrible! Here's an excerpt I tried transcribing from “Cement Floor:” “I can't seem to understand / why she would go / run off with another man / letting her go / would have been nice and slow...” Blech!! They are bland and cliched like that all throughout the album. Good thing I'm not really a lyrics guy, or I might have mercilessly ripped these guys apart because of that!
I'll close by saying that whoever wrote that biography on their MySpace page is a well-trained PR writer who cleverly used terms like “soulful” and “visionary” to describe this band, but I rather think the opposite of them. Not that there's anything wrong with straightforward, emotionless pop rock, but at some point they'll have to stop kidding themselves and actually write music that's seems soulful like they're suffering or creative enough to be called visionary. I mean, what's so soulful and visionary about sounding like The Knack? And The Knack had better lyrics!
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Sonic Youth: Rather Ripped (2006)
Album Score: 11
They were certainly getting complacent in their old age, but can you blame them? It would've been superhuman of them to keep on releasing albums on-par with Daydream Nation, and frankly, I think the world would likely explode if there were many more albums like that unleashed onto the world. Rather Ripped shows these guys enjoying their status as respectable rock 'n' rollers who want nothing more than to keep on playing music. And, if that's what makes them happy, then I'm all for it.
Instead of intense the noise-rock sound of their past, they're trying to write music more along the lines of The Velvet Underground's first and third album. This is slightly jangly, it's rather depressing, and they bring in a squeaky distortion sounds only on occasion. Pretty much everything about this album reminds me of The Velvet Underground. Even the singer Kim Gordon, who takes lead vocals on half of these, resembles Nico. Keeping this album enjoyable is the heavily reliable drum beats, and the overall fine guitar textures. They also come out with a catchy riff occasionally, and possibly even a vaguely catchy vocal melody... But these aren't extremely common. Of course, these guys weren't really about catchy melodies. They were about their guitar textures. (But seriously, since when did a catchy melody hurt anyone?)
I'd say the album opener “Reena” is pretty catchy, and so that's automatically one of the better songs on this album! I also like how the song *sounds* with those loose, clean, and high-pitched guitar sounds playing some bubbly licks. Me likey! I also like “Incinerate” well enough, but it doesn't quite have the same charisma. “Sleepin' Around” plays with more dark guitar sounds and distortion noises, but that's actually a rather exciting song to listen to. I don't think “Rats” has the catchiness factor that “Reena” had going for it, but it's actually a good example of how you can put those guitar distortion noises to good use. That song also has particularly nice guitar noodles.
I also want to point out that the guitar solo in “What a Waste” is pretty freaking awesome. I don't know anything about how to work an electric guitar, but if I did I'd be very interested to find out how they got that tone that sounds like a cross between an electric organ and a meowing cat. This song was perfectly pleasant to listen to with its nice pace and jangly guitar textures, but that cat sound put it over the top for me. Just to prove how utterly pleasant these guys were able to be, “Pink Steam” is a seven-minute-long instrumental, and I don't particularly notice the time pass. It's just all-around goodness. “Turqoise Boy,” on the other hand, is six-minutes long and it's not so good. It starts out OK, with some some jangly guitars playing a captivating darker tone. It's a little bit dreary and depressing, but it doesn't do any harm. It's that extended bit in the last third with all those dreary industrial sounds. Verrry tiring.
Indeed, the only times this album gets terrible is when they stray from that light-weight, jangly formula. “Do You Believe in Rapture?” seems like an attempt at experimentalism. A weird, minimal drum beat pounds away deeply in the background while a high-pitched guitar twinkles a two-chord progression and Thurston Moore sings a terribly uninteresting vocal melody. They bring in some industrial, distorted noises midway through. I wouldn't want to call it “pathetic,” because that's too strong of a word. Maybe “halfhearted.” Of course, these guys were responsible for their fair share of experimentalism in their heyday, and some of it was much more unlistenable than this, but I definitely wouldn't have called them “halfhearted.” “Or” is another song that borders on experimentalism, but that one at least has an American-Indian style drum rhythm! You simply cannot go wrong with that.
I wouldn't go out of my way to listen to Rather Ripped unless you're a huge fan of Velvet-Underground-inspired jangle rock. It's a very lightweight listen, not only when you compare it to Daydream Nation, but also when you compare it to some of their mid-'90s albums! (I only listened to a few of them once awhile ago... but I don't remember them being this easy to sit through.) I'm not a big fan of this style myself, but even I can claim to have found some enjoyment sitting through this album. They frequently create nice tones and textures with their guitars, and the annoying experimentalism is limited to only a few tracks. Believe me, I'm very grateful for all of that!
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Star & Micey: Star & Micey (2009)
Album Score: 10
I know how difficult it is for individual bands to stand out of the crowd, since there are about a billion bands in the world and only a few available slots in the spotlight, especially when you're an indie band. Based on what I hear in their debut album, I don't think Star & Micey have much of a chance to make it big on that spotlight. However, based on how well presented and well played this album is, I really want them to.
The first two songs, “Salvation Army Clothes” and “So Much Pain” are especially fun to listen to. Right away, I hear that they sport an excellent lead singer who is able to convincingly pull off soulful, blues ditties, and they have a guitarist who is capable of entertaining, tuneful, clean solos that don't come across whatsoever as aimless wanking. (Good guitar solos are kind of a rarity!) Really, listening to these guys go at it is oftentimes wonderful entertainment!
That's also the reason they'll probably never make it big. While they are fun to listen to, there is nothing particularly special about their music. It's all pretty ordinary pop-rock. What's more, I especially don't find anything special about their melodies. They come off as particularly dull when they try to write straightforward pop music. “Carly,” for instance, sounds like they were trying too hard to either make it on the pop radio or land a commercial deal. It's an entirely pleasant song and I'm sure most people would like it, but it comes off as stale and the melody is mostly forgettable. They're much better when they veer towards country-rock and blues-rock.
A couple of songs in the album's last half stick out at me: “Late At Night” and “She's on Fire.” Both songs are shining examples of how exceptionally strong the lead singer is. He's able to pull off these amazingly soulful and passionate performances without sounding hamfisted or obnoxious. That's a rarity, and it's one of the reasons I hope these guys fashion a more unique sound for themselves in future album releases. I like listening to them, but I wish their songwriting were more interesting.
The most unusual song of the bunch has to be “On Your Own,” which at first seems like a rather overly heavy-handed string-heavy ballad. I don't like it much at first, but it picks up significantly in its final half when the lead singer lets his vocals soar loudly over it! Its instrumentation is more elaborate than most of these other songs, containing such things as string and synthesizer textures. It's pretty good, but their lack of budget shows.
In the end Star & Micey is a nice album that I enjoyed listening to. If you pick it up, I'm sure you'll enjoy listening to it. It has only one song that I'm bored with in any way, and that is the closer “Quicksand,” which seems like a half-written ballad that goes absolutely nowhere. Other than that, this is a fitfully entertaining album that's well played, well sung and well presented. Their songwriting efforts didn't seem to produce anything that popped out at me in particular, which I think is their principal shortcoming... especially since they seem to be most interested in becoming a radio friendly pop-rock act.
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Sufjan Stevens: Illinois (2005)
Album Score: 12
The wild success Sufjan Stevens had with Illinois has turned him into a sort of grand guru of indie music of the mid-'00s. And based on how excellent this album is, all this attention was very well deserved. His music is generally melodious (a very important factor) and he's immensely creative (another very important factor that's limited to the indie-scene). But most importantly, Sufjan Stevens crafted his own, personal sound that cannot be confused with anyone else. That's an utter rarity in this day and age, especially among solo artists.
This music is homemade-style and Stevens plays all the instruments himself, which is a talent he shares with Paul McCartney who did the same thing on McCartney and his masterpiece Ram. Like McCartney, Stevens' work has a charming, folky, and sweet quality to them. Although the comparison with McCartney stops at the style of music ....... Paul McCartney is as "pop" as it goes, but Sufjan Stevens is a bit more ambitious and “artistic” also evidently taking some inspiration from early Philip Glass works such as Einstein on the Beach. In other words, he's quite an interesting character!
Also like Glass, Stevens has a tendency to recycle his ideas. That doesn't bother me as much as it apparently does other people, but I would even say that this fact tends to diminish his work. Illinois sounds like a beefed-up version of his previous states project Michigan. While I wouldn't let that keep you from hearing Illinois, that might be a good reason to stay away from Michigan. Critics also correctly point out that Stevens recycles ideas even within albums, which is also a fair assessment. Parts of the melody from “ Come On! Feel the Illinoise! Part 1: The World's Columbian Explosion/Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream” surface in a few other songs down in the track list.
That brings me to the next peculiar thing about Sufjan Stevens: He likes freakishly long titles. There's nothing particularly wrong with that, I guess, but they're real pains in the behind to type out! You might have also scanned the track listing to find out that there's 22 tracks on here. Don't worry. It's only 70 minutes long. Many of the longer titles such as "Riffs and Variations on a Single Note for Jelly Roll, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, and the King of Swing, to Name a Few" are only 40 seconds long. I'm a decently fast typist, but it still took longer for me to copy that title down than it did for the actual track to play out. Stevens probably writes these long song titles to give him further distinction among indie artists ... or to just be bloody annoying. It worked both ways.
"Chicago" is a freaking masterpiece. The orchestration is absolutely stunning, and he manages to recreate a 'busy city' feel. Other tracks, such as “Jacksonville” are more folky and do a nice job depicting suburban Americana. "John Wayne Gracy, Jr." is more quiet and contemplative, and it has a melody that can beat almost anything by anyone.
The last half of the album seems more mixed than the first half to me. At first I thought it was because the first half exhausted me, but now I suspect that it's just because the material isn't as good. 'The Predatory Wasps' seems like Stevens had run out of steam, and it's rather poorly developed. (It's still an interesting song in its own right.) Likewise,'The Tallest Man' sounds like an inferior retread of 'Come On,' which was one of the highlights on the first half. On the other hand, as I mentioned in one of the song reviews, even the “throwaway” songs have their own charming properties. Most of these songs is like perusing through a knickknack shop. Not everything is valuable, but I sort of want to take everything home.
However, Stevens does end the album with an almost pure Philip Glass inspired piece of minimalism (although the lush choices of instrumentation almost contradicts that)! Anyway, the textures of 'Out of Egypt' beg to be experienced by the listener. The listener was probably exhausted by that point, but ... if you've owned this album for awhile be sure to take some time to just listen to that track. It's amazing.
In the end, I suspect this will be one of the more fondly remembered albums from the '00s, and there won't be too many of those. It has its own distinct personality and atmosphere, and it could not have come out of any other decade. Rock might be dead, but its zombie still had a thing or two left to do. (Ew...)
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Devin Townsend: Terria (2001)
Album Score: 12
Devin Townsend is an extremely prolific Canadian musician who made a name for himself in “extreme metal.” ...Of all the types of music out there, “extreme metal” is probably the last one I want to listen to next to Garth Brooks. The reason for that is because that sort of music tends to be terribly obnoxious; to generalize things in a very bigoted way, most extreme metal sounds like a bunch of vomitty mouthed guys screaming with a bunch of loud power chords. While Townsend doesn't completely shatter my image of extreme metal, he's actually listenable. Nay, he's more than listenable. He's creative and entertaining!
I really like his sound. Instead of simply letting thick guitar tones dictate the sound of the entire album, he creates a rather intricately textured “wall-of-sound.” It's sort of like what a Rush album might have sounded like if Phil Spector produced it right after his work in All Things Must Past. Absolutely none of this isn't enjoyable to listen to. ...And since I compared it to Rush, you could probably guess this is what some people might call “progressive metal.” Townsend tends to create lengthy songs that contain constantly evolving patterns.
“Earth Day” is my favorite of these. It starts with some loud power chords. I'm not always one who gets caught up in power chords, but the way he plays those, they actually seem powerful... Like Townsend is on top of the world, one of the gods... And it never lets up throughout it's nine-minute running length. Every idea he has seemed to have been a good one. Whenever Townsend decides to sing, he does so in that vomitty mouthed screaming sound, but he's actually engaging as he's doing it. Most extreme metal bands have singers who annoy me as much as those power guitars, but this guy somehow avoids it. I suppose that means he has taste. Other songs of the album don't seem to have much to do with heavy metal at all. “Deep Peace” starts out as a folk song, “Down on Under” could have appeared on an indie-pop album, and “Nobody's Here” is unmistakably a Bonnie-Tyler-styled power ballad. (Don't worry! The power ballad is seriously good instead of laughably awesome. For a start, Townsend really knows how to deliver a melodious and soaring guitar solo!)
I like the way the album opens with an ambient track. I was a bit apprehensive about reviewing an extreme metal album, but the ambient opening was an idea that both delighted and surprised me. Now, it's probably only half as intricate and engaging as a Brian Eno ambient peace from his heyday, but Townsend at least knows how to make those interesting. (It consists mostly of funny robot voices amidst some rambly organ music.)
A good indication of how deeply entranced I am by an album is how long I make the track reviews. I don't usually find the need to write a lot about albums that I find mediocre. You could probably attribute part of the reason I wrote such lengthy track reviews is the monstrous running lengths of most of these songs....... but even then, I don't necessarily make them so consistently long. Furthermore, it seems that too many of the track reviews I've ever written of 5+ minute songs generally talks about ways the musicians could have shortened the songs. I never get the impression that the tracks on Terria are too long. Never even an inkling of that impression.
These songs ensnare me from the very beginning, and they keep me consistently with them until their closing note. Sure, some of these songs are better than others. The nine-minute “Tiny Tears” is, for my money, the least-remarkable piece of the album, because it doesn't have that remarkable pacing and evolution as the songs that opened the album. But even then, I can't claim to get tired of listening to it. If nothing else, it has that wall-of-sound style that I love immersing myself in.
Well, I'm gonna listen to me some more Devin Townsend. Not right away, because I have a lot of discographies to complete (as if I don't have my own say on the matter)! But at least reviewing Terria right now gave me a damn good indication that this guy has some songwriting talent. I also really like his style. So, yes, I shall look more into him in the future!
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Trez Rek 500: Outside the Lines (2009)
Album Score: 10
I've gotten to the point where I wince before starting to review an album that a band requests outta me. I'm so used to reviewing famous artists who would never, in a million years, surf the World Wide Web and happen to wander onto my site. That leaves me to feel free to say whatever I want about them without worrying about feelings getting hurt. Band-request reviews, on the other hand, are guaranteed going to be read by the band. I'm not going to change my opinions either way (or at least I hope), but it might actually have some sort of effect on the outside. So, here I go. Doin' another band-request review...
Hey! I like this! As soon as I took my first listen of Outside the Lines, I was wincing no more; these guys are delightful. Perhaps they're middle-of-the-road, but they seem to have a big bag full of original, hooky melodies. ...I like all aspects of music, but hooky melodies are my favorite. The lead singer sounds rather middle-aged. I don't know if he is or not. It sounds like he's forcing himself a little too much to sound rock 'n' roll. ...On the other hand, at least he's an extremely capable lead singer who can hit all the notes, sounds like he's enjoying himself, and he does it all without annoying me to death. That isn't as common in modern rock bands as it should be.
Let's talk about the songs! They're all good! It sounds like they listened to a lot of '80s music as kids. Maybe some Elvis Costello. But I love that sort of music, so bring it ooooowwwn! There's nothing in Outside the Lines that comes off as boring, ill-conceived or distressing. Anybody who manages a nightclub would surely do well to book these guys for an evening; after all, they write catchy, unpretentious songs that are fun to listen to. Who wouldn't like them? “Australia” gets things off on a strong note; its melody is memorable and their instrumentation is a whole lot of fun. The drums are thunderous and pounding when they need to be, and the guitarist knows how to do a cool solo. As a whole, the song is not unusual enough to warrant a description beyond “ordinary pop-rock,” but I like it!
As I was scoring the track reviews, I wasn't inspired enough by any song to give it more than an A-. Also, those paragraphs are a bit skimpy, since I had a hard time to find things to talk about. Since these are all pretty similar pop-rockers, it's difficult/pointless to come up with new things to say. (Also, it feels like I'm rambling in this main review without anything in particular to say...) Probably my favorite song of the album is “Mr. Carousel;” not only does it have a solid melody, but it also has that arpeggiated twinkly synthesizer in the verses section that's simple but different enough to make it stand out among the others.
Indeedy, everything on Outside the Lines is good. The only hiccup, I guess, is the slow-moving power ballad “Cut Right Through Me.” In my view, all great albums ought to have at least a small handful of strong ballads in them, but I get pretty strongly bored with theirs.
I could sit here all day and wish they were more creative/original, so I would have more things to talk about, but that's apparently not what this band strives to do. They want to play fun music that will go over well in a nightclub. For that purpose, this stuff is excellent. They have mastered that rock 'n' roll sound, and they have a written a hearty slew of catchy melodies. What more could you want? ...Well, I like bands who try to stand out above the crowd—that is why I couldn't bear to give it more than a respectable 10 out of 15—but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy this. (Excuse the double negative.) So keep on rocking, Trez Rek 500!
Here, they have an entertaining music video... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LG6JW06QLI ...The guitarist looks a lot like my former roommate... I've been out of that house for three months now, and his image continues to haunt me... Brrr... (Not that I'm accusing the guitarist of being my former roommate. There's only one person in the world who's that much crap. Trez Rek 500's guitarist is excellent, which already means he's a billion times awesome.)
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The White Stipes: Elephant (2003)
Album Score: 11
The White Stripes' fourth LP caused such a critical and commercial smash in 2003 that I had actually heard of them. My friends were all listening to them, but considering my friends' taste in music had also included torturing me with bands like Interpol and Audioslave, I wasn't about to voluntarily listen to this boy-girl duo from Detroit anytime soon. (Does that make me a snob? ... Hmm, probably.) And, yet, here I am listening to it! They're a lot better than I imagined, but they're hardly the saviors of rock 'n' roll that they were cracked up to be. They are tasteful but frequently depressing. They're not very talented melody-writers, but they're good with their drums and guitars. I don't like their sound—way too numbing and murky for my taste—but they also have a tendency for invention that keeps me on my toes. At this moment, I can't bring myself to really *like* them so much, but I respect them. Expect this review to be mildly positive.
What they say about Jack White being a good guitarist is true for the most part. He's not only able to solidly handle of some of the complicated riffs he creates, but his solos usually have some sort of dimension or personality to them. His vocals are a mixed bag, though. I like it whenever he sings in a more calmer, earthy tone, but I find it off-putting when he scream-sings like a whiny punk rocker. For every excellent performance like his gritty Joe-Cocker-like “I Want to Be the Boy...,” there's a more obnoxious one like the ultra-flashy vocals of “Hardest Button to Button.” His ex-wife, Meg White, handles the drumming duties. I can say with some degree of confidence that she's probably the cutest drummer in the history of drummers, and she's technically good, too!
“Ball and Biscuit” is an interesting seven-minute piece that contains plenty of ideas to keep it generally exciting and interesting throughout. That's proof these guys were probably art-geeks in high school, and they probably fancied themselves as the grandchildren of The Velvet Underground than Green Day wannabes. The best song of the album is “I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself,” which has the best melody. I didn't find out until I already wrote the track review that it's a Burt Bacharach and Hal David cover! They certainly did a great job disguising its origins with its gruffy guitar riffs, the grungified chorus and Jack White's tortured lead vocals. Well, they did a marvelous job with that!
“Black Math” is a really good, thrashy punk-song, and probably closer to what a “typical listener” is going to like the most. And why not? That fast and loud riff packs quite a punch! They completely change the pulse of the song midway through to help keep it fresh and exciting. “Hypnotise” is another good fast, sloppy rocker; they can get quite a ruckus going when they put their minds to it. However, for every one of their relative rabble-rousing fast rockers, there seems to be another one that doesn't quite capture my imagination. Songs like “Girl, You Have Faith in Medicine,” “The Hardest Button to Button” and “Little Acorns” are technically excellent, but they have a tendency to grow tedious.
They win extra points for the minimalist, earthy blues number “In the Cold, Cold Night,” a song that proves they also knew when *not* to use their guitars and drums. The climbing riff is as minimal as can be, and that very deep bass guitar humming darkly provides a strikingly stark texture. What I like most about the song is Meg's vocals. She's not as vocally skilled as her ex-husband, but she sounds like a normal person, which suits the material perfectly. They also try out more the more modest folk music with “You've Got Love in Your Pocket” and “It's True That We Love One Another.” The former is stark and serious, and the latter is a comic narrative featuring the guest vocals of fellow garage-rocker Holly Golightly. They're both fine, but they would've been more memorable with a better melody! In fact, the latter reminded me strongly of a Paul McCartney composition on Wild Life.
In the end, I'm about as excited to listen to The White Stripes as I am to go grocery shopping, but their famous album Elephant had enough taste and good moments to prompt me to write an overall positive review about it. They seem to take themselves a little too seriously and should think about lightening up a little bit. (I'm probably the only person in the world who thinks this—but never mind!) I like that all of their album covers look the same, but that's just more evidence that they take themselves a little too seriously. Garage-rock should be fun. Who do they think they are? But at the same time, their large fanbase is justified, and I'm probably the only one who needs to lighten up right now.
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Yellowcard: Where We Stand (1999)
Album Score: 4
I realize that Yellowcard isn't exactly one of the most respected bands out there despite their popularity. (They were infamously invited to play at my former university a few years ago, an expensive concert paid for by student fees, and very few people showed up. And the ones who did were mostly high school students.) People I know who appear to know a thing or two about music completely dismiss their songwriting and call their instrumental abilities mediocre, at best. Having listened to their more popular albums such as Ocean Avenue and Lights and Sound, I can do nothing but venomously agree with that sentiment. I doubt I'll ever muster the courage to review those albums because I already know I hate them so much. So, why did I bother with Where We Stand, an early Yellowcard album released in 1999 with a completely different line-up? ... Because they might be better, that's why!
No, this album is worse. Much worse. Most of the time, they don't even appear to know what they want to do. I appreciate that they change around the rhythms and textures, but they do it with such frequency and without any reason that the experience of listening to this album is much like being thrown around in a violent roller coaster after having just consumed eight corn dogs. Even worse, the instrumentalists hold a strict loud-fast-and-ugly policy. Listening to this album all the way through is like a noisy nightmare. The original lead singer (I'll spare him the embarrassment of being named) is pretty terrible. He's a young inexperienced teenager screaming in the microphone with a fake snarl for no reason than he had to be loud. Sorry, sonny, but you're not convincing for one blasted moment.
All of these songs are clunkers in my book. But the one that works the best is called “Lesson Learned.” It's the first song, and they haven't murdered my brains yet! But those texture changes work a little bit better than the others. Of course, it's a disorienting, melodiless song just like the rest of them, and there's no good reason for it to exist. And if that song has no good reason to exist, then neither do these other ones. I hated sitting through this album, and I feel that it devalued my life.
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