Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Wisdom, Laugher And The Same Old Lines - Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott Couple Again With A Second Helping of More of The Same

Very hot on the heels of the release of their first album together, 2014's both critically and commercially successful (the latter reward being  a long time missing in Paul Heaton's career since the salad days of The Beautiful South) What Have We Become, Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott return with twelve more songs detailing the same old kitchen sink dramas we've all come to expect from them.  Not without its merit, though Wisdom, Laughter and Lines may be the same old faire Heaton has hashed and rehashed again and again over the past two and half decades, the album still arrives as a welcome return to some semblance of prior form; which is ultimately what any of his fans want anyway - so why not.  Still, credit due for being able to produce album after album of the same old lamentations, advice and caustic wit, yet somehow able offer something just a little refreshing in each.

Wisdom, Laughter and Lines paints itself in a similar musical shade as 1996's Blue Is The Colour, with the majority of the tracks being very key driven, warm bass, light percussion - and not a lot of jangling guitar (save for the second to last track "Wives 1, 2 & 3" which sounds like it very well could have been a cast off from the Cross Eyed Rambler sessions).  The immediate stand out track here, and a well chosen first single "The Austerity of Love", has an unavoidable pop hook sensibility, that teases at being the album's most likely track (if any) to catch fire with a crossover audience. It has a youthful flare to it, a bouncy reggae feel infused with a bubble gummy sing along chorus.  Certainly it stands a fair chance with any teenage daughters who might hear it and wonder when their "mum" and dad started listening to "cool" music.  Disappointment to follow when they find out it's not Christina Perri and Ed Sheeran.  

The fourth track "Heatongrad", offers us a view into the songwriter's overtly political leanings, and while it comes off a little self-indulgent and a lot alienating, it's the first time the man's ever laid it out so bluntly with the starting lyrics: "Fuck the king, and fuck the queen with an AK-47 / Line 'em up against the wall, don't let them talk to Heaven" - you can just about taste the bile Heaton has for Britain's figureheads, but it's a song fused so strongly to his own personal ideology, that you can't help but wish he'd offered such a strong bark and bite from a more universal perspective... but wonder if he's making a bid for election in his future.  Campaign posters and bumper stickers that bear the H E A T O N G R A D slogan are clearly envisioned.

"Horse & Groom", as well, stands out as a bit of fresh feel to old fruit. Sounding a lot like something Modern English might have recorded, wherein Heaton uses country western metaphoricals, but thankfully avoids the sound.  In the later part of his career with The Beautiful South and in the earlier offerings of his strictly solo endeavors (Cross Eyed Rambler (2008) and Acid Country (2010)), he seemed hellbent on insisting on a country music identity that no one but himself had any interest in hearing.  He split the difference on "Horse & Groom", however, and so succeeded in finding a balance that let him have his lyrically, while letting us have ours musically. 

Probably the most endearing song on the album, next to the stand out single mentioned earlier, is the second to last track "No One Wants To Stay".  Likely to become the encore closer for live performances from here on out, the song is a cutesy little keyboard number offering a suggestion as to how a family tree spreads its branches from its roots, and how ambition and desire for the unexplored are the sole reason any one of us got from here to there.  Hilarious is the mock vaudeville expression in Heaton's vocals as he sings: "Look your family in the eye boys... none of them would rather be sat here instead of sitting there / and you wouldn't see their asses for the speed they'd leave your sight..."  

For all that it is or isn't, Wisdom Laughter and Lines doesn't fail to offer everything we've come to know and love about the music of Paul Heaton... and whatever company he chooses to keep as he continues on as a brand separate from The Beautiful South, and further back, The Housemartins (though he's never again returned to Housemartins sounding since leaving it in 1987).   In sum, whether you're a blindly faithful fan denying that Heaton & Abbott bear any resemblance to anything either have done before, or those of us recognizing the contrary, both sides can agree that Paul Heaton's caliber of wisdom and lines bear repeating well beyond when most others would have had us yawning at the punchlines.  

Friday, August 28, 2015

Thinking About Getting Into Vinyl Records? Here's A Few Things To Help You Get Started

You're a music lover. You've got a bunch of downloads by your favorite artists that you listen to all the time and you're really into what you like. You've heard about this whole "Vinyl Revival"; i.e., people buying records and record players and starting super cool modern music collections with that old school vintage vibe.  It really has you interested... but it also has you intimidated, because let's face it - you don't  know shit about records! And why should you? This is 2015, you can download or stream just about anything you want to listen to over the internet and be chilling to it in less than a minute. You can put in a CD and not have to flip it over to hear what's on Side B, and you own at least three different players that will play any of them at any given time, no worries at all if they're compatible.  Still, you wonder about this vinyl thing... there's just something about it you find really really awesome.

Be relieved to know that starting a vinyl collection is not as complicated as you might think.  The resurgence of the format, the increasing popularity of it - it's as easy to get into now as it was back in the day.  

Any kind you want, friend.  Any of them will play any record you're likely to buy (even those slightly smaller 10" ones that Radiohead likes to put out) - whether its 45 RPM or the traditional 33 RPM.  The one wild card is 78s.  Not all players on the market today will have that speed option, but on the other hand, 78 RPM is/was reserved for singles.  If you're going to be a vinyl singles collector, you might want to consider that, but even so, I'm fairly confident 78 RPM is pretty rare in the new vinyl era - 33 and 45 speeds dominate the scene now, and anything pressed to play at 78 RPM will state that pretty clearly on the label somewhere, so you won't be caught off guard. 

Ahhh, now there's the million dollar question. You see, while any turntable/record player will play any record, bear in mind that record players in this modern age are manufactured like toasters. They're all made in China, craftsmanship comes secondary to cost of materials, and thusly they are built to malfunction the very second the warranty expires (I listen to too much David Ford, I know), if they even get that far.  Crosley players are the worst, even though they're the most commonly available. They sound tinny and warbly and offer a really sorry ass reproduction of that potentially warm, rich vinyl sound. And quite honestly, any other brand you go with (Pyle, Boytone, etc.) are going to be just as hit or miss.  So, ultimately you're looking for the lesser of all these evils, but here's what you want to avoid: Portable all-in-one units, and/or anything with built in speakers. You don't
A Crosley all-in-one unit. Not great... not great at all. 
start a vinyl collection with convenience in mind (come on, they're decidedly inconvenient by concept, if you really think about it), and speakers enclosed in an all-in-one unit will for sure sound crappy and frail; because if they sound warm, rich and full like they should, the bass reverb in certain types of music will bounce the tone arm all over the place, causing the record to skip and leaving your listening experience nothing short of completely annoying.

I'm not one for product endorsement, because not a single corporation these days deserves it, but I have to admit that the ION Profile unit is a fine, fine player for someone interested in getting good playback out of their vinyl without having to spend a fortune. It needs an external speaker, however, and once again I have to reluctantly endorse the Klipsch G-17 Air.  It's a great speaker capable of reproducing a good range of sound, especially in the mid-range area (which is key, because a lot of speakers don't reproduce this region very well) and it's wi-fi compatible, so you can bounce music from your tablet or phone to it when you aren't listening to records. Unfortunately, it comes with a price tag in the $250+ range, but if you're serious about your collection, it's worth the investment (especially since you can use it for other stuff besides your turntable).   Oh, and that ION record player has an RCA output on it that puts you in need of this $8 cable to connect it to the speaker. It's a pretty decent sounding set up, comparably priced (under $350, all in), and while it's definitely not the top of the line, it's a great start up system that will sound significantly better than most of the chintzy all-in-ones out there.

Not exactly, no.  Not by virtue of the format itself, anyway. It can sound fantastic, and when it does, it's quite rewarding, because a well forged vinyl record does tend to reproduce a more nuanced soundscape in the way it's mastered... but so do a lot of CDs, and even some MP3 files encoded at 320kbps or more can sound really dynamic.  Any format you prefer has the potential for sounding stellar if it's well recorded, well mixed and mastered, reproduced through a great player, through nice speakers, in a room conducent to decent acoustics - all these things are considerations. Vinyl enthusiasts that puff their chests and state flat out that vinyl sounds better no matter what because blah, blah and
ION Profile turntable and Klipsch G17 Air speaker. A winning combination!
blah are full of shit.  The true attraction to vinyl is the tangibility of the format. The ability to engage physically (in a sense) with a non-physical sensory perception.  With a vinyl record, you get to touch, feel and hold that big giant album art, you get to carefully pull it out of its sleeve, see the grooves and indents that will ultimately transform into the sounds you love to hear.  It's an experience. It's an exercise in metaphysics because with records, you're holding and touching and seeing every detail of what you'll ultimately only hear. Or, if you want to just skip the poetry: listening to music on vinyl is cool and retro - no further explanation required.

Not particularly true, no.  A record demands a little more respect when handling it, of course, because among all the available recorded mediums, a record wears its heart on its sleeve the most (to put it figuratively). There's no protective plastic jewel case and tray to store it in like a CD has, and the vinyl disk itself requires the grooves be relatively clean and free of debris during playback, or you're going to hear a lot of crackles, pops and skips.  A wipe down with a soft, very slightly damp cloth is usually all you need to do to clean it up, though - and even very slight hairline scratches (like you'd see on a gently used CD) will typically not affect playback, especially with today's vinyl being pressed much sturdier than ever before. You may see some advertised as "heavy weight, 180g" etc., and that's definitely noteworthy, because the thicker that disk is, and the deeper those grooves on it are, the more durable and able to withstand nicks and scratches it's likely to be.  On the other hand, overkill of this manufacturing trend can be a bit obnoxious...

To explain: one side of a record pressed at 33 speed can only hold approximately 30 minutes of music - at most.  An album that has a total running time exceeding that, is going to require a second disk, which explains why you see 2 LP sets out there for albums that you recall being on only one CD (or there's bonus material on the second LP).  So, understanding that, you might ask: "alright, then why is The White Stripes Elephant record (for example) pressed on 2 LPs, but has a total running time of less than an hour?".  I'll tell you: no necessary reason at all; other than to space out the grooves and provide a more
Scratched 180g LP that plays without skipping - just pops a bit over the sore spots
durable, consistently playing record.  Consider that if a full 30 minutes of music is going to be on one side of a record, those grooves are going to be cut much closer together to fit them all on there.  Cutting grooves closer together leaves the record much more vulnerable to things that can cause it to skip, because that needle is now barreling through much narrower "hallways" placed much closer together. A "roadblock" - like a piece of lint or dust particle - that might otherwise get pushed out of the way by the stylus (needle), becomes a much bigger obstacle in such cramped quarters.  This is why some people are drawn to 2 LP pressings, even when a 2 LP pressing seems unnecessary.  It just makes a sturdier, more damage resistant record.

Regardless, with records being what they are, I'm personally one who tends to prefer single LP pressings whenever possible.  It's simply a matter of not wanting to hassle with flipping and switching records several times, just to hear the entire album in one sitting. For me, that's crossing the line between an involved and measured listening experience, and just too much damn work.  To each his or her own, however - it's just a matter of preference and opinion.

All said, don't let this cool new vinyl trend bewilder you.  Getting geared up to start enjoying records is easy if you know a few basics - but even this article is full of a lot of one jerk's advice you may just choose to ignore completely, and that's fine too!  The point is, you don't need a degree in audio engineering or an understanding of all the tiny little facts and figures of recorded sound to feel confident enough to go out there and buy a record player and some vinyl records.  All you really need is an interest in what is a "new to you / old to them" format, and a desire to see if it suits your fancy as a music collector.  The comeback of vinyl records gives a whole new generation of music lovers the opportunity to experience the albums they love NOW, in the throwback setting of how folks enjoyed music THEN.  And that's all there is to it. You're showing an appreciation for music history in a trippy kind of past-meets-future sense.... even if you couldn't care less about music theory.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Daniel Knox's Self Destructive Self Titled Third Album

Daniel Knox's third album, and first for Chicago based indie label Carrot Top Records, contains a cobbling together of ten songs, all much ado about houses, stores and cars with no drivers. All things as stationary as the album itself, which kind of plods along lifelessly - unless you take an interest in monotonous and painfully redundant things. 

It's a shame, really, because Knox's previous full length efforts - his self released 2007 debut Disaster and its 2011 follow up Evryman For Himself (which thus far marks his finest recorded hour), showed such promise for the evolution of his sound, and in turn, his popular appeal. He could be likened to a male answer to the Regina Spektor camp... but a lot less cutesy, with songs a lot more sinister, and leaps and bounds more appealable to an adult audience who would surely find Knox's wicked lyrical remarks, told from his decidedly bitter disposition,  a more reflective mirror for their own dark and brooding propensities.  

Granted, this self titled effort (originally slated to be entitled Chasescene, and the finale in a trilogy formed by his previous two albums; why that changed, we're not sure) is still brimming with that trademark form, but Knox seems tired here, despondent, and as such, significantly less dangerous.  While the song "Don't Touch Me" has some pep behind it, the track just sounds like a leftover from Evryman or Himself, revisiting the very same curmudgeonly theme that dominated that album, and the interestingly titled, but disappointingly presented "Incident At White Hen" comes off as a cast off as well, but from Disaster.  

The liner notes suggest a number of songs on Daniel Knox's tracklist were culled from previous work with and around photographer John Atwood (whom Knox is known to be quite taken with), and being that the album is self-titled, complete with a cover depicting only a less than alluring painting of Knox's own bust, one has to wonder if this album is more a memento for his own strictly personal reasons, and less to appeal to, or widen, his audience?  And if all that is the case, the question begging answer then is: why would you do this to yourself so early in your career?  A large, dedicated fan base for a grown and seasoned artist (even if said artist isn't exactly a radio hit maker) will generally suffer whatever syrup their champion drools out, but for Daniel Knox, a move this bold and perceived to be this self indulgent, this early on - when he's just on the cusp of being widely recognized, is either fool hearty or arrogant... or both. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

21 Hit Singles That Never Were, But Coulda Woulda Shoulda Been...

Keeping in mind the general rules of what makes a proper radio single, e.g. tight running time, verse-chorsus composition, conventional "catchiness", here is a suggestion of 21 songs by 21 artists that coulda woulda shoulda been popular, career changing singles, but for whatever reasons, never saw such glory, and instead fell into relative obscurity. Some of these artists have had hit singles in the past, others never had a single - hit or not - at all, but the tie that binds here is that all these songs are fully deserving of that musical merit badge we've all come to accept for marketing purposes.  Regular readers of this blog might notice I've raved about some of these artists and songs before, but since you never got to hear these tracks over-played on FM radio, you get to instead find them shamelessly over-promoted here.  Enjoy...  

1. "SIDEWINDER" by Ass Ponys [from Some Stupid With A Flare Gun]

1994 saw Ass Ponys one and only novelty hit "Little Bastard", following which changes in label ownership saw them dropped from A&M Records, and more or less forgotten about. Nonetheless, they matured as artists until their untimely disbanding in 2002, but not before issuing a number of other albums with decidedly more sophisticated songs - one of which was "Sidewinder" from this, their 1999 indie label release.  "Sidewinder" is the heart-wrenching tale of a farmer's non-acceptance of the fact that his crop has turned to crap, and his livelihood along with it, all the while his wife notices with unspoken trepidation ("the dirt farmer swears his fruit is as fresh as the early spring / what does he care she's finding worms in everything").  Though the subject matter might seem alienating to a modern audience, each verse is lush with vivid descriptors of decay and disappointment that build into a fantastic, soaring chorus.  

2. "I Blew Up The United States" by Was(Not Was) [from Are You Okay?]

A post Sept. 11, 2001 world might not so readily accept a single about a fanatical attack on American landmarks, just as a post "Walk The Dinosaur" Was(Not Was) song would never really properly explode the band's popularity a second time.  Still, for as schizophrenic as Was(Not Was)'s output tended to be (one might most accurately described their body of work as whole as a sort of Yello meets Ween type mess ), "I Blew Up The United States" would have appealed on the same tepid level as "Walk The Dinosaur" did to those who wouldn't care much to explore Was(Not Was)'s more bizarre compositions.  It's a bass heavy song with maniacal piano refrains scattered throughout... and it came out 6 years before Fiona Apple would take the exact same, though better received, liberties. 

3. "Speed" by Bran Van 3000 [from Discosis]

Bran Van 3000 made a small wave in the middle 90's with the single "Drinking In L.A." and "Supermodel" (the music video for the latter had some moderate rotation on Mtv in those days] from their preceding album Glee; but by the time Discosis was released in 2001, the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal label, to which Bran Van was signed, folded and it likely took a toll on this very commercially viable, potentially successful follow-up.  Two singles did squeak out before the collapse, however: "Astounded" and "Love Cliche", though neither charted in the U.S., which is just as well, because they were poorly chosen.  If the promotion had been there, "Speed" would have been this album's guaranteed royal flush.  It's a sun-tanned summer anthem complete with cutesy "tickled kitten" female vocals, driving electro-percussion and - here's the left turn - some pretty bad ass accordion instrumentation.

4. "The Fire Song" by Company of Thieves [from Ordinary Riches]

Company of Thieves sort of came and went in 2009, for the most part, unnoticed. Not really one hit wonders, per se, with the abstinent airplay of the song "Oscar Wilde", they toured extensively in 2010, produced a follow up album in 2011, and then disbanded under the weight of overbearing frontwoman Genevieve Schatz.  Still, Ordinary Riches is an elegantly well-crafted album, and while the song "Pressure" was a well chosen follow up single, maybe the album's commercial sparkle began to fade before "The Fire Song" could be selected as a potential third promotional. A grungy staccato number similar in sound to Shirley Manson's band Garbage, "The Fire Song" had every bit of playlist power as "Only Happy When It Rains" did.

5. "I'm A Dog" by Crash Test Dummies [from A Worm's Life]

Forever relegated to the ranks of top 100 One Hit Wonders of the 90's, Crash Test Dummies' hit song "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" skyrocketed the success of their 1994 sophomore album God Shuffled His Feet... and then 1996's A Worm's Life pretty much tamped it back down;  and then 1999's Give Yourself A Hand more or less murdered it.  But while frontman Brad Roberts writing became increasingly la morgue littéraire with each subsequent Dummies album, one track on A Worm's Life offered some philosophical genius, and some hope at sustaining the band's success just a little longer: "I'm A Dog". It's the last example of the charmingly refined, endearingly inquisitive writings on topics of all things curious that Roberts has produced to date, and that said, the last proper Crash Test Dummies song.  Sadly, though, it remains forever buried as the second to last track on this, the beginning of the band's end.  In fact, re-release God Shuffled His Feet with "I'm A Dog" included as a bonus track (and oh yeah, "Superman's Song" from The Ghosts That Haunt Me), and you have a "best of" compilation for this band that's perfectly consistent and missing nothing.

6. "Act of Creation" by The New Red Moons [from Mesmérisme]

This selection might be a bit premature, as The New Red Moons' fantastic sophomore effort Mesmérisme is only about six months past its release date as of this writing, however it's pinned here with dual intent: (1) because the Moons are a smaller independent act, not signed to a label, this self released effort is unlikely to produce more than the one single it already has ("You Can Run") - and even that was an abnormality for a self-releaed album; and (2) because the Moons are a smaller independent act, not signed to a label, this self-important blogger tends to think he might just capture the band's attention, thus prompting them by suggestion.  Granted, "Act of Creation" isn't really an accurate representation of the band's overall sound - and typically you want the single to be that (which is probably why they chose "You Can Run") - but it's such a striking and dissimilar song, even in terms applied beyond the album it's on.  Frontman Joe McIlheran explores an impressive and anomalous vocal range on this track, and the composition as a whole captures one of those rare moments of inimitable progression in rock music, the likes of which were the blue print for what would properly be labeled Alternative Rock, in the days before the label started being improperly applied to everything.

7. "With My Own Bare Hands" by Ween [from La Cucaracha]

Ignoring the fact that the song is laden with profanity, "With My Own Bare Hands", even as a clean radio edit, represents the next best whack-job single Ween could offer since their catchy lo-fi mainstream breakthrough "Push Th' Little Daisies" back in 1992.  It's a staggered, guitar driven, hard percussion hitting yeller about all the things lead vocalist Aaron Freeman (formerly Gene Ween) is capable of doing, from the scientifically delicate ("I could take your DNA and replicate a man") to the sexually explicit ("I'm gonna be your ass shaker, stick it up in your ass").  In the usual, and so amusingly, Ween-like fashion, the song devolves from its already pretty primitive delivery, into a sort of stream of consciousness, Tourette Syndrome vulgarity that is as hilariously juvenile as it is disjointed. The song is completely indecent, lyrically radio unfriendly, but quite frankly hearing a radio edit version nonetheless would only add to the novelty of this.

8. "Betting On Trains" by Hem [from Rabbit Songs]

A quiet country stroll on a comfortable summer afternoon couldn't be more tranquil than this violin acoustic folk-rock piece from Hem's 2000 debut album.  Lead singer Sally Ellyson's vocals are the closest thing to Ella Fitzgerald you could get in the modern day, and the band's repertoire the best parlour music revival attempt since the general dissipation of the style in the late 18th Century.  The song discusses the familiarity one can establish with the people, places and things in one's life, and how this becomes a predicator, a gospel point of reference, for how everything is and will be - undeniably, whether the notions are factual or not.

9. "I Have Special Powers" by His Name Is Alive [from Last Night]

Never attempting, or pretending, to be a "singles" band, His Name Is Alive could have inadvertently struck fool's gold with the blue mood jazz fusion, late night insomnia feel of "I Have Special Powers", a track culled from their 4AD swan song album, and one that just as surprisingly, might have offered more potential singles than any of their previous or subsequent efforts.  Shame 4AD had already written them off by the time Last Night was released.  The album saw very little promotion, even though if the inclination had been there, the label could have capitalized on what this notoriously schizophrenic, near impossible to market, band produced here. After all, the annals of music history are rife with at-one-time successful musicians who will all agree: one hit is all it takes.

10. "Disengage" by The Honorary Title [from Anything Else But The Truth]

The now popular hokey-stern folk rock style of Vance Joy's "Riptide" and Milky Chance's "Stollen Dance" was preceded by The Honorary Title's "Disengage" back in 2004, but never found a foothold then. Doubtful eleven years after the fact, the now disbanded Honorary Title, or their former label, would be bothered to re-attempt finding fanfare for the song or album - especially after they did attempt a re-issue two years after the initial release, but to no real affect. Still to see "Disengage" fall into a obscurity is a crying shame, all things considered. While the song would have surely belied the content of the rest of the album, promoting a single is about shamelessly selling copies by any means necessary, and if that had been the case, no harm no foul, because the rest of this release would have propelled itself.

11. "The Northern Sea" by Jarrod Dickenson [from The Lonesome Traveler]

Resident Brooklyn, NY folk scene busker, Jarrod Dickenson's 2012 independently released album The Lonesome Traveler, as a whole, coulda woulda shoulda made great waves in the alt. folk music scene right alongside the likes of Bon Iver and the earlier works of The Handsome Family, but as is sadly all too often the case, the marketing dollars and prominent indie label support weren't there; and so until they are, the album will quietly reside in its own beautiful obscurity. The chosen hit, for the intent and purpose of this writing, is the album's second track, entitled "The Northern Sea": the stormy and treacherous sea shanty-esque tale of a fisherman determined to serve his trade, despite unrelenting danger, and minimal reward. Ironically, if this weren't such an obscure blog, the mere naming of the track here might ignite a bevy of downloads, reinstating the song - maybe even the entire album - as an overlooked "sleeper hit", and catapulting Dickenson into the limelight where he truly belongs.  Alas, unseen, on the other side of that tree on the album cover, Dickenson and I are resting our heads against the barked trunk, dreaming of fanfare...

12. "Let Me Go" by Kate Tucker + The Sons of Sweden [from The Shape The Color The Feel]

Considering the music consuming public's long time infatuation with the breathily sung, lustily articulated female vocal design, it's surprising Kate Tucker and her entourage's sophomore album managed to almost entirely land on deaf ears. Showing a bit of a stylistic shift from its predecessor, 2010's White Horses, Tucker regardless should have hit the trendy nail on the proverbial head with this album. "Let Me Go" especially embodies everything definable about the phrase "radio friendly".  Fit her in between Banks, Lorde and Tove Lo, and ne'er a disappointed yuppie-teen eyebrow would be raised.

13. "Tell Me No" by Lady Cannon [from Whiskey Dear]

Milwaukee's Lady Cannon is a whiskey soaked trollop, hellbent on illustrating all of the sinful misdeeds that alcoholism and promiscuity can bring to a life. "Tell Me No" sums up her penchants quite well, detailing the relationship between an "other woman" and a man who belongs to someone else. The real antithesis in her variety of drunken misdeeds, however, is the aching heart and soul behind it. She's naughty, but she's sad, she's malevolent but you're made commiserate for why she is what she is.  Insultingly, you could call her a slut who happens to have a way with words; realistically you could say the same of every great writer from Jack Kerouac to Charles Bukowski. Cannon makes her sins very digestible song compositions, nonetheless, and while "Tell Me No" is no crime of the century, the telling of her drama is expertly distilled, and goes down smooth.

14. "By The Book" by Michael Penn [from Free For All]

Michael Penn came and went, as far as most are concerned, with the hit late 80's single "No Myth".  Truthfully, the artist continued to flourish well into the mid 2000's, offering an album only about every four to six years, but each and every was finely crafted, and showed exponential growth in his ability as a musician. His 1997 overlooked single "I Can Tell" was a fantastic piano rich alternative rock opus, but even more lamentably neglected was this track from his sophomore album Free For All. "By The Book" is a spaciously delivered, acoustic guitar and percussion alt. folk track about the determination behind decided ignorance. Forging forward to meet a desire, calling it acceptable by all terms, but yet... asking forgiveness for it? It's a psychologically challenging song, and maybe the difficulty most would have with getting their head around the message is precisely why it was never promoted. Consequently, Michael Penn is held in high esteem by the highfalutin musician's musicians elite, and a critic's darling to boot. But while those things are arguably impressive, they almost never equal commercial success.

15. "Lost My Mind" by Mile Nielsen [from Miles]

Much like Jakob Dylan, Miles Nielsen's connection to Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen can be immediately off-putting to a younger audience interested only in discovering "their own thing". Yet, again - much like Jakob Dylan -  Miles Nielsen has been surgical and careful in his career thus far, not to ride on the coattails of his father's fame, and to keep a safe distance between his Rusted Hearts Band and Cheap Trick. Unlike Jakob Dylan, however, Nielsen has yet to see proper popular appeal, though he tours small to mid-size venues across the country frequently - and is acquiring a growing fan base.  "Lost My Mind" is the track most stand out in his two album repertoire thus far, though there are countless others that could easily build his appeal.

16. "Red Accordian" by Patty Larkin [from Perishable Fruit]

Though a little sparse in instrumentation to fit the typical requirements for a radio single, but a perfectly subtle album closer, "Red Accordion" speaks playfully and optimistically to the trials and tribulations of the human condition - a much needed outlook in any age and time.  "Don't listen to the din rising behind you; if you look at life like a train wreck, one will find you..." Larkin advises as the songs emotive sensibility swells to embrace the listener, who by then - if they've any sense of worldliness or self at all - is strongly holding back a cataclysm of cathartic tears.

17. "Wildflowers On Chene" by Rob Reid [from Prairie Shanties of the Landlocked Mariner]

Vaguely reminiscent of the cadence to the song Zorba The Greek (vaguely), Rob Reid's "Wildflowers On Chene" has the same sort of anabasis mood and structure, but fitted instead to a verse chorus song about an assortment of forms and variances on societal decay - both metaphorically and figuratively. The upswing of the song's chorus is among its most catchy and endearing qualities, wherein Reid lets a little sunlight part the deliberative, darkly hewn verses, as the tempo perks up into an upbeat, nonlinear reflection on the better days that existed before this presently dilapidated state of being.

18. "Strangely At Home Here" by Seven Mary Three [from Day & Nightdriving]

"Strangely At Home Here" comes almost a decade and a half after Seven Mary Three's bygone days of topping the Alternative Rock charts, with tracks mostly from their 1995 breakthrough album American Standard. 2008's Day & Nightdriving is a strong departure from the harder rocking of those early years, and though it's still firmly rock music they're performing, it's just not so much grunge rock music anymore. They've clearly settled down a bit now, applying instead more acoustic tones, and for the most part, writing more contemplative compositions; much ado about the home life and, perceptibly, frontman Jason Ross's own domestic relationship concerns.  Midlife maturity manifests itself quite clearly on the album, and "Strangely At Home Here" is aimed squarely at the hearts and minds of all those aging weekend pub crawlers, grappling with the shifts in their livelihood, and the fading but fond memories of the pastimes of their twenties.

19. "For The Sake of Drowning" by Stephanie Dosen [from Ghosts, Mice & Vagabonds]

In a similar vein as Jewel's Pieces of You album, but just shy of ten years after the acoustic aching heart female singer/songwriter fad ended, Stephanie Dosen offered up this under-promoted album about all things emotional, heartfelt and profoundly inner turmultuous.  "For The Sake of Drowning" plays as instrumentally tonal, lyrically yearning and vocally pleading as anything else similar, but that enjoyed much more success.  Dosen's writing, though, in contrast to all of them,  offers a variety of much deeper contexts than her peers were willing to illustrate, and her staying power as a new age Joni Mitchell never saw the potential it fully deserved.

20. "The Well" by The Vega Star [from The Night]

The Vega Star's sole album The Night, by and large, holds rank as the most overlooked independent folk rock album to be released in the last twenty years. The album deals heavily in dread and despair, dark nights and heavy hearts - all matter of things that have appealed very strongly to a larger music consuming public for decades, but that so few songwriters could manage to incarnate as chillingly and with as much melancholy as Vega Star frontman Justin Rolbieki does here. "The Well" acts as what could have been both a single capable of launching the band's career on a larger scale, and a defectless representation of the group's gloomy boutique style and design.

21. "Creature" by The Fatty Acids [from Leftover Monsterface]

In the form of a radio ready single, The Fatty Acid's "Creature" might require some edits for duration, but ultimately represents a unique combination appeal of something like Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" and a number of things by The Residents in the early 80's.  If "Creature" had become a popular single, it would have most definitely defaulted the band into one-hit-wonder categorization, as the song is really the most digestible in the the group's repertoire to date. Nonetheless, credit given to a band whose normal penchant for being bizarrely abstract can be pushed aside to compose a piece with as much mainstream chart appeal as this without even trying.  Milwaukee hasn't seen sui generous in the form of The Fatty Acids since the Violent Femmes, and it's a crying shame they, unlike the Femmes, didn't arrive on the scene in the days and times when "sounding different" didn't equal the same as "sounding sort of like".

Friday, January 9, 2015

Redundancy Reigns On The Last Internationale's Debut

The Last International - "We Will Reign" [Epic Records]
While dozens of remarkably talented up and coming bands with profound, creative - and if not, at the very least, somewhat unique - things to express, struggle to market themselves and/or garner the attention of a major label, somehow The Last Internationale managed to rise above all of them, and then celebrated by pissing out this mediocre album of middle aged biker anthems.  Having ex-Rage Against The Machine drummer Brad Wilk in their personnel likely helped them get attention, and surely with producer Brendan O'Brien (Pearl Jam, Michael Penn.. he's got a decent resume) on deck to orchestrate the whole thing (strings were maybe pulled? Favors called in?), the label suits couldn't help but green light this belly flop by virtue alone.

The brass tacks: We Will Reign is a tepid "classic rock" sounding album that borrows more than it offers, stumbles more than it strides and bears with it the shame of a band touting a lot of clout over little content.

From the opening track, "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Indian Blood", you get a pretty thorough summation of what this album has to say.  The song presents the Orwellian concept that "one does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes a revolution in order to establish a dictatorship", as vocalist Delila Paz belts in her reedy Annie Lennox meets Florence Welch tone: "the seeds of revolution will grow tight around our children's necks, like nooses that are used to keep the slaves in check / And decades later we still can't figure out why it remains the same...".  The subsequent title track "We Will Reign" then goes on to say... well, the exact same thing: "We might have seen it all / We're building walls because we love to see them fall".  And this same principle is revisited on the 4th track "Killing Fields", the 5th track "Battleground" .... and yet again on the closing track "1968" - the latter most title possibly being a veiled reference to the infamous shootout between military police and the Black Panthers socialist party in April of that year - or maybe the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or any number of other Johnson Era unrests and resistances. A theme album concept is one thing, but dedicating five songs on a ten song album to an identical message is verbose, to say the least (hah! - PUN intended!), especially when the remaining tracks are left feeling alienated, random and disparate: three lover's soliloquys, a working man's lament, and one painfully ham fisted, but surely intended to be bittersweet, rock ballad ("Baby It's You"); the last mentioned's refrain worded in kitschy "white-trache" dialect: "It doesn't matter what they say, I know I'm gonna love you any old way....blah blah blah don't want nobody, cause baby it's you...".  

All this criticism aside, the basic song structures on We Will Reign's tracklist are all fundamentally boilerplate rock n' roll;  no different than you'd hear in any American dive bar or in any episode of Sons of Anarchy you choose.  You can sing along, fist pump, air guitar or dance drunkenly to any song on here until the bartender kicks you out, or you knock over Tig's beer and he beats your ass. These are stereotypical American outlaw anthems here that, vexatious and cliche as they might be, still appeal to a certain segment of the population (ref: all above made projections). Rock n' roll music was a revolution once upon a time, and while The Last Internationale can attempt to present themselves as juggernauts of the movement; their claims are imperious, their arsenal is lacking - and the only aspect of them that might be a reigning force to be reckoned with are their delusions of grandeur.  

Friday, January 2, 2015

A Shout Over Whispers... Or, New York Times Music Critic Jon Caramanica Is An Ass Hat

Passenger "Whispers" NEW & SEALED vinyl LP record
includes shipping within the United States

Those unfamiliar with Passenger (aka Michael Rosenberg, post 2009) might at first check the setting on their turntable to be sure the LP isn't playing at 45 RPM. Rest assured, though it's only slightly off putting, his voice really does sound a little leprechaun like, but that's fine; get past that and you'll find the craftsmanship of his compositions entirely endearing on Whispers, Passenger's 6th studio album, and fifth as a solo artist. 

Historically, when a founding band member goes solo using his previous band's name, you can expect a number of disappointments, ranging from haphazardness to jarring disparity in continuity. Some would hold that 2007's Wicked Man's Rest was the sole effort released by Passenger as a proper band, and those same would likely discount everything Rosenberg released independent of his former partner Andrew Phillips as "not quite".  The reality of the matter, however, is that Rosenberg continues to mature with each subsequent effort, and the Passenger moniker he continues to carry with him as a solo artist casts no shadow of shame whatsoever on his illustrious early work with Phillips. 

Unfortunately though, Whispers hasn't received the same positive critical support as Wicked Man's Rest did, having been called by one New York Times misguided (and, in my opinion, consistently mentally retarded) critic Jon Caramanica: "limited in its arsenal".  Caramanica goes on to fucking stupidly boldy
state that Rosenberg's writing comes off like, quote "a teenager's scribbled poems", and suggests that Rosenberg's criticism of the popular appeal of Twitter and other social media platforms is ironic, considering the role they played in growing Passenger's success early on. Now, whether or not Caramanica has any familiarity with the "scribblings" of teenagers is in question, alongside just what sort of teenagers he knows?  Teenagers most of us know could never pen, with any experienced intelligence, songs like "27", an upbeat, but at the same time deeply pondering, comparison of personal and social expectations ("The only thing I get told is I got to sell out if I wanna get sold..." and "I write songs that come from the heart, and I don't give a fuck if they chart or not...").  Sure, your average teenager could express the same level of frustration, fuck-all and angst, but what's missing is the qualification, the worldliness.. as in where Rosenberg states in the middle eight: "27 years done, written 600 songs only 12 get sung; 87,000 cigarettes have passed through these lungs, and every single day I wish I'd never smoked one; a week brushing my teeth, a week getting my hair cut, 8 years sleeping and I'm still tired when I wake up..." Your average teenager doesn't have the wherewithal or maturity to make these observations (not to mention your average teenager doesn't clearly state that he's 27). And while it's true social media played an enormous role in catapulting Passenger's success, that doesn't mean the artist has to love it and all it represents. It can be explained in the same way that even though your job pays your bills, you still hate going there every day.  So with this in mind, when New York Times critic Jon Caramanica tries to raise a brow at Rosenberg's criticism of people "slowly dying in front of fucking computers", it doesn't mean they didn't do anything for his career... for you, reader: doesn't the corporate cube farm that you spend 9 hours a day decomposing in pay for your vacation time, your home, your material possessions? See, it's not the ends, it's the sorrow in the means to them. How can a respected music critic be so obtuse? 

Why Whispers hasn't been critically acclaimed is baffling, really. The album runs in the same Irish folk vein as Mumford & Sons, though with a bit more Caribbean flavor here and there - but where Mumford's songs are arguably more or less just a bunch or rhyming words, and their appeal is more about form than content, Passenger meets - and maybe even exceeds - that same now popular form, but with songs that happen to include meaningful, well wrought lyrical refrains as well.  The only real criticism of this album is the occasional over-emphasized message in some of the tracks ("Hearts on Fire" and "Scare Away The Dark"), but all in all, Passenger's whispers here are very much worth listening to.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

His Name Is Alive's "Tecuciztecatl": Unspeakable.

His Name Is Alive "Tecuciztecatl" [NEW & SEALED vinyl LP record]
$16.88 - Includes Shipping!*
*domestic shipping only, no international sales

On their 10th studio album, and first recording of new material in six years (subtracting the sham and scam that was 2010's The Eclipse), His Name Is Alive continue to recover from the identity crisis they inflicted on themselves in the early 00's (reference 2001's Someday My Blues Will Cover The Earth as the pinnacle of this), issuing a collection here not at all dissimilar to the elocutions of 2007's Xmmer and plumbing the same feel (sorta) of 1998's Ft. Lake; though sparing the "Detroit booty rock" electronics of the latter, but harking back to the pronunciational awkwardness of the former (it's phonetically "Teh-zoo-ziz-teh-kattle", said real real fast).  As always, His Name Is Alive continue to be hellbent on making marketing and commercialization very very difficult for themselves and whatever record label might be brave enough to foster their releases. In the case of this one, it's found a home on Seattle based Light In The Attic's new London London imprint - which, if you peruse the rest of their offerings, puts His Name Is Alive in just the right place it seems... if ever there was one. 

The Tecuciztecatl album, unfortunately, seems sort of "been done" by comparison to His Name Is Alive's back catalog.  That's especially disappointing for a band who have been so historically consistent in delivering remarkably interesting, disparately square peg albums.  So with the sort of resume they have, one might have expected this to be another bold and exciting new addition to their wholly pretty damn interesting catalog.  The potential for it is there, the marketing editorials surrounding it certainly make it sound hopeful - what, with terms like "rock opera" and "horror movie soundtrack vibe".  Ultimately, however, Tecuciztecatl falls significantly short of all of that, coming off instead a little fragmented, a tad repetitive.  In His Name Is Alive's younger years, they did quite well creating abstract sound conglomerate albums 
(reference their 1990 debut Livonia), that could be taken ala carte, but were much more properly absorbed in their entirety as textured soundscapes that segued from one song to the next.  They once upon a time did that really, really exceptionally well - but here... here it just comes off a bit tedious, a tad uninspired... and a lot boring. 

Missing seems to be the "found sounds" silent frontman/mastermind/engineer Warren Defever used to imbed into His Name Is Alive's work. The creepy whispers in Livonia, the shrill creature or animal shriek in "There Something Between Us And He's Changing My Words" on Home Is In Your Head, the woman sobbing "they're gonna take me to the insane asylum" inserted at the end of "Jack Rabbits" on Mouth By Mouth - the ticking clocks, the air compressor blasts, the birds chirping, the weird amped out squiggling metal sounds, even the haunted lyricism that speak only and strictly from the disposition of supernatural knowing and presence  - they're all missing here, but they're all so significant to what has become the most beloved elements of the atmosphere His Name Is Alive has proven themselves quite adept at enveloping.  And while it's true the band deviated from these claims to their initial fame long ago, this album seemed to promise a return to that. Everything about it would have been so very conducive to it... "a psychedelic rock opera depicting an epic struggle between identical twins, reflective in nature and mirrored in twin science, secret language and mythology..." Those are the words verbatim from the Tecuciztecatl marking material... so where the fuck is it?

To say His Name Is Alive have gotten lazy would be dismissive. This is by no means a lazy effort. It's clear the band had every expectation this album would have been received much differently, even if their promotional material was, to say the least, over-imaginative.  Tecuciztecatl's shortcomings amount to HNIA simply not living up to the unexpected this time around... or even the expected for that matter, paradoxical as it might sound.  The sum of all these parts, in the end, serve only to leave Tecuciztecatl as frustrating to listen to as it is to pronounce. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Red Beans And Weiss - Chuck Weiss's House Speciality

Chuck E. Weiss Red Beans And Weiss [NEW & SEALED vinyl LP record]
$18.50 - includes shipping!!*
*domestic shipping only, no international sales

A longtime (and, at this point in his storied career, a lifetime) standard name on just about all of Los Angeles's downtown jazz club marquees, Chuck E. Weiss finds himself tucked in with ANTI Records for his fifth studio album Red Beans And Weiss.  No doubt a good word was put in by his associate, one Mr. Tom Waits, who has seen release of his own albums on the label for the last fifteen years. Having made numerous references to Weiss on a number of albums from Small Change to Rain Dogs, anyone aware of Mr. Waits's lineage also likely knows the name Weiss. The two co-inhabited LA's legendary Tropicana Hotel in the 70's, ran amok with the off center Ben Frank's crowd back in the same days (there's a coupon for a free breakfast there in the gatefold of the LP... no expiration on it either. Insert tongue in cheek), and in testament to Chuck's reputation on the scene, the late great Willie Dixon once called this "little jew boy with the big ol' head, the best damn musician in this town - this country even!"

Red Beans sees Weiss sounding significantly more relaxed, musically experimental and lyrically playful  than on his previous efforts - though it's been over half a decade since his last.  One would expect some change between albums for any other musician with that much time in between, but for Weiss, with his penchant for being so insistently insistent on all things nostalgic, it comes as a surprise to hear this album so undocked from its predecessors.  Not that the difference isn't a good one - it's quite good actually, as this effort by and large, contains a collection of Chuck Weiss's most enhancing work.  The rollicking pseudo-Primus sounding "Boston Blackie" is currently the only radio single from RedBeans, though as is often the case, it falls short of representing the album as a whole.  And that's just as well, because truly any song chosen from this, with so much individual character in each of them, just wouldn't do justice to its entirety, or allow the listener any chance at assuming its contents.  From the opening percussion of the cutely repetitive, hilariously titular "Tupelo Joe", on into the the smooth jazz whispered biography of "Shushie" (Weiss's own neighborhood stray cat), Red Beans And Weiss, right from the start, revels in its own idiosyncrasy, and urges a certain curiosity for the artist's characters... as well as for the artist himself. In example, "The Knucklehead Stuff" is a haphazard sung-spoken R&B rap that puts Weiss immediately among the elite who can pull off too cool to be concerned with being cool. This is furthered on the B Side track "Oo Poo Pa Do In The Rebop", an irreverent wink at jazz dance bebop, and in "Willie's In The Pee Pee House", which is about exactly what you'd expect it to be: guy named Willie, aside from being a general miscreant, has a tendency to slip into the women's restroom to get himself off. "Some may call him Herbert, I just call him pervert," Weiss sings in his sloppy Howlin' Wolf meets Beefheart falsetto, "Willie's in the pee pee house again!" 

While Red Beans And Weiss did have a rather long gestation period, the album is a worthwhile addition to not only the artist's chronology, but to the annals of music history in general.  The circumspect might withhold from calling this a future classic, but to name it as one of those Trout Mask Replica type albums that a generationally accruing cult audience would put on their "top x" list of eccentric necessities - yeah, Red Beans And Weiss will undoubtedly be that. 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

5 Vinyl Re-Issue We'll Likely Never See (But Really Should)

As the vinyl resurgence continues to take the recorded media market by storm, contradicting all practicality of the modern age, and becoming the single most sought after format available, it goes without saying that re-issues of bygone best sellers and fan favorites will continue to enjoy a second wave of sales volume.  Everything from dusty old Johnny Cash best ofs to Camper Van Beethoven and The Sea And Cake's early releases have all seen rebirth in the vinyl format - many of them for the first time ever!  

A lot of classic albums I recall from my youth - which I was certain would never see a vinyl incarnation - have come to be (Luna's Bewitched and Morphine's Cure For Pain come to mind most immediately), and with that in mind, I collected this index of other great albums that really would do themselves new found justice as vinyl re-issues... however unlikely they are to ever make it out there.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The New Red Moons - Mesmérisme [No Telescope Required]

There is no greater credit that can be given to a band than when there becomes a solid recognition of the uniquity of their sound.  Some bands take two or three or four albums of growth and development to get their formula down, while others hit the nail on the head on their first outing; and maybe they hold it, and maybe they devolve and lose it - personnel, circumstance and talent withstanding. The New Red Moons, on the other hand, staked their claim before they even had an album out to package it in, and on their forthcoming sophomore effort, Mesmérisme, they show no indication of losing any of that pre-emptive integrity, whatsoever.