Sean Altman: SeanDEMOnium (1997)
Sean Altman: SeanDEMOnium (1997)
Album Score: 12
I haven't thought about this too much. But if the universe is somehow aligned in a way that I ever have children, I will have to alter my music listening habits slightly. My taste in music is too Peter Gabrielish, and I'm not usually a big fan of cutesy, bright and bubbly music meant for children. ...But then here comes this Sean Altman guy with this insanely likable pop album that's not only cute and silly enough for the chilluns, but it's also melodically and lyrically clever enough to appeal to us bigguns, too. Why, this must be the most adult/kid-friendly albums that I ever reviewed!
Sean Altman had once been the lead singer of Rockapella, an a cappella group that's most famous for doing the theme song for the PBS game show Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. He and the group were also pretty intimately involved with the show itself (singing clues for the contestants). In 1997, he left the group to embark on a solo career. ...Evidently, he had been hoping to get a big studio contract, and SeanDEMOnium (you'll never guess) was his demo! He evidently didn't get the recording contract based on the fact that I'm listening to a demo, and he worked in a few recorded phone conversations he had with record company receptionists. (They do not accept unsolicited material... Ahhhh... poor guy...)
But how on earth could the record companies have stonewalled him? This demo is delightful; it's quirky, humorous, and overflowing with memorable melodies. Since he was formerly head of an a cappella singing group, you can expect that most of these songs on his solo debut are a cappella as well. And for my money, these are the album's most endearing moments. I can listen to this guy singing his warm, charming a cappella music all day. And I normally hate that sort of music. It usually comes off as pretentious, like we're supposed to be automatically impressed with people for having singing voices... (You were born with it! Get over yourselves!!) But Sean Altman comes off as an instantly likable guy in these songs. You'll want to invite him over to your house for a barbecue.
Let's highlight some of the songs. “Person” is just a solid, soaring composition that's sure to make you smile. The follow-up, “Baby Go Bye-Bye” is quirky and fun, particularly noting his playful back-up vocals. Another major highlight is “Miserable Destiny” with its striking, quirky '50s doo-wop vocal back-up style and that strange, muttering rant prominently featured. Not only is he excellent at quirky compositions, but ballads are usually great. His “Marry Me” is rather fluffy, but his sincere, soaring vocal performance completely wins me over. Similarly, “Pretty Baby” is a heartfelt romantic song, and “My Parents' Son” is a loving tribute to his parents.
He also has this funny habit of creating a lot of very brief, throwaway tracks. Many of them are four seconds long and consist of Altman singing the song title. “Seandemonium-Bop,” “Big Sean Music NY,” “Ooooh-Angst,” “Sullen Malaise,” “Male Pattern Baldness.” Sort of pointless, but it's quirky so whatever. When you see that this album has a whopping 30 tracks in it, you'll have to note that this is why! Other songs are a little more lengthy and perhaps not quite as “throwaway.” One track, “The Pink Pig” appears to be Altman and his nephew fooling around. Another, “Day's Easy Moan,” is a brief interlude of quirky circus music.
It must be said that SeanDEMOnium isn't a very good pick for cynics out there. If you automatically cringe at the thought of listening to a sweetly romantic song about a marriage proposal or a loving tribute to his parents, then you might want to steer clear of this. Although, I consider myself cynical, or at least 80 percent cynical, and I managed to enjoy this album quite a lot. Sure, I generally cringe at the thought of listening to cutesy, fluffy music, but how could you think ill of him if he's so sincere at it? I suppose this album would have sounded nicer if he gave it a full studio treatment with polish—and the record companies really missed out on the chance to have a hit record—but as it stands, SeanDEMOnium is a charming piece of work that showcases his considerable songwriting abilities and his warmth, humor and sincerity as a singer.
Particularly if you're a minivan-driving parent who doesn't find it appropriate to play Slayer albums on roadtrips, you must get this album. I DECLARE IT IN CAPITAL LETTERS AND EXCESSIVE EXCLAMATION MARKS, YOU MUST!!!! You can get it on the Internet. If you're reading this review, then you're probably on the Internet right now, so you have no excuse. Off with thee to order it!
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Bad Brains: Bad Brains (1982)
Album Score: 12
Hardcore punk ain't exactly my music. I listen to this album as a curious outsider trying to objectively “dissect” this music, which probably isn't the way you're supposed to listen to it. I am a whitebread suburbanite. Unlike, say, when I review Elton John or Genesis records, I don't come into this already swept away by them. So, whatever. There's my “this review isn't written in the point-of-view of a fan” disclaimer. That said, this isn't the first time I reviewed albums that lie somewhere outside of my comfort realm. It's not even the first hardcore punk album I reviewed. I ain't no n00b. Let's get on with it!!!
It was the year 1982, which was pretty early for hardcore punk. If the writers at Wikipedia can be trusted at all, this was one of the first hardcore punk albums of all time... Maybe they even invented it. Who knows? Who cares? All I know is that Bad Brains is full of some pretty freaking wild stuff. It's likely small potatoes when compared to other hardcore punk bands who came later. In fact I know it is, because I actually enjoy listening to this album. (Believe me, I'm as surprised as you are... Perhaps moreso...)
The big surprise, of course, is that these guys don't look like they should be a punk band. They're BLACK. I feel like I'm Mr. Bently in the first episode of The Jeffersons... I'm their eccentric neighbor living in an upscale Manhattan apartment complex... I invite myself in and talk eccentric neighbory things, I leave for a bit and then barge back in exclaiming “Good God, you're BLACK!” What's more, they're all members of the Rastafarian religion. So, in addition to being black, they're whacked-up pot-heads. Way to go shatter my image of hardcore punk bands. (Sorry for that bad analogy just now... I just wanted to talk about The Jeffersons.)
There are a few slow-moving reggae numbers awkwardly inserted in this album, which is where the Rastafarian thing comes in. I find the reggae numbers to be quite bland....... But they're kinda like intermission periods. They give me the needed opportunity to catch my breath a bit before the next hardcore punk song comes up. I appreciate that. Quite a lot.
Of course the hardcore punk songs are the star of the show. I don't know why I didn't start talking about those in the first place. They're loud, fast-paced, wild and sloppy... in other words, they're all hardcore punk is supposed to be. The lead singer doesn't so much sing as he does yell and growl. Occasionally he will yelp. At one point, he even yodels. He isn't the most distinctive singer I've heard, but I've gotta give him credit for being craaaaazy enough for me to spend much of a paragraph talking about him. He's not quite Jello Biafra, but he's amusing. The guitars, of course, are similarly wild, crazy and somewhat undistinctive. Sometimes, I hear a rather exciting fast-paced solo. Other times, I hear a series of ultra-fuzzed-up power chords. Even the drummer gets a little nuts... In particular, he seems to favor these super-fast drum rolls. It's nothing too complicated—in fact they're a little bland—but he plays them as fast as he damn well can!!
The songwriting is pretty good for punk music. Nothing in here is especially memorable—no great riffs or melodies to speak of. But there's this funny, sort of unpredictability to these songs that keeps me on my toes. At one point, they might be stuck in some sort of mid-tempo power-chord phase before they launch pretty quickly into their fast-paced punk stuff... The other hardcore punk outfit I had intimate exposure to were The Dead Kennedys, who are probably more exciting to me. But Bad Brains aren't too far behind them thanks to their flagrant, sloppy style and that unpredictable edge. The production on Bad Brains doesn't seem too good. It's rather murky, and sometimes I can't make out the singing. Although, even if it were a little clearer, I wouldn't be able to make it out anyway... he's screaming, growling, and yelping, after all. Murky production standards aren't exactly the sort of thing punk fans usually complain about, so I'll shut up about it...
All in all, this is a good album. I usually hate hardcore punk, but I enjoyed this. Somehow. I can report that my opinion of African-American Rastafarians has improved. Even though they're still a bunch of wacko cultists who invented their religion as an excuse to smoke pot all day. ...Hey, these guys got a job, though. What a world!
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Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs: More Arse Than Class (1974)
Album Score: 12
If you thought Crocodile Dundee was wild, then you haven't heard Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs, a rabble-rousing hard-rock group from Down Under. These guys knew how to bottle lightning. After listening to More Arse Than Class, it's no surprise that they were one of the most popular 1970s hard-rock groups from Australia, but why haven't they gained fame in the United States where similar bands like Grand Funk Railroad, Foghat, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and ... other bands were making names for themselves? I don't see any reason other than geography that they couldn't have made it big in the States... Ah, I guess we can say that about a lot of things!
The album opens with the rollicking “Boogie Woogie” whose song title tells no lie. It is indeed a boogie woogie. It's also a peculiar boogie woogie with its menacing pace and those crazy ascending key-changes toward the end. Billy Thorpe's powerful, raspy vocals are also an amazing thing to behold. They bear a resemblance to Roy Wood's, but with slightly more body. I also bring up Roy Wood, because “Boogie Woogie” reminds me of Wizzard. It's normal genre music, but with a slightly alien edge to it. And it's very good, too!
Probably the greatest testament of Thorpe's vocal prowess is the epic closing track “Slowly Learning How.” It alters back and forth between a soulful blues number and a tight rock 'n' roll groove resembling early Dire Straits. Thorpe's utterly soaring vocals have the same effect on me as Joe Cocker's ... and bringing in that gospel choir at the end only made me wish I would have joined in with them. That song is hardly amazing as a composition (it does nothing more than repeat those two sections for the entire nine-minutes), but it's such a rousing experience that I'd gladly listen to it many more times. And I probably will.
“I Wanna Know” is also a gospel-oriented number, and Thorpe's commanding lead vocals keep the song exciting. The melody is catchy, and I like that ascending chord progression its based on. But I'd have to say the star of that show is that wily harmonica solo in the middle. If one thing's clear about Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs, they were a first-class jam band.
And that fact about them couldn't be any more clearer than it is on “Back on the Road Again,” which is such a powerful rocker that is so tight and exciting that I can't contain myself! (I'm not kidding, either, I'm hopped up on adrenaline right now.) It's obvious they're emulating '50s rock, but it's impossible to not get caught up in its spirit. The drive of that song is amazing, and Thorpe's lead vocals take an incredibly commanding lead over it. Perhaps even more amazing is that extended jam sequence in the middle. It takes a lot for me to enjoy a rock 'n' roll jam, but I rarely run across things this exciting. When that Jerry-Lee-Lewis-style piano solo comes in, it's like nothing could be more thrilling... It starts playing normally, but it starts to favor the high-pitched keys in the middle and also plays some brilliantly weird patterns. The electric guitar solo operates in a similar fashion... it's normal and exciting at first, but it turns into something more fuddled and hyperactive. Crikey!
Still good, but not one of the highlights is the energetic R&B number “Walking Down the Street.” Thorpe's spirited vocals that opens the track is hilarious (at one point nearly going off in a rant), but unfortunately whoever was in charge of producing this album did a weird number on the panning effects... It's painful to listen to this song with headphones. “No More War” is apparently a psychedelic anthem with a rubbery guitar brought in throughout and that huge reverb sound put on the vocals. It's jam-oriented, but it's not quite as arresting as the others I've already mentioned.
It's a shame that Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs aren't well-known in America. This style of music is still very popular around here, and if I'm able to enjoy the crap out of this, then there are millions of others who are bound to like it more. Trust me, if you've had your fill of all the Foghat you could handle (as if that's possible!), and you're feeling a little bit like visiting the land of wallabies and Vegemite, then you should put Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs on your list. Even if you're not, then you should still consider giving them a try. After all, they seemed very passionate about rock 'n' roll, and they could rock like nobody's business. That's more than I get from most hard rock bands. Plus, it's kind of cool to have an album called More Arse Than Class on your iPod just to see the reaction on people's faces.
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Belle and Sebastian: If You're Feeling Sinister (1996)
Album Score: 13
This album consistently makes the upper portion of every critics' list of best albums of the '90s. While that's impressive I suppose, that doesn't automatically mean I'm going to like it. After all, music magazines are awfully prone to exhibiting a bandwagon mentality when it comes to ranking music. Since it's toward the top of every list, I automatically became suspicious of it. I listened to this casually over the years, and my initial impression was that it was mightily respectable and well-written, but a bit bland for my tastes.
Now, I've finally buckled down and gave it a half-dozen pretty intense listens, and I've learned that there is a pretty good reason for its acclaim: It's a pretty damn good album! The most important thing about it is it has melodies. They're not the sorts of instantly catchy melodies of an ABBA variety; they're more understated. They have the priceless quality of being melodies that weave their ways into your heart if you give them the proper chance. ...That said, some of these melodies are stronger than others, but even the least notable ones are well-written.
The instrumentation is brilliantly done throughout this album as well. These guys favor a low-tech, somewhat unkempt approach. Usually, you won't find anything more complicated than an acoustic guitar, a pure electric guitar, a simple bass, or a piano in these songs. Occasionally, you'll find woodwinds, electric organs, and string sections, but these also have a distinctly organic flavor to them. My favorite moments of the album are principally the ones where the orchestration gradually builds up through the course of the song. “The Stars of Track and Field,” for instance, begins with lead singer Stuart Murdoch singing an engaging melody to a folky acoustic guitar. It's interesting by itself, but the song seems to get even better when that bass guitar comes in, and then that jangly electric guitar. It all sounds quite delicate, but that build-up makes the song one of the more engaging ones I've ever heard. If that song is the only reason music magazines put this toward the top of their '90s lists, then I'm with them 100 percent.
Lead singer Stuart Murdoch is a capable vocalist, for sure. That might be an understatement, but how can you blame me? He's an understated singer! I like that quality about him. He comes off as somewhat lackluster at times, but that's an integral part of this band's sound. Every time I think of Belle and Sebastian, I think of Murdoch wearing ordinary street clothes, singing about things that happen to be important to him at the time. And just because I said he sometimes sounds lackluster, it doesn't mean he's emotionless. His folksy vocal performance in “The Boy Who Done Wrong Again,” for instance, leaves me with a tear in my eye. That's a bittersweet masterpiece right there. (I prefer Murdoch wildly over Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum who seemed to think screaming his ass off is equal to emotion.)
So, I've given If You're Feeling Sinister a pretty damn glowing review so far! But I do have one pretty major hang-up about it. It goes back to the initial reaction I had to the album that I mentioned at the beginning of the review: it's all a little bit samey to me. While I adore the way the homemade-flavor way they orchestrate these songs, there's not much they do to make them sound extremely different from each other. This isn't a deal-breaker, of course, but I continue to think they could have improved it. Compare this to Paul McCartney's Ram and see how many different wild flavors and ideas he somehow seemed to cram in there. Nothing on that album sounded alike, and yet nothing betrayed the homemade flavor that he was going after.
I also think some of these songs are better than others. The title track begins with a rather extended recording of kids playing in a playground, and that moment just seems dead to me. The rest of the song, while nice and sunshiney, also seems like it could have developed a bit faster. It also seems like they could have done more to develop “Like Dylan in the Movies,” since it doesn't seem to have as surprises in it as the other songs. ...But I'm really nitpicking there, since that's a very enjoyable song anyway!
All in all, If You're Feeling Sinister is an excellent album with more than its fair share of brilliant moments. I recommend this album highly with the stipulation that you might have to work pretty hard to get into it at first. I was on the border between a 12 and a 13 on this one. I opted for a weak 13 specifically because “The Boy Done Wrong Again” leaves me with a tear in my eye, and I figure any song that makes me feel like that deserves extra credit. ...Also, I love extra credit. If only my college professors felt the same way......
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Laura Branigan: Laura Branigan (1982)
Album Score: 6
Laura Branigan died in 2004 very unfortunately of a brain aneurysm at 47. I felt horrible about it even though I never really liked her music. I mean, I like the song "Gloria," but Branigan had nothing to do with it other than sing it with boring studio musicians.
"Gloria" was a reworking of a big hit in Italy, which sounded like an Alan Parsons Project track sung in Italian. Naturally, it took an English speaking singer to turn it into an international hit! Well, it's a keeper, certainly, although the instrumentation is boring and strictly by-the-book. That put quite a damper on the melodies throughout the effort, which weren't too bad.
The opening ballad "All Night With Me" is the album's second best track though it doesn't come close to matching Gloria's glory. The melody is rather catchy and the instrumentation doesn't spoil anything. That's more than I can say for the other tracks, which are so bland that it hurts. It hurts me because each song had good melodic elements that had the potential to be decently average songs, but the producer/arranger had no vision and didn't do anything justice! This is one flat album!!! The fact that there's only one real embarrassment in here, the appropriately titled "Down Like a Rock," makes that even more tragic!
Branigan had a capable voice, but it wasn't anything special. She could hit all the right notes, but the voice had no personality. Hey, she did look good in those sweet leather pants!! I do wish her debut album was more creative, but this is corporate-rock after all. You can't expect art from non-artists! That doesn't mean you have to like it. Thumbs down, baby! Now, rest in peace!
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Built to Spill: Perfect From Now On (1997)
Album Score: 11
Built to Spill specialized in lengthy jam-type rock songs. While they weren't as versatile with their guitars as bands like Phish, they also didn't try to bite off more than they could chew. You won't find much in here in terms of amazing guitar acrobatics, but they could still create some nice, interesting textures with their guitars. That skill comes in handy since many of these songs are extremely long! They range from five minutes to nine minutes! A few of them, such as “Stop the Show,” are a little more progressive-rock-ish, but the majority tend to stick with repeating a handful of chords.
Indeed, their ability to interweave different textures throughout these songs are these guys' main strength, although if you listen to this album I think you'll understand that they are novices compared to bands like Can. The opening song “Randy Described Eternity” would have been boring if they continued to remain in that calm lull that it started off with. Instead, around the 45-second mark, they decided to up the ante and make it more driving and menacing. That was a very nice touch that grabbed my attention! That said, the song still would have fared better if they would have been more succinct with it. That 45-second intro could have been 20 seconds. Furthermore, why didn't they get even *more* violent and menacing later on in the song? The initial *shock* was done nicely, but why stop at that? Hm. Well, at least they close the track with a fun rubbery guitar jam. Good times, good times!
“I Would Hurt a Fly” has similar nicely done textural and tempo changes. At the beginning, its overall pacing might too slow for its own good, but they very subtly work in more violent passages into it. The end is more of a traditional rock jam in the spirit of Cream, and it ain't a bad one either. The star of this show, again, is that rubbery guitar, which plays throughout the track; whoever is playing it is apparently pretending to be in a '60s psychedelic band, and he's probably having a lot of fun, too!
While most of these songs keep my attention pretty well, there's not a single track that wouldn't have benefited significantly with editing. Even the five-minute “Made-Up Dreams,” while a nice composition, would have been more tight and effective if it was cut by a good minute. But things don't get truly excessive until we reach the second half of the album. The eight-and-a-half minute “Velvet Waltz” is more long-winded than most of my high school teachers (and believe me those guys could talk up a storm). I usually don't like sitting through such long songs that basically repeat the same chord progression over and over again, but they continue to do such a nice job shifting the textures around that I'm able to contently sit through it. That's a triumph in itself as far as I'm concerned.
In fact, I'm never truly bored in this album until the nine-minute “Untrustable / Part 2 (About Somebody Else)” pops up. I like listening to the first five minutes of the song just fine—I especially like that ringing guitar tone they use—but the last three minutes is a weird, disconnected and awkward groove that's difficult to listen to. I suppose they were 'experimenting' there, but that proves these guys were far better off sticking to the normal stuff.
Since I mentioned earlier that “Stop the Show” was progressive-rock-ish, I bet you could automatically guess that's my favorite song on here. It is, indeed! However, the development isn't the major thing I'm impressed with (in fact, I feel that song is too bloated like the others ... for example, I don't see why that ultra-calm two minute acoustic introduction needed to be any longer than 30 seconds). I like the melody! It's so bouncy, bright and hooky that it's comparable to a Ween melody. (Although it doesn't quite *glisten* like theirs does.) That's a fun song!
While I might not be an overwhelming fan of this album—it needs a good liposuction—I think it's mightily respectable with a fair number of nice melodies and well-developed textures. If they were going to truly impress me, however, they would have had to go work a lot harder, developing even more intricate textures and more shocking mood changes. That masterful live album I reviewed recently, Royal Albert Hall October 10 1997, is a great example of how far it's possible to take these sorts of lengthy compositions. At the very least, Perfect From Now On is easy to listen to—at least there aren't any disgusting, aimless fuzzy guitar sounds like on some albums that I can think of! This might just be worth your time if you're into indie-rock.
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Caravan: Better By Far (1977)
Album Score: 11
Let me get this out of the way right now: I sympathize with the droves of classic Caravan fans when they express their disappointment towards this 1977 release. I mean, these guys were one of the premiere prog groups of the early '70s and it can be positively disconcerting to hear them write so many songs that sounds like they were trying to wedge themselves in between The Carpenters and Roberta Flack on the AM radio station. But on the other hand, this album is also far better than that one-star review on allmusic.com would have you believe.
...Me? I'm lukewarm about it. I'm so lukewarm towards it that it was even slated to receive the most lukewarm rating of them all, a 10. But then they had to go and throw in an unexpectedly beautiful song at the very end, “Nightmare,” that I'd wager is nearly as captivating as the best of their classic material. ...So unexpected is that ending that I wouldn't be surprised if there were a fair amount of Caravan followers in 1977 who couldn't even stomach it enough to flip the album over and listen to the second side much less make it all the way to the final song. If you didn't pawn off your vinyl collection yet, take a listen to it!
And, I feel as though I've got to mention the significance of the year 1977 for progressive rock bands, which of course was the year punk-rock murdered them all. They didn't leave many survivors in their wake. Prog-bands that year had to either keep doing the same old thing and come off as dinosaurs... or try to reinvent the same old things to keep up with second generation prog-bands like Styx and Kansas... or turn to POP music and sink even further into obscurity because nobody cares about prog-bands who write pop music. Listening to the opening song of this album, which reminds me of one of the non-hits off an early ABBA album, it's as clear as a clear blue sky which direction Caravan decided to go.
Naturally, the bad thing about writing songs that remind me of non-hits off of early ABBA albums is that those are the sorts of songs I will only sit politely through while I wait for the hits to pop up. But this album doesn't really have any hits. The closest thing they get to that is “Behind You,” which is a nicely written and fitfully hooky song that I overall enjoy the experience of listening, but it also can't quite seem to wedge itself in my brain. I also like hearing their ballad, the title track, which might have disastrously cliched lyrics, but it has a tune that I'd describe as pretty nice. And a tune that's pretty nice is pretty good.
The opening number, “Feelin' Alright” has one of the more memorable melodies on the album, but that caffeinated drumming is sloppy. The mid-tempo“Silver Strings” is also sloppy, although there are a few interesting moments in it involving crunchy violins. The album's penultimate track, “Let it Shine,” sounds like it belongs on a Sweet album... And speaking as a person who has listened to a few Sweet albums and thought they were pretty fun, I've also fitfully enjoyed the experience of it. I also like that “Give Me More” uses a 3/4 time signature; that's a cute ditty, above all else.
But as I mentioned before, you'd might as well throw everything before it into the garbage after you here the morose, atmospheric, and thunderous closer, “Nightmares.” It's a shame they buried it way down there, because it's easily the gem of the album. The lead vocals are sweet, it has a surprisingly captivating violin solo, and it all ends with one of the more blistering electric guitar solos I've heard in awhile. You'd probably wonder what a song like this is doing in an album filled with pop numbers, but there it is. Listen to it! ...Less significantly, there's a sort of jazz-fusion number called (*groan*) “The Last Unicorn.” Their instrumentals are formidable there, but it's way too easy for me to sit through that and zone myself out.
There's no way on God's green earth that I'd claim that Caravan's Better By Far is some sort of lost classic. But at the same time, it doesn't deserve to be cast and forgotten in the dungeons of rock 'n' roll like it apparently has been. If you're in the business of collecting Caravan records, then I think you'll probably want this in your collection. They might have gone AM radio pop for a lot of it, but I would think even their most stringent fans will find something to love out of the closing number. And maybe—just maybe—they'd even find themselves enjoying some of those pop numbers as well. (But they might have to be alone in a dark room before they'd ever admit that to themselves!)
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Chicago: Chicago Transit Authority (1969)
Album Score: 12
Before Chicago sucked, they didn't suck. Right now, I'm not too sure at what point in their career they started to suck. But I do know that Chicago was a sucky band, at the latest, by the 1980s. In 1969, Chicago didn't suck. OK, that's sorted out. (Oh, and they were officially called "Chicago Transit Authority," but I'm going to refer to them as "Chicago" here on out.)
I took a music appreciation course a long time ago, and for some reason the professor singled out Chicago as one of the great rock bands of all time. He admitted that he didn't know much about rock music (obviously). But apparently a friend of his dragged him to a Chicago concert before they were famous in '60s, and they left quite an impression on him. He was also a trumpet player. That probably explains it.
Anyway, let's not talk about some professor whose name I can't even remember. Let's talk about this wonderful album. It's HUGE. You see that there's only 12 tracks in this album, but know that this thing is 1.3 hours long. It was unusual for a rock band to be allowed to cut a double album as their debut, but here is this monstrosity. The story seems to be that they were originally going to make a normal, full-length album, but they recorded too much material for it. So, they decided to go ahead and record more material to make it a double. Honestly, this album probably would have been better if they would have just stuck with the full-length. When you see tracks like the utterly useless guitar solo "Free Form Guitar" and the rather excessive 15-minute rock jam "Liberation" tacked on at the end, you're going to think that brevity might have been the better option for them.
At the same time, the epic quality of these tracks, in general, is one of the album's main benefits, so how can you rightly want to cut it all down to 40-50 minutes? Nah, keep the lengthy tracks. Just know that this is also one of the album's primary pitfalls. This will inevitably become a chore to sit through except among the most patient of people.
Now let's talk about this album's greatness. These songs are wonderful! Their trademark horn sound works beautifully throughout this. That brought some unique sound to these already wonderful songs. My favorite work on here is clearly "Questions 67 & 68," which is also their most poppy track. That's the best of both worlds, in my opinion --- great melody and instrumentation.
This is a remarkably solid album, despite its excessive length. The instrumentation, all around, is remarkable. I'd wager to say this is among the best of all rock 'n' roll... It was quite a product, and it manages to stick out in its year of release, 1969, which seems to be the year when rock hit its peak. That's weird to think of about Chicago if you only know them for their '80s work, but it's all true. (Likewise, you'd probably be surprised that the Bee Gees also created an interesting, near masterpiece in 1969 called Odessa.) Well, such was the magic of 1969, I guess. All of that said, it's not difficult to imagine these guys were capable of making a perfect album, but they decided to stuff this up with filler instead. Well, apart from "Free Form Guitar," at least it's glorious filler.
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DJ Screw: 3 'N the Mornin' Part 2 (1996)
Album Score: 10
DJ Screw tells me in the opening song of this album, “Watch Yo Screw,” that people are always stealing screws, which is why you've got to “watch yo screw.” ...Incidentally, I just did a homework assignment where I had to calculate the load capacity of lag screws, and with that in mind, I have one important question to ask him: How is anybody going to take the screws out? I mean, if they're load bearing, you've got to be some kind of Superman to even budge those things... Of course he could be talking about screws that are just sitting in a box, but … what do those things cost, two cents? Personally, I'd spend my efforts watching my jar of pennies...
...Oh by the way, I should give you a little extra disclaimer: I'm a nerd who never listens to rap music. (Emphasis on the never and double-emphasis on the nerd.) If you want to read a review of this rap album from someone who actually knows what he or she is talking about, then look somewhere else. This is literally the second rap album I've ever reviewed, so when I say I have no idea what I'm talking about, I mean it. With that said, speaking as someone who isn't very much into rap music, I really enjoyed listening to the song “Smokin' and Leanin'.” Holy crap, that is one freaky show.
I never heard of this before, but DJ Screw specialized in making what Wikipedia calls “Screw tapes” where he takes rap songs done by different artists and screws with them. This almost always involves slowing down the speed, which makes the rappers' voices sound a bit like mutated slugs. Why that worked on “Smokin' and Leanin'” so much is that he also, I presume, added some wobbly electronic instrumentation on top of them. With the comically low-pitched rapping and the wobbliness, it sounds like it's under water. It's such a peculiar idea, and it's really a lot of fun there.
Unfortunately, where the album loses its spark for me is the rest of these songs. I mean, they all just sound like ordinary rap songs with the speed slowed down. Some of the rap songs seem like they were quite good when they were played at their usual speed; “High With the Blanksta” is based on a very sophisticated descending chord progression that captivates me. ...In that song, also, the slowed-down speed lets me soak up its somewhat involved synthesizer texture, which I might not have noticed so much in its normal speed. Similarly, I like “Servin the Duce” mostly for its very well-programmed drum beat... I don't think it's too often I like a song specifically for a programmed drum beat...
Probably the biggest reason I'm out of my element reviewing this album is that I'm completely unfamiliar with the artists he takes these songs from. Have you ever heard of these guys? ESG, Al-D, Mack 10, 20 2-Life, Botany Boyz... (That last ones sounds like a bunch of nerds... If I ever started a rap group, I would so want to name it Botany Boyz...) They're all from Houston. Southeast Houston to be exact. I guess many of them cooperated with him specifically for this album, and all of them were members of what is known in the region as the Screwed Up Click. (Not Clique? … Click?)
As is the nature with slowed-down rap music, I guess, you'd be lucky if you can understand the lyrics at all, since they all sound like Jabba the Hut. When I do understand the lyrics, I almost wish I didn't, because they're so profanity laden that it annoys the crap out of me. And when they're not making swears, they're being annoying otherwise. For example, in the closing two songs, “Pimp Tha Pen” and “South Side,” I keep on hearing the phrase “You know what I'm saying?” repeated over and over... I mean, I think I know what he's saying, but after having that questioned so much, maybe I don't actually know anything, and my entire life is really a dream?
This is an unusual album, and I was on the fence between a 10 and an 11. Certainly the uniqueness and enjoyability of “Smokin' and Leanin'” would prompt me to go with the higher rating, but really I'm not too wild about the other songs. I get tired of its “gimmick” midway though. In many cases, I would have rather just heard the songs played at their normal speed, since many of them seemed perfectly decent ...But as I said in the second paragraph in this review, I feel verrrrry out of my element reviewing this, so feel free to take whatever I say about this with a grain of salt. I know I am! ...Seriously, I don't personally subscribe to anything I just wrote in this review.
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Dream Theater: Images and Words (1992)
Album Score: 10
Dream Theater never seem to be as good as their fans say they are, but they also never seem to be as terrible as everyone else says they are. So I guess that goes to show that you'll have to listen to these albums to decide which camp you fall into. Because I love you, I'm going to ask you a question to make it easier for you to determine which sort of person you are. ...Do you enjoy a good tune? If not, then you might be a Dream Theater fan.
I've gotten enough people over the years sending me notes saying things along the lines of “There is more to music than melodies, you blockhead!” (There's the Rated G version of what they tell me, anyway.) Yup, those are Dream Theater fans. ...Or Rush fans, more likely, because I've had many-a-naughty thing to say about Rush in my time so far on the Internet. If there's one thing clear, Dream Theater were very, very diehard Rush fans. You might get an inkling of that impression by reading the title to one of their songs, “Metropolis-Part 1: The Miracle & The Sleeper.” You'll get that impression even more if you actually listen to it. It's a sprawling epic with plenty of busy guitar, even busier drumming, and so many changing textures that it makes my head spin. (So much for my neck.) With no second thought of the matter, that's not a song for people with a weak stomach. Keep your arms and legs inside the moving vehicle at all times.
I know this is going to unleash an endless hell-fury on my e-mail account, but I really don't think Mike Portnoy is a very good drummer. I don't say that to trash the guy necessarily, because he doesn't deserve a trashing; he's got to be one of the most technically proficient drummers out there. All those tight, rapid-fire fills he does makes me go positively featherbrained. But—as some wise drummer somewhere must have said at one point or another—a drummer has got to know how to effectively use silence. When I'm listening to Dream Theater, it sounds as though I'm stuck in the trenches of World War I bombarded with heavy machine gun fire. These guys also have a keyboardist, although I wouldn't know he was there most of the time. He usually seems pretty happy playing one-fingered, three-note arpeggios or blank chords on a Casio keyboard in the background. He doesn't take many chances.
But there's one exception to that: the keyboard texture at the beginning of “Wait for Sleep,” which sounds a lot like the beginning of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells. And no! It's not a rip-off; it's a homage!! (Seriously, the dude comes up with one interesting keyboard pattern, and all everyone can think of is Tubular Bells? He found a good pattern, so let the dude play!) And speaking of that song, considering most Dream Theater fans don't think melodies are that important, Dream Theater could, at long last, come up with a pretty decent melody. Listen to “Wait for Sleep” if you want proof. The album has two other ballads, “Another Day” and “Surrounded,” and they sound like they're right out of a mid-'80s pop-metal album. That's a shame because this was released in 1992.
I do like, quite a lot, their operatic lead singer James LaBrie. He has the ability to soar over these songs and present a somewhat coherent melody despite what utter nonsense the guitarists and drummer were trying to pull off in whatever random time signature they felt like working in. ...I know that everybody who likes Dream Theater say they were one of the most creative bands of all time, and I suppose if working in goofy time signatures makes you creative, then it must be true. ...But my appreciation of that creativity is occasionally thwarted by their guitars and drums, which occasionally veer off into a texture that I find uncomfortable to listen to. It also sounds, creatively, a lot like Kenny G is playing the saxophone on “Another Day.” (You can breath a sigh of relief, because it's not. It's a fellow named Jay Beckenstein. Or, to close friends, he is known as Beckenstein J.)
But anyway, this is hardly the worst album on the history of the planet. I like it better than that Dream Theater album I've listened to that a lot of people have dubbed their masterpiece, Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. I even took a listen to this album at work even though I had gotten fair warnings that it might have made me want to smash things. For the sake of me not getting fired, I'm glad that it didn't! Instead, I found this to be a mightily OK listen. Surely, it would have been better if the drummer didn't feel the need to constantly bombard my eardrums with all sorts of rattly noise. It also would have been nice if the lead guitarist knew something of subtlety. But other than that these songs flowed pretty well. So there it is: I don't hate Dream Theater. I'm going to lose my ability to hear one of these days, and life is too short to sit around and sneer at things anyway. (But of course I still let myself write snarky comments. Where would I be in life without letting myself write snarky comments?)
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England: Garden Shed (1977)
Album Score: 11
England is one of those forgotten prog-bands from the '70s that I could have easily lived the rest of my life without ever knowing about. The fact that I would have found that to be a minor tragedy is evident that I am an incurable egghead. So, I have to extend my gratitude to Ken, who requested that I do this review. And now I can spread the message of England on this here website of mine. Granted, not very many people visit this website, but if one egghead listens to Garden Shed as a result of reading this review and likes it, then I feel I have done my patriotic duty. Not patriotic to any country, but patriotic to prog... um... Perhaps I should get on with it...
The reason that Garden Shed is largely forgotten is completely understandable. It was released in 1977, which is very late for a prog album, especially one that so faithfully recreates the classic sound of Genesis and Yes. Not only had the music scene shifted radically that year, but prog bands were different, too. Most notably, Garden Shed is filled to the brim with the Mellotron and Hammond organ sound. This would've sounded out-of-touch even for 1971! Let the lesson be learned, obscurity is what you get for sounding behind-the-times!
But we've entered the 21st Century, you see, so none of this matters. No one considers 1977 to be anymore out-of-date than 1969, and so people are free to appreciate Garden Shed in its full glory. The one thing that's unique about Garden Shed is that thing that was so out-of-touch: The raw Mellotron and Hammond organ are awesome things to behold, sometimes. If you agree with that statement, then you're an egghead, and you owe it to yourself to listen to Garden Shed at some point before death. (In fact, if you visit their Website, http://www.gardenshedmusic.com/, you'll read all about how much they love their classic keyboards.)
One thing I'd say England did better than Yes, probably the only thing, was harmonies. Well, maybe not *better* but often crazier. There's some pretty wild chord progressions in here, particularly in “Three Piece Suite.” At first listen, I thought their chords would get so weird that I thought they were awkward. But after the third or fourth listen, I got more and more used to them and began to love them. The final third of “Three Piece Suite” also features what's perhaps the album's most memorable bit: A catchy pop-rocker featuring a lead singer with the most outrageous, falsetto vocals imaginable. The melody would have sold me on it anyway, but the Tiny-Tim-like vocals put it over the top. There are also two other brief sections that feature cartoony voices, but they more of an ensemble of Muppet characters. The middle of “Midnight Madness” and a smaller but more outrageous bit in “Paraffinalea.” Both times, it's hilarious.
“Paraffinalea” sounds like a kiddie's song anyway thanks to the silly fantasy lyrics and an especially cute vocal melody. It's also a solid composition, bringing in energetic Mellotron diversions in between verses. That's also one of the album's shorter songs, clocking in at four minutes. “Midnight Madness” is seven minutes and thus a more traditional prog outing. One distinctive thing about that song, in particular, is its opening sequence. It's a synthesizer-only intro, only using the purest kinds of synthesizers. It's quite simple but mesmerizing! And then, the Mellotrons start to fade in, which recalls early Genesis in particular. Anyway, that's a great intro. Naturally, the song itself is in a weird time signature, but the vocal melody is catchy! Things start to get shaky in the final third when they start doing all these elaborate crescendos and the album's bugetary restrictions becomes completely apparent. The cymbals are too loud, and that Hammond organ seems to come in at the wrong times... But, really, that's not such a big deal.
Easily the weakest parts of Garden Shed are when they're being neither cartoony nor pretentious. (That's a weird thing for me to say...) “All Alone” is a truly boring piano ballad with a forgettable melody, but it's only two minutes long so it's nothing to dwell over. “Yellow” is a more extended song using mostly acoustic guitars and pure Mellotrons. The sound of it is undoubtedly nice, as it's good to sit back and soak up. But the melody is boring, and I miss some of that unbridled creativity present in the other songs. “Poisoned Youth” is a pretentious prog-track, but it's a bit of a let-down. It's rather sluggish and slow-moving, and without all those weird touches that made “Midnight Madness” and “Three Piece Suite” such a treat. It's competently written and more “serious,” but it's 16 minutes long and I yawn through much of it. Hm.
Thus, Garden Shed is hardly in the same league as Selling England By the Pound or Fragile or, really, any big-time progressive rock classic, but that should come to no surprise. There's really not even a single track in here that could even be considered a masterpiece. The highest rating I could bear to award any of these tracks was an A-. They all had their ups and downs. On the other hand, three of these tracks deserved that A-, and so I really enjoyed listening to this.
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Melissa Etheridge: Melissa Etheridge (1988)
Album Score: 5
Everybody loves Melissa Etheridge. She's one of our most beloved contemporary singer-songwriters. She's also one of the predominent Hollywood forces in left-wing politics. (OK, so I guess Republicans don't love Melissa Etheridge, but they're worse because they like Toby Keith.) She has an extremely powerful voice that's especially suited for her brand of loud and "expressionate" alternative-rock. She sings with as much verve and passion as the bowel movement she's trying to achieve on the album cover.
Despite all that, Melissa Etheridge is soooooo boring. Give her credit for that wailing voice of hers, but she doesn't put it to good use. At least in this debut, her songwriting and creative talents are completely worthless. I sit through this album and wait for her to do something interesting, but I'm afraid my efforts were in vein. What a freaking frustrating album! There's nothing in here that can even constitute a highlight. It's all either mediocre or bad.
This is particularly bad news since I can't think of too many albums that are mildly respectable that can get a score less than a 6.0. I mean, there's Kiss' and Michael Bolton, but they suck on purpose. Etheridge seems to genuinely want to be a singer-songwriter, but she has zero ideas.
I like a few of the songs that she would do in the '90s, but she honestly comes off as one of those singer-songwriters who's more interested in making money and being a public lesbian than actually being a musician. Etheridge and her record company would venemously disagree with that of course, and then they'll go cash in the latest royalty check and make plans for remodelling that $5 million mansion.
It's true that Etheridge has her legion of fans, and I fully expect to get spirited e-mails from a few of them. Etheridge likes her fans, too, because they pay ungodly amounts of money to go to her concerts! (Not that I was actually looking into going to a Melissa Etheridge concert. I can sleep at home!! I looked up the ticket prices, though, and I've never made that much in a week!)
Anyway, there's absolutely nothing in this album. Who knows why this went multi-platinum. I guess people also buy Twinkies. You'd think she'd at least be able to come up with one memorable hit here, but I guess that would mean actually making an effort!
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The Flaming Lips: Clouds Taste Metallic (1995)
Album Score: 13
So, you think clouds taste metallic? Pardon me if I'm wrong, but I think you were tasting the inside of the airplane... You can't really have a good idea about what clouds taste like if you're sitting in coach... There's always the stereotypes, but I seriously thought people from Oklahoma were smarter than that.
Actually, they got that title from something a Tool member told them. It's generally a bad idea to discuss anything with a member of Tool, because their suckiness is apt to rub off on you... But apparently Flaming Lips had a suckiness deflector shield, because Clouds Taste Metallic is such an awesome album that it defies all of my earlier or later proclamations that cluttery noise-rock can never be enjoyable. This album is noisy and it's so much fun that I'm going to get up from this chair right now and do a little dance in the middle of the room. .......... Um, you're going to have to trust me that I actually did one. I felt stupid, but I did do it. I closed my blinds.
Anyway, what's so great about Clouds Taste Metallic isn't exclusively its fancy arrangements or lead singer Wayne Coyne's smooth Sinatra-like vocals... It's the actual songwriting. That's right, these guys don't just goof around with ugly distortion and mind-numbing soundscapes... They have real melodic talent, and they know how to use it! Especially the first half of this album is loaded with plenty of scrumptious tunes. Naturally, The Flaming Lips are more well-known for their ear for arrangements, which of course they do superbly throughout this disc.
At the moment, I'm a lot more familiar with their more mature and sophisticated 1999 album The Soft Bulletin, and I'm sure there are others out there like me. So, I should mention that Clouds Taste Metallic was a different sort of Flaming Lips when they didn't use so much keyboards. It's a guitar-oriented album, as all of their previous albums had been. This is said to have been the end of an era for this band, because it was the last album with guitarist Ronald Jones who was apparently the main force behind the fuzz-guitar. But even if you don't like the guitar that much, don't let that stop you from giving this album a try. There might be lotsa guitar and lotsa distortion, but all of it is glorious.
Let's start discussing some of the songs. Right off the bat, I'll mention that there's nothing particularly special about the opening number “The Abandoned Hospital Ship.” It wallows in a sort of noodly lull and never truly gets memorable although the melody is fine. It isn't until the second track, “Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus With Needles,” until things start to get truly fascinating. The pure, unbridled energy there is so easy to get caught up in, and that melody is so catchy that it's wonderful! All those little cracks and breaks in the speakers actually gives the whole thing an edgy sort of texture instead of sounding completely annoying like R.E.M.'s Monster or Neil Young's Weld.
For some reason, the only song of this album I knew really well before reviewing this album is “This Here Giraffe,” and it's great of course. A nice thing about it, in particular, is that it begins boldly, but the instrumentation subtly gets weirder as it progresses. Somewhere in the middle, a weird flute noises surfaces, and other points you can distinctly hear a xylophone. I'm only scratching the surface; there's so much going on with the instrumentation that it would take quite a lot to actually sort it out. If The Flaming Lips didn't have the ear for arrangements, a song like that could have easily become cluttered, but instead all these factors amazingly work together.
Just to prove that they're not entirely weird “Brainville” is relatively normal, beginning as an acoustic folk song before progressing into a more lighthearted chorus. “Evil Will Prevail” is probably even more normal and folky. Sometimes these sorts of songs can get boring, but the melody is fantastic, which is always the trumping factor. “Bad Days” is an excellent closer that manages to have that ultra-distorted fuzz guitar that they were so fond of and combine it with some gorgeous “ooh” vocals to create a surprisingly beautiful experience.
It's hard to pick a favorite song in the album, but “Placebo Headwound” is as close as any. There are enough musical ideas in that four minutes for three songs at least. It starts out as a spaced-out folk-rocker, but at one point turns into a bouncier pop song. The melody is especially sweet and likable throughout, and that distorted guitar noodling around is somehow really cool. I'm also a particular fan of “Christmas at the Zoo,” and that's not because the lyrics sort of remind me of Twelve Monkeys. No, that's possibly the catchiest melody of the whole disc, and the instrumentation is as compelling as anything else here. The fuzz guitar is used in a rhythmic fashion to great effect, and the subtle addition of tubular bells and jingle bells in the background gives it a nice Christmas flavor. But the lyrics have as much to do with Christmas as Twelve Monkeys. Well, Twelve Monkeys took place during Christmas, too...
In a nutshell, this album is a pure classic. I don't like it as much as The Soft Bulletin, but I like that album *a lot* and I also like this album *a lot*. As a matter of fact, I'll like anything *a lot* as long as the melodies are fresh and the arrangements are enticing. Not a great deal of bands have that ability, but The Flaming Lips obviously do. On that note, Tool still sucks.
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A Flock of Seagulls: A Flock of Seagulls (1982)
Album Score: 9
So, this album has the hit single "I Ran (So Far Away)" on it. But is it actually notable for anything else? That's up to argument as anything, I suppose, but ... well, they don't consider A Flock of Seagulls a one-hit wonder for nothing! Unfortunately, this is just another example of a rock band with just one good hit in them and nothing else.
This hit made them household names (also, their haircuts), but I do feel sorry for everyone who rushed to the record store and bought their eponymous album hoping for even more hits. The other tracks that are worth noting really don't come close to measuring up. It's also most unfortunate that its greatest shortcomings lie in their melodies. Apart from the hit track, it's bland melody after bland melody! Yeesh!!!!
Now is a good time to mention that I am a considerable fan of "Standing in the Doorway." If they weren't trying to do an Oingo Boingo impression with that, then they sure fooled me! They completely nailed the creepy mood and the melody is even above average for this album. Unfortunately, the melody *is* pretty weak, which is ultimately why we'd never confuse this for something composed by Danny Elfman.
Many of the other tracks work well in a similarly orchestral fashion. I do like the atmospheres (or 'synthscapes' as they're known) they develop here. Some of them are so weird that it's difficult for me to dismiss the song despite the melodic shortcomings. Some tracks are developed better than others, but this album is mostly an atmospheric success story. If that's all you care about (coupled with this album's general sci-fi lyrical themes), then this might be a recommended album for you. But, for the love of god, don't expect anything other than the hit track to linger in that mind of yours after the album finishes playing!
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John Foxx: Metamatic (1980)
Album Score: 12
Let's talk about the massive elephant in the room about John Foxx and his debut album: His sound is virtually exact to Gary Numan's. I mean, I wasn't even five seconds into the first song when that thought popped into my brain. That song happens to be the minimalist synth-pop piece “Plaza” in which the melody is sung-spoken, the instrumentation is starkly plain, and the stylish lyrics are about things pertaining to modern life. But was John Foxx merely a follower? Or was he one of the main propellers of this style of music?
If you talk to Gary Numan, he'd tell you John Foxx was one of his inspirations as the lead singer of Ultravox. Ultravox, you say? Naturally, most people know that band as the outfit led by Midge Ure who had created such radio staples as “Vienna” and “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes.” However, Foxx had been at the helm of that band in the late '70s when they gave disillusioned Roxy Music fans some much needed refuge. But with that said, Foxx's work with Ultravox didn't sound much like Metamatic at all.
So, really, the question of who came first is kind of fuzzy. However, it is documented that Foxx had been debuting some of this stuff while he was still on tour with Ultravox in the late '70s before The Pleasure Principle was even developed. In fact an ex-Ultravox member even ended up joining Numan to create that album. That's still not enough information to help me draw a conclusion, so I'll be left to assume that the two acts were developing the same sort of sound simultaneously. Besides, didn't they all get this idea from Kraftwerk, anyway? However, what was especially unfortunate for Foxx was not only that Numan released his landmark album months earlier, but the two have very similar singing voices. So it's probably no wonder so many music fans of the time thought Foxx as some sort of Numan copycat. But even if that were true, should we care too deeply about it? Artists ought to be able to sound like one another all they please; after all, this synth-pop stuff was cutting edge at the time. Let's give their music a chance to stand on its own two feet.
Well, I like The Pleasure Principle a whole lot better than this. But if you like that album, too, be sure to give this one a whirl as well, because I'm positive you'll like it. My favorite moment of this album is probably “A New Kind of Man,” a song with an involved drum machine rhythm while Foxx speak-sings the lyrics in a manner that only could have been stylish in the early '80s. What I like most about it, though, is that whoosy synthesizer I hear noodling around in the background, that twinkly synthesizer that's occasionally becomes part of that detached groove, and that loud and blaring synthesizer that comes in between stanzas.
“Underpass” is a pretty cool song that's characterized by more quirky synthesizer choices as well as a synthesizer groove that sounds like it belongs in an '80s movie soundtrack, like Beverly Hills Cop II. (You know, pretty much anyone who wrote a synthesizer soundtrack in the '80s owes these pioneers in the pop-music field everything, right?) “Touch and Go” is the closing song, and it's a fitful one. Interestingly Ultravox also recorded this song in their first album with Midge Ure as “Mr. X.” For my money, this one's a lot better since it's faster paced and uses more pleasant-sounding, herky jerky synthesizers. (I don't know why, but Midge Ure mutters through Ultravox's version as if he accidentally traveled into the future and listened to some Pulp albums.) Another song I have to mention is “Metal Beat,” which gives me a pretty goofy image in my mind about two robots doing a tango. I can't ever think ill of a song that prompts me to picture that.
There are six bonus tracks included here, which I'd say is a pretty great bonus! As a whole they're not as good as the songs in the actual album, and many of them are instrumentals. However, there is one pretty excellent pop song in there called “Miles Away,” which the only thing in this collection that comes closest to actually *rocking*. Also, the instrumental “Mr. No” is pretty fantastic, and one I wouldn't recommend missing. Generally, I prefer hearing Foxx sing with his songs, but in that case, I don't want anything to distract me from that HUGE SYNTHESIZER that comes at me like some sort of mountain.
I gave this a 12, but it was a weak one. What Foxx did throughout this album, he did with style, and I like nearly everything. But what's holding me back from letting that 12 wave proudly in the wind is that I can't say there's really a single moment in here that makes me want to return to it. I like the overall experience of listening to this and I'll probably listen to it again, but I wish there was something about this that would make me go more googly eyed.
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Philip Glass: 1000 Airplanes on the Roof (1988)
Album Score: 12
1000 Airplanes on the Roof might be the best place to start with Philip Glass if you are a rock fan. The reason for that is it's a synthesizer-heavy release, and he hired Linda Ronstadt to sing the vocals. That said, this is definitely not a rock album, and Ronstadt only sings "aaah" as if her voice was a synthesizer instrument. This album is almost campy like a '50s B-grade sci-fi flick ... and it's something you can become obsessively engulfed in if you're the right sort of (weird) person.
Philip Glass is a definitely love-him-or-hate-him kind of guy. Me? I love him, and I'm going to score his albums as such. I recommended this album to rock fans interested in getting into Glass, but also note that this album isn't close to his masterpiece ... It's a fair place for a "warm up" though! It's also smack dab in the middle of his minimalism period and his cinematic period ... so you're sort of getting a sample of both of his worlds! However, rock fans who like David Bowie might rather check out Glass' takes on Low (1992) and Heroes (1996). Those are fabulous! Although those tend to have less to do with the sound of his early period.
Philip Glass known for "popularizing" the style of classical music called "minimalism." His grand statement in the genre came in the late '70s with Einstein on the Beach. That album almost like listening to a motor engine running --- it's extremely repetitive (emphasis on the *extremely*) and utterly hypnotizing. You'll either be engrossed, or you'll go crazy. I suppose some critics of the style dislike it because composing in it might be considered lazy ... But if you dare listen to that previously mentioned work, you'll note that his textures are so complex and wild that it's far from lazy.
For reasons I'm assuming had to do with exhaustion, Glass started to write more accessible music using minimalism as a launching pad. 1000 Airplanes on the Roof is quite accessible. Appealing more to the nerd in me, this is a science fiction opera (though the alien, Linda Ronstadt, doesn't know any words apparently).
It sounds pretty wild and exotic to me, which is an accomplishment that you can consider amazing since there doesn't seem to be a whole lot to the songwriting. Although any wannabe composers trying to sit down and write something like this are going to quickly learn that making a successful minimal song is a lot harder than you think. Glass was interested in seeing what kind of textures he could create, and what sort of moods they would generate. I find the style of music interesting. Surely, it's a different type of music and one that many people aren't used to .... Skeptics might be put off by the idea of the genre, but they should at least give 1000 Airplanes a listen, because by all accounts it's minimalism-lite.
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Patty Griffin: Living With Ghosts (1996)
Album Score: 11
I know me a place on the Internet where the name Patty Griffin is treated like a four-letter word. But let's not talk about that. Let's talk about her. The first thing to mention is that Patty Griffin is a woman. The second thing to mention is that Patty Griffin is a singer-songwriter. The third thing to mention is that Patty Griffin only plays with an acoustic guitar and her singing voice.
I now shall talk with normal sentences. (Sort of.) I read the history of this album on allmusic.com, and it only confirms my suspicions that the mid-90s were the age of the female singer-songwriter. (Sarah McLachlan! Tori Amos! Natalie Merchant! Shawn Colvin! ... That one shaved-head chick who had something or other against the pope!) According to that site, this album was recorded as a demo. But the record company liked it so much that they decided to just release it as-is. They said they liked the “raw talent.” It was only by happy circumstance that they didn't also have to shell out money for things like session musicians and fancy recording equipment. ...EASY PAYOLA!!!!
Here's the thing: The record company executives actually had a point: there is a lot of raw talent in this demo. Just because record company executives are usually big fat tubs of lard laced with urine who don't want to pay money for orchestration, it doesn't mean that they don't occasionally recognize a good thing when they hear it. I mean, it's as rare as going to the woods of Arkansas and spotting an ivory-billed woodpecker, but it's been rumored to happen. On occasion.
The biggest drawback, of course, of creating a strummy-acoustic-guitar-and-singing album is that all these songs will start to sound the same. Maybe there are acts out there who managed to bypass that trap, but I haven't run into any so far in my illustrious music reviewing career. It's not a major surprise, but it serves as a pretty fair warning to people who aren't particularly into this sort of folk music. ...Some might say that the main appeal to this album lies in the lyrics. But I don't find them to be anything special. I suppose something like “I can chew like a cannibal / I can yell like a cat / I've even had you believin' that I really, really like it like that / But there was never a moment, not a moment / ... / You ever got within a hundred million miles of my soul ” are interesting, but they don't particularly mean anything to me.
Griffin has an excellent, engaging singing voice. Although, she has this rather off-putting tendency to start singing REALLY loudly in the middle of these songs. It's as though she knew what she was singing was rather dull, so she decided to start WAILING to keep us from nodding off. Well, it works! I also like the way she strums that acoustic guitar of hers. Sometimes it's gentle, other times it's violent. Really, she covers the entire range between gentle and violent. I suppose some of these songs *might* have been spiced up a little bit if they added things like bass guitars or violins. In fact, I'm sure of it. But the more we get to concentrate on her singing and acoustic guitar playing, the better. (And no, I'm not being sarcastic there! I promise!!! I shutter to think of the billion ways a slide guitar could have ruined these songs!)
The songwriting leaves something to be desired sometimes. That's probably my biggest complaint about this album. That's where orchestration would have made a difference, I think. She could have used other instruments to create atmospheres, harmonies, and textures to her great advantage. But nah. Most of these songs do make good listens, even if they're bare and samey. “Mad Mission” in particular has a soaring chorus. I'm also find myself enchanted with the country-western ballad “Time Will Do the Talking.” ...Those are the only two songs I particularly care to highlight in this main review body.
But I like Patty Griffin. She's good. She's talented. She's thoughtful. She's intelligent. She's literate. Occasionally she comes out with a good melody. But I don't like her as much as The Griffin, the psychedelic-pop band from the '60s. I also don't like her as much as Gryphon, the prog-rock band from the '70s. But what can I say? I'm a dorky, dorky man. I will never be hip. I have ancestors from England, Norway, and Germany. I am going bald. I'm good at mathematics. I get on the Internet and write music reviews that dabble as much in my personal life as the music I'm allegedly writing about. I am pretty much hopeless. But Patty Griffin is cool. Everybody likes her. She's sold 169,000 copies of this album. I haven't even been to the toilet that many times.
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Guided By Voices: Bee Thousand (1994)
Album Score: 11
When I tell you that Bee Thousand by Guided By Voice is something else, I mean that it's *something else*. This band has adopted a “cut and run” policy when it comes to songmanship, and I'll tell you that it takes a lot of getting used to. In fact, it takes so much getting used to that I never even got used to it. I gave it a shot, but it just wasn't happening. So, I'm sorry. Whenever they come up with a good riff or a melody (which is frequent), they let the idea die approximately three minutes before I want it to. This is one reason why I found listening to Bee Thousand frustrating. The other reason has to do with the second half, but I'll get to that later.
I know this band is supposed to have artistic integrity, and they wanted to be original and everything, but this was obviously too much for me. I'm also aware that there's been a pretty heavy following surrounding this, so my views might stir up some controversy. I feel sort of guilty for not liking it, but I shouldn't. Why would I have a Website if I can't freely express my views? And now that I have a potentially controversial opinion, then it'll get all the more exciting. So. I don't see the big appeal of Bee Thousand. Call me an old geezer if you want, but it's better to develop your songs.
The thing is, there's some really fabulous stuff in here. I mean, there are more good melodies and riffs in here than you could shake a stick at. “Buzzards and Dreadful Crows” has a really catchy vocal hook! The instrumentation is even good in that sloppy, uncouth way. Obviously, this band wanted to be the rock 'n' roll equivalents of a cool guy who doesn't shower in the morning, and they did that well. It's just a shame they seemed to lack confidence and had ADD. “Tractor Rape Chain” is barely more than three minutes long, which is epic in these parts, but that one also has a compelling melody. Compelling melodies are cool.
Most of these songs can be described as “sloppy '90s fuzzy guitar rockers” or “acoustic and sloppy folky numbers” which means I don't have much to describe. But there are a few oddities mixed in here. “Hot Freaks,” with a menacing '60s garage rock riff (that's oddly passively played) and an Iggy-Pop-like lead vocal, is a really memorable throwback to the old times. It's so good that I'm especially disappointed they didn't let it go past two minutes. “Echos Myron” is reminiscent of '60s sunshine-pop, and it's an excellent one thanks to their decidedly above average melody writing skills! It approaches the three-minute mark, so that's a proper length, but I've got to wonder how well it would have sounded if they got rid of those goofy, cheap guitars. (Man, I'm going to get a lot of flack for this review... I don't know much about this band, but I have a feeling that I'm deriding exactly what the fans are celebrating.)
All of my complaining aside, the album is pretty smooth sailing all throughout the first half of the album. Most of those songs were compelling enough to be awarded an A- or higher in the track reviews. You see, even if I'm upset about some of these running lengths and lazy instrumentation, a great melody will always save the day.
Things get a lot worse in the last half where I start to get happier that the songs are short. I want them to end sooner! It's hardly abysmal down there, but the melodic ideas are generally less compelling and the instrumentation is even sloppier. There are a few moments where it seemed especially like they were scraping the bottom of the barrel, which gives me the idea that maybe they weren't as good at being McCartney-esque melody wasters like they wanted to be. “A Big Fan of the Pigpen” is barely even listenable. Geez, if singing obnoxiously out-of-tune whilst picking at an acoustic guitar is your idea of a good time, I'm obviously missing out on something. There's this incessant squeaky sound coming out of my speakers in “Demons Are Real.” That was probably designed to drive me nuts! But anyway, those songs were at least crazy and I couldn't bear to completely hate them.
On the plus side, “Her Psychology Today” is a really nutty riff rocker that I found to be fun, and “I Am a Scientist” is one of those songs that has a great melody and would have made a very nice five-minute song! The melody is so good that I don't even care a member of The Shaggs came in with an awkward guitar part! ...The Shaggs...... OK, maybe that's going too far.
In the end, I think Bee Thousand is a good album with a hearty handful of amazing melodies, but I find it to be too much of a frustrating listen for me to get enthusiastic about it. An 11 seems like a score I'm comfortable with. A 10 is way to low and a 12 would be way too high. However, feel free to raise it to a 12 if sloppy instrumentation appeals to you and you tend to get bored when songs go beyond two minutes. I'm going to go back to my ABBA albums now.
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Hall & Oates: Private Eyes (1981)
Album Score: 10
Someone on a message board was discussing the merits of Hall & Oates, and he recommended Private Eyes to me. Generally speaking, I'm pleasantly happy with this release although it's certainly not going to make a dent in my Top 100 albums list. I doubt it would even threaten my Top 250. Why? Well, because it's so freaking bland.
That's not to say that blandness can't be good. At least, for the love of furry woodland creatures, this isn't cheesy. They weren't pandering to the fads of 1981 --- there's no synth-pop, disco beats or grimey synthscapes. (There are, however, some disco grooves, but not to a bad effect.) This is your straight, ordinary pop album with a minimum amount of production.
I do compliment the production although that does manage to contribute to the blandness that I've been complaining about. No matter how much I like complimenting their arrangements for what they didn't do (which is probably against some rhetoric law somewhere), that doesn't forgive the fact that the arrangements weren't exactly inspiring.
Despite those thoughts, the arrangements aren't actually the significant contributor to this album's downfall. It's the melodies. Simply put, a great melody is what pop albums need. Sure, you can make a good song without a catchy melody, but that's the *one* thing that can guarantee a great pop song. Unfortunately, Hall & Oates fall considerably short. Much of their melodies are instantly forgettable. Some of them are fine and mildly catchy, but as I'm sitting here writing this, I have a tough time recalling any of them.
Nonetheless, this is a perfectly pleasant album, and I mildly recommend it to pop fans. If you can find it used for a cheap price, it's probably worth it depending on how much money you earn and if you already own the 4,000 more recommendable albums currently on this planet. It was a huge seller in the 1980s, and I think the consumers were given a perfectly nice product. Thanks to the limited production, it doesn't sound badly dated. So, there you have it. Now, drink up!
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Lobby Loyde: Obsecration (1976)
Album Score: 12
Hard-rock meets prog-rock? ...Has such a thing even been attempted before? Frank Zappa, maybe? Oh, but I bet Frank Zappa never tried to make his guitar sound like a didgeridoo. That's what Lobby Loyde does in a song called “A Rumble With Seven Parts and Lap Dissolve,” which is one of the most unusual heavy blues songs I've ever heard. It's based on a very usual blues riff, but they completely drench it with a sea of electric guitars. I wonder how many guitarists there were in the studio? Or was it just Loyde overdubbing himself a bunch of times? There's a saxophonist, too, and he plays a very juicy sax! He pops up in all these songs, thank goodness. Anyway, in the track reviews, I likened that song to sitting in the middle of a large crowd and listening to people's conversations... You can make out an individual's words if you want to, but you'd never be able to hear what everybody's saying. The whole song is kind of the musical equivalent of a dull murmur.
The opening song, “Obsecration,” is more than 17 minutes long, and I never once get tired of it. Most of it is a pretty heavy rocking song with crunchy guitars playing very catchy riffs... There aren't very many vocal melodies in this album, but Loyde sings a fun, bluesy melody at the beginning of it and then more soaringly at the end. ...Naturally, being more than 17 minutes long, the music delves into very lengthy guitar passages, and they're all compelling. At one point, I even hear him play that controversial Phantom of the Opera riff. (Roger Waters must've not been in Australia when this was released. Otherwise Lobby Loyde would've gotten sued.)
Not all of these songs are insanely long: “Rock And Roll Sunset” is a two-minute-long Jerry Lee Lewis style piano rocker. It does pick up a lot of energy, and I sort of wish they fleshed it out to a full five minute song. For the 47-second album closer “Congratulateonies,” they create a surprisingly dark riff that just comes in and fades out. ...I really don't understand what was preventing them from fleshing that one out, because it also might have been pretty cool five-minute song. There's also an eight-minute-long blues rocker called “Going to Louisianna” (sic) that's a lot of fun to listen. It's far more normal than the other blues-rockers on this disc, which is a mild relief to me... at least it shows they could be normal if they wanted to be...
The second longest song here is the 14-minute “Dream Tide.” It's mostly acoustic and seemingly meant to be more atmospheric than rockin'... It's quite a nice song to listen to while you're doing something else, such as browsing the web, but it doesn't demand my undivided attention like many of the other songs. ...Eh, you can probably call it “boring” if you want, but it does have its sweeping moments.
The closest thing this album has to a more or less straight prog exercise is the final song in the bonus tracks, “Fist of Is.” Of course like everything else in the album, it's the guitars that take the center stage. The only keyboards I hear is a rumbly organ (which is present through most of these songs). ...But seriously, who ever heard of a prog tune in 1976 not to have any Mellotrons or synthesizers? Nevertheless, just like any respectable prog song should, it gradually shifts its tones and textures, and they always seem to come up with new musical themes that keep things interesting. Of course it's a far cry from matching the majesty of a classic Genesis song, but … well, that's Genesis. For an obscure band from Australia, these guys are really good. It is highly respectable prog, to say the least.
Another song in the bonus tracks I have to mention is “Too Poor To Die,” which kind of freaked me out when I wrote the track review early this morning. It starts out with a surprisingly catchy heavy metal riff before turning into a chaotic bit of hard-rock mayhem where there's a strange woman who is yelling and hissing through it, and Lobby Loyde is singing in a terrified, guttural manner. (If there was a voice like that hissing and yelling while I was trying to sing a hard-rock song, then I'd sing in a paranoid manner like that, too.) Also contributing to the mayhem is a saxophone screeching in the background, and the main lead guitars are heavily distorted... It's such an odd song. Did I like it? Of course I did!!
Anyway, there's more to read in the bonus tracks if you want to. Most of these bonus tracks were taken from an EP, so it's basically an extra half-album that comes with the usual album for your purchase. ...Although this is a fairly expensive album to get, so it's not like it's for free or anything. But if you have the money and you want to hear what hard-rock combined with prog-rock might sound like, then your purchase will be well worth it.
When I first put this album on, I thought it sounded a lot like that Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs album I reviewed some time ago called More Arse Than Class. In fact, Lobby Loyde had worked with Billy Thorpe in the past, so there is a connection after all. ...Unfortunately, both figures died in 2007, less than two months away from each other. Perhaps they were also spiritually connected? I guess early 2007 wasn't a good time for the Australian rock 'n' roll scene.
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Barry Manilow: Barry Manilow II (1974)
Album Score: 8
At least I can say that this album starts out like it's going to take over China. "I Want to Be Somebody's Baby" is incredibly enjoyable and upbeat. It's has Manilow's '70s Vegas vibe and with a slightly strange, off-kilter feeling about it. It's quite an interesting song. He follows that up with a stellar song "Early Morning Strangers," a conventional soft-rock number but enough interesting ideas strewn throughout to keep it interesting. And of course "Mandy" follows after that, which I'm sure everybody has heard. Even people who hate Barry Manilow seem to like that song ... although he didn't write that song.
The following three songs are entirely tolerable although it seems clear that it's dropped off considerably in quality. "Two Of Us" is a ballad that never takes off when it should --- but at least it's pretty. The following two tracks are enjoyable though they're not too striking in my opinion.
After that, there's the strangely out-of-place "Avenue C," which sounds like a '50s commercial jingle. This worked on his more pointedly diverse previous album, but here it seems to stick out like a sore thumb. Despite that, I actually enjoy the song --- but it ruins the general feel of the album that Manilow seemed to be shooting for.
Well, at any rate, I'd take "Avenue C" on the boring ballads that follow it any day of the week. "My Baby Loves Me," "Sandra" and "Home Again" consists of the Axis of Evil even though "Home Again" is slightly less eviler than the others. All three of them are hopelessly corny ballads without great melodies. They are what preventing me from having good, overall words to say about this release.
It's been correctly pointed out that this is where Manilow decides what direction he wanted to take his career. This is also much more focused on cheesy ballads and Vegas-oriented pop music than his previous album, Manilow I! Well, this album loses some of the needed diversity though the switch. Simply put, this album is pretty boring to sit through... apart from the three opening tracks, that is.
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Album Score: 8
There is George Michael... lurking in the shadows of an empty closet... with nothing to do but impersonate David Blaine...
This was his first album he had released in six years. Why he waited so long to release one while he was still at the height of his popularity was explained by Wikipedia contributors as having something to do with legal problems with his record company. I didn't care enough about it to read further into the paragraph.
The Wikipedia writers also described the lead hit single off this album, “Jesus to a Child,” as melancholic. I suppose they could have been using that term generically to describe its slow and downbeat tone, but when I describe a song as melancholic, it would have to give me a lump in my throat when I listen to it. “Tomorrow on the Runway” by The Innocence Mission is a perfect example of that. All “Jesus to a Child” ever does to my throat is give it the predilection to yawn. ...And before you all accuse me of not knowing my facts, yes I did read far enough into that Wikipedia entry to learn that Michael was singing about some dead guy that he had been secretly in love with. I do sympathize with people who love other people who are dead now and want to sing about them. I'm not heartless.
He is an awfully whispery singer, which could be the reason that people have been giving him so many passion props. I also love the sound of his voice, which is cool, mellow and smoother than clay. Unfortunately, his tear-jerky lyrics ring like something I expect to find out of Hallmark cards or during the opening titles of a Lifetime Original Movie. (“Sadness in my eyes / No one guessed and no one tried / You smiled at me like Jesus to a child / Loveless and cold / With your last breath you saved my soul / You smiled at me like Jesus to a child / And what I have learned from all these tears / I've waited for you all these years / Then just when it began he took your love away”) For sure, I've heard much worse than this. But I want lyrics that incite thought and imagery. All these lyrics do is make me think of a postcard that a Mormon gave me once.
With that said, “Jesus to a Child” isn't a terrible song. The melody is decent. George Michael's vocal performance is lovely. ...I really don't know why he needed to keep playing it for seven minutes, particularly since nothing significant about it ever changes after its first minute. I also find the follow-up song, “Fastlove” to be fitfully entertaining. The melody and atmosphere doesn't do much for me, but it has a pleasant light-groove to it. If all else fails, give us something we can tap our foot to.
The problem with this album is pretty much everything past that point. After we've listened to the last notes of “Fastlove,” we've pretty much exhausted all the fast songs this album has to offer. Nearly everything else is a whispery slow song, most of which are effectively indistinguishable from “Jesus to a Child.” Boring! An important exception to this, and what happens to be my favorite song of this album, is the slow song “To Be Forgiven.” I think the melody flows more nicely, and I find that bongo-heavy groove to be quite appealing. The atmosphere is rather haunting in spots there, thanks mostly to a flautist who is occasionally allowed to play some rather unusual scales. The flautist is also there for “The Strangest Thing.” Even though its ridiculously monotonous drum pattern ends up getting the better of me on that one, if I'm able to tune it out, I'm left to enjoy some immensely lovely flute lines.
In short, this is a boring album. While George Michael manages to write a few decent things here and there, the fact remains that there are far too many slow songs in this album. And even the slow songs that I generally enjoy overstay their welcome by at least two minutes each. I like that there are a few moments here that can legitimately be described as haunting, but they are few and far between. As a whole, the instrumentation sounds like canned elevator music. While this isn't the worst album I've ever listened to, by a long shot, it's mediocre. If that assessment puts me in the minority of music fans, then I must be one of most exciting people on the planet.
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Minutemen: Double Nickels on the Dime (1984)
Album Score: 13
The sheer number of songs that are present on Double Nickels on the Dime is enough to blow your mind: Forty-three! Although, you might have 47 or 44 tracks depending on what edition you bought. Nevertheless that's a lot of songs for an eighty-minute album. That makes the average song length a little bit less than two minutes. The styles they come up with are sometimes random and staggering; the primary focus of the album is punk-rock and funk-rock, but I also detected some country-western, new wave, folk, pop, garage and avant-garde. Some of these songs sound like they had been planned extensively, and others seem improvised. You might think listening to such an album would be hard to take; believe me, I had that fear of it before I heard it. But, I'd say there's a good chance you'll love this album. It is widely considered one of the finest punk-rock albums of all time, and there's good reason for that.
The reason, of course, is because there is some freaking excellent stuff on here. You can probably understand that writing all 43 of the track reviews was very cumbersome task and it took a very long time, but there were so many staggeringly good songs that I enjoyed the process as much as I could. Ten of them received a pure A+ rating, eleven received an A rating, and nine received an A- rating! Also, I couldn't see any reason to score anything less than a B. So everything is good. (Hey, a song like the confused “ Please Don't Be Gentle With Me” might not be *good*, so to speak, but at least it had the good sense to pull out after only 46 seconds.) The only track that I don't like much at all is called “Three Car Jam,” but that's almost by default since that's not really a *song* as much as it's a 38-second sound-byte of car engines starting.
The secret to Minutemen's success has more to do with their instrumental abilities than anything else. D. Boon might not have been much of a lead singer, but he could play his electric guitar like a kung-fu master. He could be pleasant and minimalist (“It's Expected I'm Gone”), and he could play like he was trapped in a sped-up tape-deck (“The Politics of Time”). He was as comfortable with sloppy fuzz-guitar (“Nothing Indeed”) as he was comfortable with blues (“It's Expected I'm Gone”). He frequently tried out an ultra-slick funk-pop (“Theatre is the Life For You”), textural acoustical folk (“Cohesion”), and even mystical, atmospheric noodles (“Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth”). Indeed, Boon was quite an amazing fellow! Tragically, he would die in a car crash a year after this album was released. But of course, Boon wasn't the only member of this band; Mike Watt is an amazing bass player, which I frequently pointed out all throughout the track reviews, and George Hurley always seems to come up with tasty fills!
Maybe the other track I don't care about is “Don't Look Now,” but that's just because it's a live recording and the sound quality is atrocious. Even though this album is basically a smörgåsbord of ideas, that song still seems to be out of place. Other than that, I'm willing to accept everything else no matter how ridiculous it sounds. I mentioned country-western before, which might have been met with a few gasps. Yes, country-western pops up in one song called “Corona.” Surely, it's too fast-paced and creative to have ever made it big in the trailer parks, but it's crazy enough to be a big hit with me! The weirdest song on the bunch is really difficult to tell, but I'll have to go with “You Need the Glory,” which is some sort of manic space-jazz. The band plays the weirdest, spaciest texture they could come up with while Boon does the most ridiculous scat-singing I've ever heard. Hilarious. ...Oh, and if you haven't noticed already, some of these song titles are very humorous. Get a load of these: “The Roar of the Masses Could Be Farts,” “Political Song For Michael Jackson to Sing,” “Jesus and Tequila.” Those are great songs, too. They all got an A+.
What's perhaps the most amazing thing about the album is not just that it has 43 songs on it, but most of them are actually well-developed. There are very few songs here that consists of simply one riff or one idea throughout its entire running length. Sometimes there's a chorus, sometimes there's another riff, or there could be a jazzy interlude. There's usually an introduction of some sort, and there are very few fade-outs. So, I rarely felt like any of these songs were too short. That's rather the opposite reaction I had to Guided By Voices' Bee Thousand, which was probably inspired by this album, but it didn't quite generate this remarkable vibe. So, in the end, Double Nickels on the Dime is a highly recommendable album, and it can also be easily enjoyed since most of them have either a hooky melody, hooky riff or both. The prospect of sitting through 43-tracks in 80 minutes probably doesn't appeal to everyone. It didn't appeal to me at first. But this is definitely worth at least one listen.
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The Monkees: The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees (1968)
Album Score: 11
I don't want to say that Michael Nesmith is a John Lennon or anything, but this guy is freaking great! He doesn't do anything fundamentally different from many other songwriters of this era --- 1968 was a pretty strange year for music and the peak of psychedelia. But Nesmith takes these ideas and doesn't reduce them to the common denominator. He sounds fresh and vibrant! He takes on The Byrds' country-rock, jangly ideas for all they were worth on "Auntie's Municipal Court" and a wild hodge podge of ideas in "Tapioca Tundra." He also writes a wholly enjoyable old-timey jazz pop tune "Magnolia Simms" as well as *ahem* Pink Floyd in "Writing Wrongs." These are some of the best songs on the album --- pretty good for a manufactured band, I'd say! It's a shame Christina Aguilera can't reach this level of creativity with a 20-foot pole.
Not to say that The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees is a great work of art, but --- it's an interesting pop album. Naturally, the melodies are the principal reason to give this a listen. Of course, Nesmith's melodies are lovely. Probably the most famous melody is "Daydream Believer" from an outside songwriter --- what a great chorus! Also, Boyce and Hart contribute their answer to The Magical Mystery Tour "P. O. Box 9847." That track is a blast!
I like Davey Jones' contributions as well. "Dream World" is an enjoyable pop number that also has something slightly off about it. His "The Poster" isn't as highly recommendable, but it's pretty good considering it's one of the album's weaker tracks. Oddly, his sunshine-pop song "I'm Gonna Try" in the bonus tracks is a real gem if you like that genre. Certainly they could have replaced the too-simplistic and generic "We Were Made For Each Other" (from outside songwriters) with that one in the regular album. Oh well... We still get to hear it at any rate.
This is just a good album. It's notably weaker than the predecessor Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, LTD, but possibly stranger. Well, that's definitely worth something! Thumbs up.
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The Monkees: Head (1968)
Album Score: 12
Geez, this is some piece of work, and it's faaaaaaar from what you'd expect if you only know The Monkees for being those manufactured sunshine boys who were responsible for "I'm a Believer" and "Theme from The Monkees." Even if you were paying attention to their excellent and artistically inclined 1967 and 1968 albums, you would never have expected something like this.
They're not so much taking hints from The Beatles any longer, but --- *gasp* --- Frank Zappa!!! This is an assembly of soundbytes to create a sort of extended avant-garde sound collage! Now don't let your imagination get too out of hand. This is nowhere near as weird as Zappa, and there's still real songs in it. And hey, listen to these songs! There are six of them!! They're awesome!!! The soundbytes tend to be lines of dialogue that seem out of old movies except out-of-whack. (Here are a few examples: "And, I'd like a cold glass of cold gravy with a hair in it, please." Immediately after that there's "Sounds like a a lot of supernatural baloney to me / Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not.")
So, what about the pop songs? Well, they're excellent that's what. They're not particularly strange or anything, but they're interesting and even artistic. The usual bunch of outside songwriters such as Carole King and Harry Nilsson can be seen here, and they seemed to take this opportunity to pen some wonderful tunes for the Monkees movie! The crowning achievement must be King's epic "Porpoise Song," which is so artsy and convincing that it even puts The Moody Blues to shame --- sometimes.
The fact that there are only six real songs on here might phase a few potential buyers. They might think that it must mean there's a lot of "sound collage." Well not really. This album's less than 30 minutes long, which I guess proves that The Beach Boys were not the only fading pop stars releasing short records. But at least that gives you the chance to back out of this album if it's too weird for ya!! Eh, this won't be too weird for ya. If you think this is weird, then just consider it preparation for Zappa or Can or ... whatever ... You're not going to be able to get out of this life if you don't hear those, you know. ... Or maybe you will. Hm.
One day I'm going to watch the movie, which will be a day that I'm sure will be glorious. Other than enjoying the soundtrack, there are also plenty of other "perks." For one, the script was co-written by actor Jack Nicholson, so there must be a lot of cussing in it. Also, there's a cameo from Frank Zappa. (Alas, that must mean he approved of The Monkees! ... Well that's no surprise, an open-minded guy such as that.) Anyway, this is an enjoyable album, and it begs to be heard. May everybody get some Head.
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Harry Nilsson: Nilsson Schmilsson (1971)
Album Score: 12
I'm not going to pretend I think Harry Nilsson was a genius songwriter or anything, but he was definitely an above-average one. Probably the most appealing aspect of him was his voice, which was absolutely beautiful. There really aren't too many singers who are able to hit notes so powerful that it sounds like part of his soul was being torn out while at the same time also being able to sit back and sing with utter warmth to a sweet folk ballad.
And I really like that sweet folk ballad! (There's only one in here, so what else could I be talking about?) It's called “The Moonbeam Song,” and it's wonderful. Do you hear how naturally Nilsson could switch into an almost falsetto voice there? I even like the lyrics, although I wouldn't be too surprised if some listeners would find them too cutesy for their tastes. But can you just—for a second—set your pessimistic ways aside and try to enjoy this? ( “Have you ever watched a moonbeam / As it slid across your windowpane / Or struggled with a bit of rain / Or danced about the weather vane / Or sat along a moving train / And wonder where the train has been.”) The melody is one of those melodies that manages to absorb itself in me, and I also love the simple instrumentation consisting of a simple acoustic guitar and—toward the end—sweepingly thick layers of his overdubbed voice.
However, that's not one of the album's famous songs. That honor can go to “Without You,” which is easily one of the best power ballads of that era. I remember hearing it for the first time when I was about 20 and thinking it was about the best thing I've ever heard. Though somehow, it wasn't until now I realized that Nilsson didn't write it; rather Badfinger did, and it appeared on their 1970 album No Dice. This is one of those examples of a cover version that has so greatly surpassed the original in popularity that, I guess, people by and large forgot its origins! Nevertheless, Nilsson's version is spot-on. It starts off with a calm and morose piano before a full orchestra pipes up by the end, and all the meanwhile Nilsson's full vocals are put to powerful effect. Especially the chorus, which just soooooars.
The other famous song here is “Coconut,” which is a song I can claim to have hated at one point in my life, but that hatred has since simmered down some. It's one of those songs that can be perfectly harmless if it's a relatively unknown recording on one of an artist's more obscure albums. However, for some stupid reason, this became so dang popular, and it doesn't take me too many listens before I'm sick of it. However, if I can take this song for what it is—a throwaway novelty number—then it can be fun. ...Also for the record, Kermit the Frog sings the definitive version of it. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1wg_L0wGTyA&feature=related)
There are also other songs on this album! Are they worth talking about? ...You bet! If you didn't know already, Harry Nilsson realllllly liked The Beatles, and you'd accurately describe most of this album as Beatles-esque. “Gotta Get Up” opens the album with a catchy, meandering melody and bright and colorful instrumentation. It starts with a bouncy piano, but it isn't long before I start to hear—at intermittent times—a full horn section and an accordion. One of my favorite things about the song is that sped-up piano that fades out at the end. The album's second song is “Driving Along,” and it has such a homely but catchy melody that I'd wonder if Nilsson trespassed on Paul McCartney's farm and snatched it from the shack from which he was recording Ram.
Unfortunately, the last few songs of the album don't thrill the pants off of me, although they all make very nice listens. “Jump Into the Fire” is a surprisingly lengthy (7+ minutes) and highly energetic rock 'n' roll song. Although despite its energy, I can't really get myself caught up into its spirit. The final song “I'll Never Leave You” is a very morose ballad that I find heart-wrenching, but I also can't seem to get myself to love it. But whether or not you like or love these songs, the one thing Nilsson Schmilsson is good for is diversity. Chances are, you'll love at least something here, even if you consider “Without You” too corny for your tastes.
Harry Nilsson might no longer be with us here on the Planet Earth, but he continues to thrive in the public psyche. That is, among people who like to listen to pop music from yesteryear. More than that, this particular album is by far his most celebrated one, which is surprising because he once made an entire album with John Lennon, and it seems like the world has pretty much forgotten about it. Nevertheless, if you want to look into Harry Nilsson's career, then this is probably the best place to start. You could even say this is the main reason he's still remembered.
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Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: Dazzle Ships (1983)
Album Score: 12
Dazzle Ships caused some problems for OMD (more so than the full band name, which I can never seem to spell correctly without checking it at least three times). They had achieved considerable success for their previous album Architecture & Mortality, one of the more readily enjoyable synth-pop albums from the era, but they decided to follow it up with this artistic, moody album without any substantial hits on it. The songs aren't always intrinsically catchy, and it's filled to the brim with weird sound effects. It's a little bit like David Byrne's and Brian Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts except it seems a lot more serious.
Indeed, it was serious. Critics, who know more about things than I do, have said this was meant to capture all the fear and angst that came with living in the end days of the Cold War. I can't quite resonate with such a thing, because I didn't come around until the Boris Yeltsin years, but this is certainly one of the moodiest, atmospheric '80s albums I've ever heard.
Surely, OMD owe Kraftwerk a lot for their sound. Some have called Dazzle Ships something of a retro album since most bands by 1983 moved beyond simple synthesizer and drum machine patterns. But OMD had a point when they reverted to such instrument standards; their sparseness and repetitiveness is a big part of the dark moods they create all throughout this. I read an interesting comment on an Internet forum from someone who theorized that OMD had essentially rewritten Kraftwerk's Radio Activity. Whoever said that certainly has a point. Even scanning some of these track titles—“Radio Waves,” “Telegraph,” “Time Zones,” “Romance of the Telescope”—I get that impression. They seem to be pertaining to communicating over vast distances. Even looking deeper into it, at the music, the moods of both albums are pretty much dead on.
Of course OMD had one important advantage over Kraftwerk: They actually had a lead singer, Adam McClusky. So, not only do we get plenty of downbeat, hypnotic moods, but we have some terribly passionate singing throughout. The highlights are those soul-bearing ballads. “International” is a particular fan favorite with its sparse, pulsating synthesizer that hypnotizes us, and McClusky bearing his soul to us with that soaring performance. I like “Romance of the Telescope” for the same reasons... but that one gets extra points for its weirdly satisfying synthscape! (There's something about songs with an abundance of creepy, dead synthesizer voices that appeals to me. I have no idea why.)
I'd say easily the most delightful moments of this album appear at the beginning. The first main song “Genetic Engineering” starts with a rhythmic use of sound effects (similar to the way Pink Floyd started “Money”), but what ensues is a hand-clap heavy, bubbly groove and some faux-operatic singing. This is one of those weird, out-of-the-box moments that are so delightful that I can't contain myself. However, “This is Helena,” to me, is the most delightful moment of the album—that hard, tack-tack-tack drumbeat playing among a series of strange sound effects I find to be greatly ear-catching and appealing. It was probably weird for me to have picked that as the album highlight, but this is a weird album and it was asking for it.
All in all this is a very strange and creative album! But I've gotta complain about one thing—one thing that didn't seem to concern me that much as I was listening to this album, but it might be what's inhibiting me from awarding this a full-on 13. Most of these tracks are two-chord songs. Usually, the merits of the groove, atmosphere and the singing elevate these compositions beyond “just a two-chord song,” but I also think this album would have been improved slightly if they gave a little more thought to chords and development. Not that I really know how to make a moody synth-pop album, but I'm only sayin'... I don't find this album as boring as average music listeners invariably would, but at the same time, I do find it rather dull sometimes.
At the moment, I am an OMD newbie, and I don't intimately know their work well enough to comment on how well this fits into their discography. However, I have poked around their discography enough to have found out that Dazzle Ships is indeed an odd-duck. I detected plenty of creativity present in their earlier albums released before this, as well as a little bit in their later albums (when they retreated from these artsy ambitions and resumed being one of the '80s premier hit-making bands). But I'd imagine that Dazzle Ships is the album that they're most proud of, as they should be. It's not all the time a pop band makes such a strangely delightful art-rock masterstroke.
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Os Mutantes: Os Mutantes (1968)
Album Score: 14
YES!!! This Brazilian psychedelic group is absolutely brilliant. They're also so unique that people who fancy themselves as explorers in the world of rock 'n' roll must take some time to chart these waters. Trust me, anyone who enjoys music for the art of it will find much to love about this group. The group sings mainly in Portugese, so that might put off some listeners. But it shouldn't. Musically, these guys are innovative, experimental and usually quite delightful. There's so much, musically, in this album, that I find it difficult to know what to start talking about.
So, let's start talking about the history of the group. This is a band that has obviously done a lot of listening to the Beatles. They're also Brazillian, so the influence of bossa nova and samba shows in their music. But describing Os Mutantes as a mere cross between British psychedelia and bossa nova doesn't do it justice. They also inject their own, custom-made brand of crazy weirdness in the mix!!! And I love this crazy weirdness!!!! I can't even describe this crazy weirdness 90 percent of the time. If I did, my track reviews would be 20 pages long. That's how brilliant this all is.
Also, an important point, they're also not being weird just to be weird (which is often a complaint I have of Frank Zappa). Their weird music is tasteful. It's even accessible as long as you're listening to it with the proper ears. Naturally, any mainstream audience (i.e., people who waste their music-listening life to a certain genre of music) won't get this music, but that's their loss. If you love music that dares to strive beyond complacency (music as it's supposed to be), then you'll love Os Mutantes. If you want to know more about how this music sounds like, then please read my track reviews!!!
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Pearls Before Swine: Balaklava (1968)
Album Score: 9
This is going to be my favorite freaky, avant-garde psychedelic band until I can come up with a better one. Psychedelia was subject to some of the worst examples of excess... not to mention avant garde music. But at the same time, this album is hilarious. These guys are really awesome at sucking.
This is actually their second album, but it's the earliest one they have on Rhapsody's database at the moment (but I do have their first album from my emusic account --- and I haven't listened to it yet). The founder and principal member of this group is Tom Rapp. I'm pretty sure he's the guy who sings... what a distinctly mediocre voice. Sometimes it sounds like he had spit dribbling out of his mouth, but when he's not singing like a doofus, I don't care much for the tone of it. It's just not pleasant sounding.
They might be a psychedelic band (which were kinduva dime a dozen back then), I think you would be hard pressed to find a band that was this SPACED OUT. I mean, I could be wrong. If there is a stranger band, then I'll probably listen to them one day and then check myself into the nearest mental institution the following morning. When it comes right down to it, I love hearing weird, weird music. The problem with this is that it's just not that entertaining. It's definitely interesting, though. Their arrangements, in particular, are quite intriguing. Rarely do I ever run across anything as bizarre as that backing music for "Images of April." The closing track "Ring Thing" also has an interesting texture. This at least proves that they had some sort of goal in mind when they recorded this flabbergasting album.
Another quality I like about this band is they take advantage of a wide array of instruments apart from the usual rock combo. Among other things, I hear organs, beautiful piano, violin, woodwind, bagpipes(!!!!), random sound effects, etc... But in a few of these songs, like "There Was a Man," it merely consists simply of singing and an acoustic guitar. The diversity is at least valuable even though this can be a difficult album to listen to.
And my last compliment: At least I don't get the impression that they're pandering to the lowest common denominator... In fact, I'm sure there's examples of psychedelia that would make me grate my teeth and forsake the genre forever. As far as all that nonsense was ever worth, Pearls Before Swine manage to be fairly worthwhile.
I read on Wikipedia that this album is a huge anti-war protest statement. Well maybe they were trend-followers, after all. From what little I bothered getting out of the lyrics, they seemed pretty spaced out and hippie-esque, so they don't bother me. Also realize that analyzing lyrics is something that generally doesn't interest me...
Well this is definitely something... I'll have you read the track reviews, if you don't mind!
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Radiohead: OK Computer (1997)
Album Score: 13
I had an OK computer in 1997. Unlike the previous computer we had from 1993, this new one was able to support the greatest video game in the history of mankind: Civilization II. I was finally able to quench my thirst for oppressing other people-types and going onto achieve virtual world domination! Oh, how many hours out of my life have I wasted in front of that computer! But that's not what you clicked on this review to read, is it? You want to read what I think about the other OK Computer from 1997, the widely loved rock album from the most famous band of the '90s.
Unlike most of the albums I review for this site, I've actually owned it for more than six years, buying it back in the summer of 2002. I played it once shortly after I bought it, and I never listened to it again. Not that I thought it was bad or anything, but I had my favorite, freshly purchased David Bowie, early Genesis, and Kinks records on heavy rotation, and, frankly, Radiohead is much less exciting than those guys. I mean, where is the rock 'n' roll energy? Even Genesis had more rock 'n' roll energy than Radiohead, and I thought they were as neutered as it gets! Even after giving a good number of serious listens in preparation for this review, I haven't significantly changed my mind about OK Computer. So there you go; this is my sincere confession: I am not a huge fan of this, and I probably will never be.
But I still like it, and I'll spend the rest of this review telling you why. (That's what I should have been doing in the first place. You can skip reading the first two paragraphs, if you want to.) How can anyone not like an album with a song like “Subterranean Homesick Alien” on it where they completely nail everything? The whole point of that song is the atmosphere, and this is engaging right from those memorable opening cosmic guitar lines. If it's impossible for you to be able to soak up these soundscapes, then there's no way in hell you're going to get anything out of OK Computer. That said, these songs do a significant boost from the power of Thom Yorke's pretty vocals. They can be a little whiny sometimes, but those vocals pretty much save the day in many cases. “Exit Music (For a Film),” for example, doesn't have extremely compelling instrumentals; it's Mr. Yorke's vocals that make it so engaging. He sounds positively anguished!
“No Suprises” is another one of those undisputed highlights of OK Computer that *gets me* right from the beginning. The jangly instrumentation and atmosphere is like a more colorful version of early R.E.M. Yorke is singing to the heavens, and the nursery-rhyme quality of the melody is nice. Speaking of the melodies, I think that's one department that most of the critics have gotten wrong about these saviors of '90s-rock. Most of these melodies are extremely simple and not very compelling at all. Don't you think “Let Down” would have been a better song if the vocal melody weren't so dreary and toneless? How about “Lucky,” whose melody is strictly average? Hm. I don't know why I'm saying this. You probably like those songs.
The most important thing these guys have done exceedingly well are their emotions. I mean, the array of emotions they spew in the course of “Paranoid Android” is utterly staggering. It starts out sounding something like a cosmic version of a bossa nova, but some loud and ugly guitars take over in the middle, playing some of the most extremely threatening guitar passages that I reckon I've ever heard! Yeesh! And, it's hard for me to sit through a song like “Climbing Up the Walls” without pretending that I'm feeling the same thing Yorke was when he was bellowing those lyrics. Not many other bands do such a thing so expertly. I previously stated that OK Computer doesn't have rock 'n' roll energy. That applies to 11 out of these 12 tracks. The odd duck is “Electioneering,” an extremely spirited riff-rocker. In keeping with the overall tone of the album, it still sounds weirdly futuristic and tortured; don't think they've turned in a Huey Lewis and the News rip-off, or anything!
Well, OK Computer was certainly affecting enough for me to give it a 13-rating although it may have actually deserved a strong 12. (I'm such a pushover!) I don't like this as much as other people, and I think that's for one very simple reason: I like a good tune! But as I mentioned plenty of times in this review, Radiohead strove to create an album that was much more than just a collection of good tunes, and I would need to have a lobotomy before I deny that they did it well. I'm not always thrilled with ultra-serious records that try to make me feel emotionally anguished—there are a lot of emotions that I like experiencing, and anguish ain't one of them—but Radiohead actually gave me a good taste of what my life would be like if I wanted to experience such emotions. I guess that means OK Computer is good art.
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Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation (1988)
Album Score: 13
Ow, my head! I've let my brain become so fragile over the years that reviewing Daydream Nation was like doing a hard day's manual labor after spending a lifetime sitting in my bedroom reviewing albums. So much noise! So much dissonance! So much violence! The experience of listening to this caused a commotion in my brain: It aroused my curiosity, thrilled me consistently, and, by the end, nearly drove me to insanity. In that respect, it was like watching Eraserhead. Absorbing but disturbing.
If comparing my experiences with Daydream Nation to Eraserhead seems ridiculous to you, then I hope that'll give you a solid indication about how wholly out-of-my-element I felt while attempting to review this album. I rarely listen to this sort of stuff, and I can't be sure if my reaction was normal or if I've just been listening to too much Wings. But in any case, I'm no longer in junior high, and I shouldn't dwell on such matters. If I think this is a really, really interesting album that has a tendency to disturb me if I listen too closely to it, then I should be OK with that.
Probably the most accessible song of the lot is the opener, “Teen Age Riot.” It begins a little ominously with some spaced-out guitar strumming and barely decipherable voices coming out of the speakers, but the remainder of it is basically an upbeat pop-rocker. It's a great rocker, of course, with a memorable riff and good vocal melody. It's surely one of the better songs of the era, but it doesn't do anything particularly crazy. “Cross the Breeze,” however, is a good example of how freakishly intense this album can get. It has such a fast and driving beat and it changes textures so frequently that it gets dizzying. I don't even think they used a single normal chord throughout the whole piece... it's so dissonant! It's hardly a pretty thing to hear, but the sorts of things they dare to try in that song and how well it flows together is a feat to behold. I didn't even give it a particularly high score in the Track Reviews, but it has my complete respect.
Luckily, I'm able to more actively enjoy other parts of the album. Stuff like like the incredibly maniacal “Eric's Trip” with its distinctly rubbery texture isn't just creepy, but I actually enjoy listening to it. “Silver Rocket” is basically a revved-up punk rocker with a great riff, and it's similarly entertaining. I actively love listening to the first half of “The Sprawl” with its moody atmosphere and catchy riff until it starts to meander into a sort of dreary jam and tries to rewire my brain! Bruuughhh!!! I can't decide if “Rain King” or “Hey Joni” is more disturbing, but both of them manage to be intensely creepy while maintaining an amazing drive to them and presenting some really unusual textures along the way. The utterly compelling “Candle” is gorgeous and one of my favorite tracks here. I'd even say it's relatively accessible, even though it uses some weird chords!
Geez, perhaps the most amazing thing about this album is that it never lets up... It keeps on feeding me its deranged ideas at a consistent level. The part where the album finally begins to lose me is at the very end with that trilogy. The first part is fine with its menacing riff, but the second part isn't all that great. All the noise and distortion layered on top of the tracks seems pointless in the end. The final bit, “Eliminator Jr.,” is very loud and very intense, but the robotic drums and bass get monotonous quickly. Hm.
How this album gained such a devoted following from music fans to critics to such a degree that it is frequently named the best album of the '80s remains a weird mystery to me. I would have thought such an ugly, dissonant album would've completely led most of them astray, and they would've rallied behind something more conventional like Thriller or at least more accessibly artsy like Remain in Light.If you've been in my presence on the Internet for awhile, you probably know that my favorite album of the '80s will likely forever be The Dreaming! That Kate Bush masterpiece is also a mad album but more whimsically so. But that's just my own personal taste, and I consider it an honor to be one of the few people in the world who believe that!
But anyway, I worked up the courage to award this album an unconditional 13. It isn't a strong 13, by any means. By the looks of how I scored the tracks, it's more like a 12. Nonetheless, it's pretty clear why I needed to give it the 13. I've never run an album quite like this before—music so violent, so dissonant and so thoroughly interesting. The way some of these songs meander between textures and gradually shift moods reminds me of listening to early 20th Century classical music like Delius or Ravel. That's not something I note of most prog albums. I might not be able to count myself within the numbers of its devoted followers, and I wouldn't be surprised if I never bother listening to it again. But this is an impressive album, and I seriously doubt there's anything else out there quite like it.
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Sparks: Kimono My House (1974)
Album Score: 14
Sparks are an “art-rock” band who helped pioneer new wave. They're not very famous in the United States, but that's because the people of the United States frequently like to deprive themselves of good music. Sparks are a little bit weird to listen to at first, but if you put down those lousy Led Zeppelin records for one blasted millisecond and open your mind a bit, getting into these bouncy glam-tunes might not be as difficult as it seems. I don't know if it had to do with the fact that I don't care much for Led Zeppelin, but the moment I put Kimono My House on my CD player, my very first Sparks experience, I fell in love with it right away.
Kimono My House is not only one of the finest records ever unleashed onto this depraved universe, but it's also filled to the brim with catchy melodies and danceable beats. Take one listen to this, and you'll not only want to tap your foot, but you'll want to get up out of your seat and manically hop up and down. Well, if your body isn't doing that, then at least your heart is. You probably won't find Kimono My House listed on any major music magazines' Top 100 lists of the greatest albums ever made, but it definitely deserves a spot. I know, that's such a brazen thing for a person like me to say. I mean, who am I, right? Are you going to listen to the credible news sources, or are you going to listen to a nut-job who spends his free time sitting in his bedroom writing rants about music on his laptop? Actually, don't answer that.
I know I've said this about a lot of art-rock albums in the past, and people always seem to write to me saying that it's not true, but I nevertheless put forth the claim that Kimono My House is an accessible album. I know it sounds like artsy fartsy music from outer space, but it contains some of the most confoundedly catchy concentrations of pop tunes since The Beatles. Their instrumentation standards are weird; these songs are characterized by a huge glam drum, generally stiff guitars, and ultra-clean keyboards played at a rapid pace. The lead singer has the strangest falsetto that you'll probably ever hear, making him sound like some sort of mentally insane fairy king. But these elements all come together creating a very unique, unusual and ultimately appealing texture that would go onto predicting new wave.
Sparks, headed by brothers Ron and Russell Mael, hail from California where they had recorded two albums prior to this. Unfortunately the kids in the United States weren't into this sort of stuff yet, so Sparks had to relocate to Britain where the kids welcomed them with open arms sending this album up to #4 on their charts. Ah, Britain was indeed a magical land where an album like this could succeed. Actually, I'd say the Mael Brothers cheated a bit by bringing on those blatant glam overtones all throughout these songs. Glam, of course, was all the rage in Britain at the time. However, I'm not one to criticize anyone for trying to make a popular album. I applaud it more than anything else. After all, it's difficult to like music that isn't designed to be liked.
What's perhaps most amazing about this record is the song development. Many of them, despite essentially being dance songs, are structured like mini-operettas. Queen's greatest hit, “Bohemian Rhapsody” certainly wouldn't have existed if it wasn't for “This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both of Us.” That is one hell of an amazing song; if you haven't heard Sparks before you'll do well for yourself by scouting it out on YouTube! Listen to it and you'll hear Russell Mael's strange, acrobatic falsetto vocals taking a commanding lead over that manically pounding drumbeat and all of those complicated, dramatic crescendos. The result is weird, it's fascinating, and it has such a catchy melody that it's easy to fall in love with immediately. (Well, it was for me, anyway.) If you don't like it at first, give it another go. It'll eventually grow on you, unless you're soulless. (No pressure.)
Most of the other songs are slightly simpler than that, but there's is a distinctly classical-music flavor to all of these, and they never forget to include a danceable beat! (Some of these are more danceable than others.) Really, every song on this album is a masterpiece of some sort. Of all the insanely catchy melodies here, I'd say the one from “Hasta Manana Monsieur” is one prime ones. It's also creatively developed, having a rather elaborate introduction proving that the Mael Brothers weren't ones to cut corners (yet). “Here in Heaven” is a beautiful and dramatic song with a melody so catchy that I can find myself humming it randomly even if I hadn't listened to the album lately.
Let's attempt to scratch the surface on some of these other songs! “In My Family” is extremely memorable with a lovely, soaring chorus. “Amateur Hour” has a pounding rhythm playing consistently throughout making it more dance-worthy. “Equator” has a rather strange atmosphere and I can't describe it; I'll just tell you that Sparks, once again, give us a great melody and even pepper it up with a ticked-off, out-of-tune saxophone throughout. “Falling In Love With Myself” is a sort of wayward waltz that's captivating from beginning to end. As icing on the cake, they include two bonus tracks “Barbecutie” and “Lost and Found,” which are as much maniacal masterpieces as everything else on the album. For more discussion, consult the track reviews! If you have nothing better to do!
In case you didn't get the impression yet, Kimono My House is one of my favorite albums of all time, and it is my personal belief that everybody in the world should be a fan of it. Although, as I understand it, Sparks are a love-'em-or-hate-'em kind of band. I know I can't force other people to have the same opinions as I do, but if I could, Kimono My House would be universally known as the treasure trove of good music that it is. Thou shall listen to this album now! Thou shall be a fan of Sparks! (Thou shall not think this was a terrible review of inane fanboy drivel! Oh balls, that's what I just did...)
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Spiritualized: Royal Albert Hall October 10 1997 (1998)
Album Score: 14
Wow. I didn't expect to like this so much. It's a 95-minute live album of lengthy jams recorded in 1997 of a space-rock band I had never heard of. One reason I wasn't expecting to like it was because I assumed there weren't any rock bands left in the '90s who knew how to rock out. The other reason, and the important reason, is I don't even care to listen to jams from '60s legends. What would make me think I would like listening to some guys I hadn't heard of before? Well, as I live and breathe, this is recorded evidence that there was a rock band in 1997 that could split the earth open.
It's hard to know how to describe a band like Spiritualized, and the best way I know how to do it is in terms of bands that already existed. After all, it was 1998, and everything in rock 'n' roll by then had been done before. Spiritualized is the love child of Pink Floyd and The Velvet Underground, a blood brother of Frank Zappa, a cousin of Roxy Music once removed, and its now deceased great-uncle used to lead a gospel choir. (Hmm... You're right. I hate that description, too.) Wikipedia describes Spiritualized as a space-rock band, but that description alone doesn't do it justice. Ninety-five percent of this positively rocks. Jazz-fusion would probably be more accurate, but these songs are based entirely on rock and gospel.
The guitars are amazing—some of the most amazing I've ever heard on a rock album. The lead guitars are sometimes calm and contemplative. Other times, they whiz around like mad. Just like every good rock band should, the bass and the drums define every moment's pulse. The journeys they takes us on are oftentimes thrilling and unforgettable. Occasionally, they get a little tedious, but even in these moments we're still hanging on, anticipating that they'll take us someplace terribly exciting around the corner.
It's hard to wrap my mind around the fact this was actually recorded live. I thought Neil Young's live albums were pretty amazing, but they don't even come close to something this intricate. It's remarkable how complicated their textures often get and how flawlessly everything seems to work out. These arrangements so intricately woven, and it would take a few years of good listening to unravel it all. No wonder this album has its adamant fans! What's more, none of this is simply aimless *noise*. Even in tracks such as “The Individual,” which has the overall tone of a jetliner engine, a lot went into creating that atmosphere. *A LOT*. More importantly these airplane noises don't drive me mad. I'm actually quite interested in paying close attention to everything that went into creating it. Neil Young's live-album-airplane-noises, on the other hand, make my brain go numb.
I'm not going to be able to single out many tracks in this main review, and there is quite a lot to talk about! It's probably important that I single out the 16-minute prog-rock epic “Cop Shoot Cop,” which is by far the lengthiest track here. I just got off reviewing a famous Pink Floyd album with a 23-minute song in it called “Echoes.” As far as flawlessly executed flow and engagingly pronounced emotion goes, Spiritualized has Pink Floyd beat by a mile. The one area where Pink Floyd ultimately wins is atmospheres. They had a wider array of instrumentals to tinker around with in the studio. But Spiritualized still managed to create an impressive and thick atmosphere in spite of the limitations of recording this live. I mean, this thing is amazing, and prog-heads the world round should be drooling at every moment.
I like all these songs very well, and normally in such rock-solid albums as this I have trouble coming out with a favorite. But one particular track, a love ballad, sticks out. “Broken Heart” is a love ballad like I've never heard a love ballad before. The background instrumentation prominently features a stringed orchestra that sounds like it's playing from behind a wall, creating a strange, strange sort of disconnected atmosphere. The lead vocals are emotionally shattered and genuine, but I'd say the real star of that show is the extremely desperate sounding harmonica solo in its final half. I mean, this harmonica is so good that it's like the last time the instrument was ever allowed to play. I'm not kidding. You should hear it for yourself.
I should mention that this was the first time I've ever reviewed a live album without previously reviewing the studio albums that they are based on. I listened to Ladies & Gentlemen We're Floating in Space a few months ago, but I'm not to the point where I can remember that much about it. Spiritualized itself is a band that broke off of a band called Spaceman 3, a space-rock band from the '80s that I have never listened to. And I would one day like to listen to these albums and bands that led up to this amazingly done album!
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Stereolab: Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1996)
Album Score: 13
Ha! I love this album! This isn't the first time I heard it. That was awhile back. I was doing a math assignment, and I was arguing with the textbook for not making sense. (Those $150 things are written by nerds who don't know how to COMMUNICATE.) So I guess I wasn't paying attention to the album per se, but I still remember having a pretty good time with it. I kept it in the back of my mind as an album I should listen to later. Now, I am listening to it later without trivial things like math homework to distract me. And holy crap, this album is fantastic! This is one of the most wholly engaging slabs of music I've ever listened to!
By far the best thing about it is a hypnotic album that is actually hypnotic. I've listened to plenty of albums out there with downbeat tones and repetitive rhythms that try to put me in some sort of trance, but they fail and I get put to sleep. These guys on the other hand are capable of putting out an entire five-minute track that hypnotizes me so well that seems like it's over before I know it. They are so bloody captivating that I even had trouble writing the track reviews. Writing track reviews requires me to think about what I'm listening to, which required me to shake myself out of the trance and actually write something. Easier said than done. I spent probably four times the amount of time I usually do writing those track reviews. It was off-and-on in a 24-hour period.
I wouldn't be excessively impressed with Emperor Tomato Ketchup if the only notable thing about it were trances. It also has hooks. Lots and lots of hooks. Not brilliant hooks like you'd find in an ABBA album—usually they're quite simple—but each of these songs are memorable in their own separate ways. ...But even an album with just hypnotizing patterns and hooks in them aren't necessarily impressive. Stereolab, however, went the extra mile and made these songs diverse. Sometimes startlingly so.
Diversity is the one thing that surprised me the most about this album. Even classic Can and Kraftwerk albums had a hard time dealing with that problem. Either their albums would be full of short songs that tend to run together, or they'd be full of long songs that ...... well, are just a bit long. Stereolab seemed to bypass that problem by creating distinctly different moods. Let's look at a string of these songs, back to back, and see what they bring us. There's the tense “Percolator” followed by the quirky “Les Yper-Sound” followed by the funky “Spark Plug” followed by the lonely “Olv 26” followed by the rockin' “The Noise of Carpet” followed by the space-like “Tomorrow is Already Here,” followed by the snappy title track ...and so on. And even though this diversity, the overall objective of the album to be repetitive and hypnotizing never really changes. That is pretty impressive!
This is one of the most consistent albums I've ever reviewed. But for such a consistent album, I didn't seem to have much trouble picking out a favorite. It's the opening one, “Metronomic Underground!” It's by far the most trance-worthy song of the lot, which is good because it also has by far the longest running time (eight minutes). Listening to that robotic groove slowly build-up is something that you're going to have to experience first hand. It's not only fun, snappy and ear catching, but that song will take you places. Just close your eyes and let your imagination do the work. (It sounds corny, but we all do that. I think. ...I do that.)
I swears it to you, “Motoroller Scalatron” has a riff that could be mistaken for a Rolling Stones one. I say that, probably because it bears a slight resemblance to “Brown Sugar,” but still... I think Keith Richards would have considered that riff another feather in his hat had he written it. I'm also quite a fan of that downbeat, gothic-ish ballad “Monstre Sacre.” ...I should also mention somewhere that most of these songs are sung by females in French. I haven't much of an idea why they're singing in French, but it's sort of a neat attribute. It makes this album seem even more mysterious and otherworldly.
If you like albums with a lot of hypnotic robo-rhythms that never grow tiring and have a variety of textures and tones in them, then you should check out Emperor Tomato Ketchup. I'm hardly the first person on the planet who has touted about the magic of the album—when it comes right down to it, I'm probably one of the last, since this has been pretty consistently listed as one of the most highly celebrated albums from the '90s for quite a few years. But just in case there are still a few lurkers out there, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND THIS ALBUM! Bluurrrrrggggghhhh!!!! (Are Howard Dean screams considered outdated yet? I hope not.)
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The Sundays: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic (1990)
The Sundays were an English jangle-pop band hailing from Reading, England, which is referenced in the album title. Since the town Reading and the word “reading” are pronounced two different ways, you can be a really obnoxious nerd about it and insist that people pronounce the album title properly. (But I don't think you should get advice from me on how to make friends with people.) Anyway, The Sundays were certainly a shining beacon of the jangle-pop world of the '90s, and their debut album they concocted could very well be the finest '90s jangle-pop album you could ever own.
The song that captivates me more than anything else here--and I'm positive I'm not alone on this--is the remarkably hooky “Here's Where the Story Ends.” It's orchestrated with their densely arpeggiated, ringing guitars and lead singer Harriet Wheeler delivers a melodies that captures my attention within its first few stanzas. Oh, the melody is an unusual thing, it's wistful and carefree and at the same time melancholic. ...I'm also lead to believe that the hooks of that song were more or less accidental, because none of these other songs have melodies that capture me quite like that. That might have something to do with Wheeler's consistently wistful, high-pitched phrasings. And yet, Wheeler's vocal performances are a huge reason why I like these songs.
That's also a good song to point out that these guys wrote excellent lyrics. (“It's that little souvenir of a terrible year / Which makes my eyes feel sore / Oh I never should have said the book that you read / Were all I loved you for”) ...Given how excellently tight and atmospheric their instrumentation was and how sophisticated their lyrics were, it's surprising to note that nobody in this band--as far as I know--had ever recorded anything before. These guys were straight out of college.
Although the fact that few of these songs have “catchy” melodies did used to bother me. I've owned this album for a number of years, and didn't really play it a whole lot... that is apart from “Here's Where the Story Ends.” However, I did end up gradually making my way towards getting accustomed to the rest of these songs. One song that I've especially come to love is “I Won,” which has a strong and steady backing beat and--I'm not sure if I'm imagining it or not--but there appears to even be a riff of some sort that starts to surface from behind the thick jungle-weeds created by that jangle guitar.
While I wouldn't say all these songs sound alike, I'll tell you that they all sound similar to one another. That makes it a little bit difficult (and probably pointless!) to try to describe every single track here. However, I do feel the need to highlight “You're Not the Only One I Know,” which is more mid-tempo and atmospheric, which makes an especially good showcase for Wheeler's voice. The opening song, “Skin & Bones,” also nicely incorporates some echoey jangle guitar playing a few despondent licks or two before creating a more steady jangle midway through.
So yeah. This is an excellent album, and it would be good on you to have it for your collection! That is, unless you don't like jangle-rock... but isn't that like not liking diamonds? Certainly, if anyone compiles a list of the greatest '90s pop albums ever made, and this album isn't on there, then the list is wrong. They may or may not appear toward the top of such a list, but 13/15
Toy Matinee: Toy Matinee (1990)
Album Score: 12
What a fun album! What you see on the album cover is more or less an accurate depiction of how it sounds. It shows a pretty woman wearing heavy make-up and looking as though she's letting out a hearty laugh. Translated into music, that would mean this is a heavily polished pop-album filled with lighthearted music. If you look more closely at the cover, you would also notice that somebody drew a thin, twirly mustache on her... I'd call this a quirky album as well.
Toy Matinee was created in 1990 by Patrick Leonard and Kevin Gilbert. Both of these individuals had worked closely with Madonna in the recent past, Gilbert as a sound engineer and Leonard as her occasional writing partner. But thankfully, this music doesn't sound like Madonna at all! And, more than that, this album is rife with good melodies. I suppose that means Leonard makes a more interesting songwriting partner than Madonna does. Although that's not much of a surprise, I guess.
If I had to complain about one thing, it would be the instrumentation. They come off sounding a bit too sterile throughout this album. I guess that's because they're so used to working in that sterile pop environment. It was released in 1990, and thus it features those loud, clean stadium drums that ran rampant through pop music at the time. They play all of these pristine guitars perfectly; there isn't a single note out of place. They also have these clean, friendly-guy vocals that suggests might have had a successful career cutting kiddie albums. That said, the relatively stale environments aren't a huge concern, and it only really bothered me the first time I listened to it.
On the flip side of that equation, their pristine guitars are always punchy and poppy, and what they play is also frequently catchy. They also embellished a few of these songs with fun little quirks, such as the goofy horn sequence at the end of “Salvador” and those out-of-whack but punchy mellotron sounds that enhance the chorus of “There Was a Little Boy.”
Those also happen to be my two favorite songs of the album. I can't decide which one I like better, partly because they're like comparing apples to oranges. “Salvador” is silly and fun-loving, and it's rife with punchy funk guitar reminiscent of Steely Dan. “There Was a Little Boy” is a darker and more passionate song, but it's just as compelling. However, the main reason I like them are for the melodies; they're unbelievably catchy. You can say the same about the other songs as well, but some are catchier than others.
“Last Plane Out” is a punchy opener that has a chorus that's you'll probably be singing along with by the third time you listen to it. “Things She Said” starts out as a folky ballad, but it isn't long before it turns into another one of their immaculate, upbeat pop numbers. “The Ballad of Jenny Ledge” is a rather lengthy tune (nearly six minutes), but it's so pleasant and tuneful that I hardly notice the time pass by. I can't say that about every pop song that goes on for such a long time.
Probably the least catchy of the upbeat pop songs is “Queen of Misery,” which unbeknownst to me until three minutes ago, was a tribute to Madonna. Nonetheless, it's a punchy and energetic song that I enjoy listening to; it just doesn't get stuck in my head quite like many of these other songs do. The title track is a slow and atmospheric ballad, and it's underwhelming at first, but it picks up steam and catches on as it slowly progresses. I'm also relatively underwhelmed by the album closer, “We Always Come Home,” which is a mid-tempo acoustic ballad. While it's a good song, it's not quite the epic experience I might have expected in an album closer.
Unfortunately, this would be the only album cut with Toy Matinee, and any prospect of there being one was cut down after Kevin Gilbert died unexpectedly in 1996. Patrick Leonard would later go onto creating a band called Third Matinee and collaborating with Richard Page, formerly of Mr. Mister. I haven't listened to that album, and I hesitate to. In my mind, the idea of one of Madonna's minions collaborating with an ex-Mr. Mister member is a bit hellish. But, of course it's stupid to write something off before hearing it. (I must stop doing that!)
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The Turtles: Happy Together (1967)
Album Score: 12
I suppose that so many bands in the '60s valued melodic songwriting, which is why groups such as The Turtles get swept under the rug. The critics aren't too interested in giving them a re-appraisal, because they have a reputation for being throwaway sunshine-pop guys. The public's certainly not interested in this, because they're so busy watching American Idol that they don't even bother wiping up the dribble that's dangling off their lips. At least indie-music fans have a chance to discover them since their discography has been available cheaply at emusic.com.
These guys have such a gift for melody that I can't imagine you would need to have a fetish for '60s pop music to enjoy it. Even among other bands of their day, they're decidedly above average.
Their 'throwaway sunshine pop' reputation should be debunked immediately. It's true these guys seem like they must have overdosed on Prozac before they went into the recording studio, but their music is far from throwaway. Not only are they good melody writers, but they prove to be quite good with the arrangements as well.
Take the most famous song on the album, "Happy Together" for example. Its melody would have been a hit no matter what they did to it. But, they have things like interesting orchestral build-ups, a short section where there's gorgeous but subtle little horn solo, some nice flutes ....... very good stuff, and it's all quite tasteful. The Turtles were far from revolutionary, but that's hardly a reason to criticize them. They took the musical stylings of the time, and reaped the benefits! They're so melodic and prone to put a smile on your face that they deserve to be heard. They're the Johann Strauss of the '60s.
There's a fair amount of diversity in here. OK, not really, but the songs are distinctive enough from each other to keep the effort from getting too boring. It's mostly dominated by pop songs of the "Happy Together" variety, but they also throw in happy ballads ("I Think I'll Run Away" and "Like the Season") and a number of orchestral songs ("You Know What I Mean" and "Is it Any Wonder"). They even take a moment to be utterly goofy (but still tasteful, musically) with "Rugs of the Woods and Flowers."
I do like happy music as long as it's melodic and tasteful. The Turtles fit the bill exactly.
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Van Der Graaf Generator: H to He, Who Am the Only One (1970)
Album Score: 12
Anyone who knows prog from the early '70s knows that Van Der Graaf Generator is one of the biggest names out there, and this is easily one of the most influential records of rock 'n' roll. It was released in 1970, which was a year or two before prog's biggest names, Genesis, Yes, and Jethro Tull, made their own big splashes on the scene, and I think it's safe to say that they took a hint or two from Van Der Graaf Generator's example. With that said, the interest of this album is strictly for people who know exactly what they're getting into: Pompous prog for noodle-heads. For that reason, I'd imagine this isn't going to be as easy to get into as Genesis' peak albums, especially if you're new to the genre. (I should provide that disclaimer just in case someone gets too high impressions of this... This is not by any means a perfect record.)
It's a point in their favor that they have lead singer Peter Hammill in their ranks whose flamboyant operatic singing style might very well have provided the template for Queen's Freddie Mercury. More about Queen, I also swear I hear hints of the mystical beginning of their “The Prophet's Song” in “Emperor in His War-Room.” ...Or maybe that's just my mind playing tricks on me. No matter; it's pretty clear this album's influence was far reaching.
They open the album with “Killer,” a song that seems a bit obvious to me that it was directly influenced by a certain song in In the Court of the Crimson King; it's an ultra-dramatic and meandering prog tune that's filled with twists and turns. The opening riff, which is provided mainly by a hammond organ and juicy saxophone, is tense and catchy. Hammill follows suit with a verve-ridden vocal performance who is just as interested in generating passion as he is hitting all the notes correctly. The album closer “Pioneers Over C” is a full-on outer space adventure for anyone who lusts after that sort of thing (and aren't prone to throwing terms out like “pretentious” at prog music). There are some moments in its 13 minutes that excite me more than others, but as a whole, it's terrific. The varied musical passages they string together keeps things refreshed and exciting, and occasionally they run across a cool riff that's played with a hammond organ or a spacey sax solo.
I have a special sort of fascination with “Lost: The Dance in Sand and Sea / The Dance in the Frost” and I'm not entirely sure why. As far as extremely bombastic and pompous things in this album goes, that pretty much takes the cake. It opens with a rather frantic flute riff before Hammill's vocals are so dramatic and overblown that it makes me think he's some sort of wandering minstrel that went awry. That being an 11-minute song, you can also expect to hear plenty of extended instrumental interludes, and they're tense and exciting through and through.
I want to say that it's typically groan-inducing of me to pick out the piano ballad, “House With No Door,” as my favorite song of the bunch. (I have a soft spot for a good piano ballad more than pretty much anything. I go googly eyed over good piano ballads.) It doesn't take me on a freaky, psychedelic space-adventure as “Pioneers Over C” nor does it pack the same sort of tangy punch as “Killer,” but it has a pretty melody and Peter Hammill's theatrical vocal performance as always is passionate and captivating. Passionate singing is of course a vital ingredient for all great piano ballads.
One of the bonus tracks in the CD re-release version of this album is surely worth hearing. Whether or not you agreed with me, I gave “Squid/Octopus” a higher rating in the track reviews than “Pioneers Over C.” It's basically an off-kilter jam tune, and … wow … these guys could jam pretty well. Hammill lets out a few flamboyant sing-growls that sounds like he ought to have joined a hair-metal band in the '80s. Though the star of that show is the instrumentation; I really like hearing that hammond organ and saxophone going at it with each other. It's really a lot of fun hearing all the twists and turns they go through. Even the super-tight drumming captures my fancy in that song. The other bonus track is an early take of “Emperor in his War-Room,” which I'm pretty sure was the weakest song of the album. The early take is much weaker, which I think goes to show how vastly their songs improve when they apply some elbow grease to them.
This has been a terribly fun album for me to listen to, and it's no wonder that it's regarded with such reverence in the prog-head community. I'm probably a bit of a prog-head, and it is to my shame that this was the first time I ever gave this album a serious listen. Oh well... I was saving it for later. There's my excuse I just came up with.
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Ween: The Mollusk (1997)
Album Score: 14
While Ween's catalog has been blessed by an incredible string of high quality albums throughout the '90s, I've most often seen people cite their 1997 album The Mollusk as their favorite. If you run through the songs, you can quickly see why; every single track is remarkably diverse and melodious. If you listen to this further (as I did) you might even start to get the impression that it isn't only diverse and melodious for a Ween album, but it's one of the most diverse and melodious albums of all time. No exaggeration.
The Mollusk is so diverse that it starts off with a cheeky elementary-school showtune, then goes to a beautiful British psychedelic pop tune, then to a clanky elephant waltz, then to a lightning fast-paced dance song, and it doesn't stop radically changing until the very end. Albums that try to be diverse for diversity sake can sometimes come off as disorienting and awkward. But just like The White Album before it, The Mollusk seems to be more invigorated through its diversity instead of hindered.
Besides, there's a running theme in all these songs—the ocean. For example, the beautiful psychedelic pop song “Mutilated Lips” features watery guitars and an underwater effect put on the vocals, and that is followed-up by a crusty old sea shanty “The Blarney Stone.” They're completely different songs, but I still get the briny odor of sea water lingering in my nostrils while I'm listening to them. That's one of the main things that makes The Mollusk so priceless.
“The Blarney Stone” is a good example of how much they worked on these songs. On the outside it's a fairly ordinary sea shanty, but if you listen to it closely, you can hear a rather dense orchestra of drunken singing and cheers in the background, which puts you right there in the middle of the pub. I also have to appreciate Gene's extremely guttural singing, which he undoubtedly did with conviction although I can clearly sense his tongue in his cheek. ...You didn't think these guys were dead serious, did you?
This album is consistently good even until the very end; for my money, the last three songs are also among the album's strongest. “Buckingham Green” is one of the more incredible pieces of art rock that I've heard featuring some epic drums, full scale strings, and a captivating vocal melody. I would say that's surely something along the lines of King Crimson or Genesis, except Ween kept it barely over three minutes. “Ocean Man” is a pretty straightforward pop song with one of the catchiest melodies you've ever heard. “She Wanted to Leave” is a beautiful folky tune with that “conclusive” aura, which makes it the perfect way to end the album.
There are very few bad things I could say about this album, but I will say that I have a somewhat difficult time getting into “Pink Eye (On My Leg),” which is a happy instrumental featuring some weird burping noises at the end. The extremely fast paced country tune “Waving My Dick in the Wind” also doesn't captivate me a whole lot, although it's still pretty amusing... I mean, who wouldn't enjoy an extremely fast-paced country music tune?
While I wouldn't call The Mollusk perfect, it is one of the most enjoyable albums I have in my collection. It contains an incredibly strong concentration of memorable melodies, every song is uniquely presented, and there's a whole hell of a lot of diversity. The 'diversity' aspect is really the most tantalizing, and one of the major reasons I've treasured this over the last few years. What other album do you know of contains a good sea shanty, jingly folk, psychedelia, cheeky pop, and slow-paced waltzes, to name a few? ...I think it's safe to say that The Mollusk is one-of-a-kind.
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White Heart: Powerhouse (1990)
This album released in 1990 was the seventh studio creation by the CCM/pop-metal group White Heart, and you might be asking “What happened to the other six albums?” I have no idea. The reason I'm skipping ahead to their seventh is because somebody told me to! But the reason I was told to skip ahead to this particular album is most likely because it happens to be the group's most popular. And when I listen to it, I get the idea why: It's a whole lot of fun! As a matter of fact, this is one of the more enjoyable pop-metal albums I've ever listened to. …......No, really!
Granted, I think the only other pop-metal albums I've ever actually listened to more than this were from Alice Cooper, Kiss, and... er... The Final Countdown by Europe. ...In other words, I haven't been a very faithful frequenter of the genre, nor have I been very studious in navigating its treacherous waters. (I guess I'm willing to get into a lackadaisical argument with someone over the merits of Europe's “The Final Countdown” and Alice Cooper's “Poison” taking the pro side, of course. ...But here's the crux of my argument: Hey, I listened to those things once, and I found them quite enjoyable. But can you please leave me alone to my Genesis records?)
The album opener “Independence Day” is your basic '80s cheeze-metal. (This is technically a '90s album, but it wouldn't be another year or so before Mother Rock 'N' Roll made pop-metal bands to abide by the standards of the new decade.) Yeah, it's cheesy as hell, but it's fun! We get a pretty nifty keyboard riff, a convincingly operatic performance from Rick Florian (or I guess Riq as it's spelled in this particular album), and a few flashy metal guitar solos. Absolutely standard for the genre, but that's never been a crime: If the song actually turns out to be catchy and fun, then there's nothing else I can do but call it a wild success.
Indeed, CCM things are usually pretty lame, and that's obviously because of the lyrics. But when it comes to '80s cheeze-metal, I suppose CCM lyrics are roughly what everyone else was doing anyway. I mean, I'm about to review a pop-metal album by Kiss that features the lyric “And on the 8th day God created rock and roll”. And didn't Ozzy Osbourne used to tour around with all these crucifixes? The only difference, really, is that White Heart actually takes that stuff seriously.
Another song I enjoy here is the title track, which features some snarly though polished guitar and another high-energy melody. It's all pretty streamlined, but it's memorable--especially that chorus electrifying chorus that sounds so big as a choir of Florians sing out a high-pitched “Powerhooooouse!” that sounds like it's coming from the clouds. “Messiah” is another pretty good one, although the best part of it obviously the chorus, which is not only catchy but it's where some bouncy metal-guitars finally make an appearance. Its verses sections, however, are a little bit slow, but I like at least that they use synthesizers that come across as wispy, as opposed to white-washed. Another one of the more enjoyable upbeat numbers here is “Nailed Down” even though its verses section also comes off as stilted. What I like about it is the catchy chorus that's performed with an excitingly electric vocal performance from Rick (…Riq?). Oh, here are some of the CCM lyrics if you're interested. (“Everything you do sure does matter / Oh there is no little sin / Everything would be a whole lot better / If you gave it all up to Him”) Another one of the album's more upbeat tunes is “Lovers and Dreamers,” but I don't think it quite makes it. It makes a generally OK listen, but ultimately nothing about it sticks to me.
The worst thing about this album are the ballads. But even then they're generally fine. “Desert Rose” and “A Love Calling” both have OK melodies. I'm just listening to them waiting for them to take off somewhere, but they never do. There is one ballad that I think is quite excellent, however, which is the closer, “Lay it Down.” It sounds almost exactly like a Bruce Springsteen ballad, and it'd be one of his good ones. (I'm not sure how much that statement would land me in hot water among the Springsteen crowd!) It's a super-serious ballad, of course, but somehow it manages to be engagingly dramatic and I find those deliberately Springsteen-ish vocals are great. I even like that flute/crystal-synth solo in the refrains, and if I can somehow stand behind a flute/crystal-synth solo, then you know there must be something right.
It's a pretty tough thing to sell a pop-metal CCM album to someone who has anything against either of those two genres. I usually have something against them both! But somehow, perhaps by the good graces of God himself, Powerhouse manages to entertain. 11/15
Yello: You Gotta Say Yes To Another Excess (1983)
Album Score: 12
I like the title of this album. You Gotta Say Yes to Another Excess. Excess is supposedly the defining characteristic of the '80s, which is a reputation that I'm not going to deny. The '80s had too much of everything: sculpted hair, designer sunglasses, ridiculous looking cars. I was too young in that decade to have really had any of that stuff, but I like to think that I celebrated excess in my own special way by wetting my bed an awful lot. That poor mattress.
But anyway, I'm here to talk about the '80s synth-pop band that had the gall to name itself after one of the three primary colors. Everybody knows Yello best as the band that wrote that song from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, which goes “Ohhhhhh yeahhhhhhhhh!” …But don't get too worked up about that, because that song isn't on this album, and I'm not going to talk about it. However, if you like the general style of that song, then do read further, because this might be a good album for you to check out. You can expect this album to be laden with bass synthesizers, laid-back drum machines, and a sexy-cool deep-voiced singer who seems to prefer dramatically talking and grunting instead of singing.
This lead singer is Dieter Meier, and I am shocked to read that he was an industrialist born into a rich family. Didn't Jesus once say that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to become a successful pop singer? Anyway, it's a good thing he got into the arts, because I, and everyone else in the world, would have trouble fantasizing about owning a Ferrari without him.
I was delightfully surprised to hear that Yello is more of a performance-art band instead of an ordinary synth-pop band, which is what I thought they were until actually listened to them. They seemed to take the synth-pop (or proto-techno) styling of Kraftwerk and make performance art pieces out of it. The album opens with “I Love You.” Its drum machine rhythm is simple and repetitive, but the background synthesizers and sound-effects are forever evolving and rather quirky. You can hear car screeches, echoey grunts, gongs, odd synthesizer grooves, among other things. Good thing they're quirky, because if they weren't, I'd probably be bored as hell with this. That said, Meier's vocals are the main star of the proceedings who whisper-sings like some sort of creepy stalker. He's very entertaining to hear. Especially as he's interacting with that sound-clip of the woman repeating “I love you.”
You should also know that Meier isn't really as deep-voiced as he sounded in “Oh Yeah,” and he's rarely that deep-voiced in this album. They liked to alter his voice with machines to provide some pretty cool effects. In “Lost Again,” for example, they altered his voice such that it sounds like he was singing along with a full choir of emotionless extra-terrestrials. That's also arguably the catchiest/coolest song of the whole album, so if you only listen to one song from here, make it that one. He also sounds like he's screaming his head off in “Smile on You” even though he's probably still just talking.
Surprisingly, for an album that I'm calling proto-techno, there isn't a bad song of the lot. (I'm not including the bonus tracks in that, which contain these “club mixes” that seemed to only water down the original versions.) They do an excellent job keeping their songs from growing too stale. I particularly want to point out the excellent job they did creating a heavy tribal and evolving rhythm in the album closer, “Salut Mayoumba.” It's a blast.
Their atmospheres are also sometimes very intoxicating. They take us deep into the jungle with “Great Mission;” the bird noises and synthesizer hits all seem to come in at the right times to keep the texture alive. “Pumping Velvet” is a particular highlight with an atmosphere so thick and seedy that I can cut it with a knife and spread it on toast. Arguably the most enjoyable tune of the lot is “Swing,” which is a surprisingly effective synth-pop translation of an ordinary swing song. (I say “surprisingly,” because I never would have thought something like that would have worked.) It sounds like something out of a Tim Burton movie. I particularly like Meier's vocals there, who croons in a particularly ghoulish way.
About the scoring, I was somewhat on the border between an 11 and 12, and it was the pure awesomeness of “Swing” that pushed it over the edge for me. How could it not? But it also helps that this is a remarkably solid synth-pop/proto-techno album that's a perfect fit for all you art-school nerds out there.
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