disclaimer is not a toy


Baboon

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Secret Robot Control

Willie's comments: When I first got this album (free), I really enjoyed its mixture of tuneful hardcore and all-out noise, but I haven't pulled it out and listened to it since that first month. And the more I think about it, if I had actually paid money for it, I'd feel really gypped. If it's a noisy catharsis you need, "Time Wounds All Heals" and "I'm OK if You're OK" work better than just about anything, but if you value your money, songs on Beck's Mellow Gold and Yo La Tengo's Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo can do almost as well, but the albums themselves are infinitely better. Grade: C-

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Bad Religion

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Suffer

Willie's comments: This might be my favorite punk album ever. Of course, my sentimental favorite is always going to be Ramones because I grew up with it, but man, from the second you put Suffer into your CD player, amazing punk melodies come flying straight at your face like snakes from cans of peanut brittle, and they don't let up for a half hour. It's a noisy two-guitar setup, with ferociously political lyrics sung by the husky-voiced Greg Graffin, and lots of amazing harmonizing by the other band members to drive home the most important points, played at a speed that would leave your average metronome breathless. (We're talking about cute, anthropomorphic cartoon metronomes here. They'd wipe the sweat off their brow and go, "Whew!" adorably after every song.) Plenty of credit goes to Graffin for reliably coming up with vocal lines as anthemic as those on "Forbidden Beat," "Give You Nothing," and "Best for You," when most hardcore singers, unable to keep up with the tempo and sing recognizable notes, would instead opt to just shout everything. That's not to say Graffin lacks aggression (check out the way he bellows, "1000 more fools are being born every fucking day!"), but it's disciplined aggression that doesn't sacrifice the band's distinctive tunefulness. Every song here is a highlight, but "What Can You Do?" towers above them all: rarely has a rant against social complacency been wedded to a tune so energetic and cheerful. The intellectual lyrics, though clever and surely correct in their calls to action, generally don't do much for me as I'm partial to more emotional stuff, but it's a great soundtrack to sitting and reading The Guardian, and a kick-ass record in just about any other situation, too! Grade: A+

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Generator

Willie's comments: I don't own every Bad Religion record, but I've heard most of them, and from here on out, I think it would take a hardcore hardcore fan to easily differentiate one album from the next. Things have slowed down a bit, but that's not a bad thing, considering Bad Religion's formula has resulted in a body of work that's remarkably consistent in its catchiness, energy, and pissed-off message. If you like one album, you'll probably like them all, so why not dive right in and pick up Generator? This album distinguishes itself from the pack by simple virtue of the fact that it contains "Atomic Garden," which is my favorite punk song of all time. It's a fierce, stomping tale of derangement (one of the least "on-message" songs Mr. Brett ever wrote) that goes as fast as a song can imaginably go while still remaining melodic and not just sounding breathless, and it climaxes in a bunch of bracing guitar noise. The other ten songs hold their own admirably as well, with the disjointed title track, the stirring "The Answer," and the infectious "Only Entertainment" providing extraordinary peaks amid a sea of other songs that are also great in their own right. Grade: A

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Stranger than Fiction

Willie's comments: No one but Bad Religion- the most sesquipedalianistic punk band of all time- would write lyrics like "Automatons with business suits clinging black boxes/ Sequestering the blueprints of daily life." And that's good- we need more literate punk bands! Especially ones who write as many consistently great, tightly-wound, catchy songs as Bad Religion does. As I said above, the band has written a number of interchangeable but terrific albums, but a lot of people seem to like starting with Stranger than Fiction because it contains their biggest hit, the refurbished version of Against the Grain's "21st Century (Digital Boy)." The song- a rather plodding churner- gets by on the strength of its anthemic chorus, but the meat of the album comes in high-strung, melodic hardcore numbers like "Leave Mine to Me," "Marked," and "Individual." Even "Slumber," an unusually mellow pop song, passes muster because Graffin brings the same vein-popping intensity to its chorus that he does the rest of his work. "Television" suffers from the tuneless guest vocals of Rancid's Tim Armstrong, but apart from that, this is another masterwork. Grade: A-

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: RANCID

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Badly Drawn Boy

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The Hour of Bewilderbeast

Willie's comments: Badly Drawn Boy is the moniker which British songwriter Damon Gough has adopted for himself. For myself, the name always conjures up images of the title character in Scott Dikkers's wonderful comic strip Jim's Journal. Much like Jim, Damon seems to harbor no particular aspirations to greatness, contenting himself with exerting relatively little effort on anything, and convinced that pretty good is good enough (this is borne out by his sloppy live show). It's this sort of laziness that is the most frustrating aspect of Badly Drawn Boy's first LP, The Hour of the Bewilderbeast. It's a very good album by anyone's definition, but moments of true beauty occasionally peek through the cracks and suggest what might have been if Gough had spent a little more time on his songs. Bewilderbeast is largely a folk-rock album, hitting every touchstone from Dylan ("Pissing in the Wind") to early Bowie ("Say It Again") to Elliot Smith ("Stone on the Water"), with simple, nature-inflected lyrics that strike a fine balance between earnest sappiness and self-conscious pretension (many songs suddenly incorporate a line or two of French).

The tunes are unfailingly hummable and enjoyable, but the album is bogged down with instrumentals and songs which use repetition in place of actual melodic development. "Everybody's Stalking," for example, is a subversively mellow twist on Stone Temple Pilots-esque grunge/funk, and "Magic in the Air" is blissful chamber music, but each is lacking that one great idea it needs to push it over the edge into masterpiece territory. Bewilderbeast could've used more songs like "Once Around the Block," which sounds like jazzy Neil Finn, or "Disillusion," which is basically acoustic disco (a concept which might sound horrid, but is actually exhilarating), to liven things up. I may sound like I'm being overly harsh about an album which I actually do like a lot, but in some ways, albums that almost graze greatness are more frustrating than flaming failures. Grade: B+

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About a Boy soundtrack

Willie's comments: Along with completely ripping off their predecessors' uneasy love of both sentimentality and gross-out jokes, American Pie auteurs Paul and Chris Weitz have one other pilfered cinematic habit that confirms their position as the poor(er) man's Farrelly brothers: their tendency to drop uptempo pop songs into their films whenever the action threatens to lag. For the soundtrack to their film adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel About a Boy, then, it was an uncharacteristically inspired idea to recruit Damon Gough to write both the movie's score and nine or ten full-fledged original songs for placement in the film (all of which are collected on this album). Though not a runaway success a la Magnolia, the About a Boy album is nevertheless a fine exhibition for Gough's songwriting talents. Granted, many of the compositions here are slight to a fault (none moreso than "Donna and Blitzen," which is a loungey Christmas song that wouldn't sound terribly out of place on Dean Martin's Jingle Bell Baby Rock) and Gough occasionally has to make an audible effort to rein his experimental tendencies in to fit the film, but Mr. Drawn Boy still manages to stretch his musical imagination quite a bit. The infectious waltz "Above You, Below Me," for example, strikes the perfect balance between sweeping orchestral blossom and rock smarts without falling prey to pretentiousness on either side, while "File Me Away" is a charming, bossa-nova-tinged popper. Even the instrumental pieces are memorable, for the most part; rather than relying on John Williams-esque strings-'n'-horns, Gough employs everything from simple acoustic guitar figures ("I Love NYE") to hilariously cheesy electro-funk ("S.P.A.T.") to get the mood across. The peppy "A Peak You Reach" is the only song that can really compare with the greatness of The Hour of Bewilderbeast songs like "Once Around the Block," but for a light musical snack, About a Boy is definitely worth your time. Grade: B

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Have You Fed the Fish?

Willie's comments: For all the disclaimers Gough issued about how the About a Boy soundtrack wasn't really the follow-up to The Hour of Bewilderbeast, I can't help but wonder how he then expected to get away with releasing a "proper" follow-up that's every bit as slight as About a Boy, only less cute. Pleasant as a warm bath and just as energetic, Have You Fed the Fish? is a frustratingly tentative record that sticks mainly to midtempo acoustic-rock songs without any of the confidence or catchy charm that won him a following in the first place. Despite the presence of such talented collaborators as Jon Brion, Joey Waronker, and Pete Thomas (assuming that's the Pete Thomas from the Attractions), songs like "Born Again," "What is It Now?" and "The Further I Slide" waddle around and float away on ice floes of powderpuff songwriting as uninspired and generic as David Gray or Howie Day. "I Was Wrong/You Were Right" recaptures some of Bewilderbeast's off-the-cuff appeal, but this album too often errs on the side of tastefulness- nice though the string arrangements are for some of these songs, I wish they didn't have to come at the expense of his DIY vigor. Take "All Possibilities," for instance: it's basically the same formula as his previous disco excursion "Disillusion," but it falls flat because there's no energy to it whatsoever. There's no question that Gough is a talented musician- sweet lyrics and interesting melodic turns pop up every now and again here- but he sounds like he simply can't be bothered with any of that here, since he can come up with something reasonably listenable by half-assing it. I want to believe that the man has a masterpiece in him somewhere, so I'll stay tuned, but Have You Fed the Fish? mainly hits like an awkward silence. Grade: C

READER COMMENTS:

Tom McKeown writes: Some thoughts on your Badly Drawn Boy reviews. I basically agree with your view that he's a lazy sonnafabitch, but I think I'm a bit more optimistic that he's improving over time. I really didn't like 'Bewilderbeast' - for me, the problem wasn't the amount of filler, but the fact that some of the catchiest ideas were tucked away in short, one minute compositions whilst the actual songs were - with a few exceptions, such as 'Once Around The Block' and 'Pissing in the Wind' - pretty unmemorable. My favourite track on the album, for instance, was 'Fall In A River', which ought to have been made a full length song. For the 'About A Boy' soundtrack, I thought BDB produced, strangely enough, a more cohesive album, though I agree that 'Donna and Blitzen' is an unbelievably cheesy way to end an album. And as for 'Have You Fed The Fish', I do think it's the best of his albums that I've listened to (I haven't got around to his most recent offering, 'One Plus One Equals One'). Although, yes, there's still too much filler here - and it's not even good filler this time - there's a whole clutch of good, fully realised pop songs, 'Forty Days, Forty Fights' being a personal favourite. You mention 'All Possibilities' as lacking energy, but to my mind it has just the right amount, mainly due to the horn section - too much energy would spoil the mood of the song, which seems to aim for a balance between tired satisfaction and nervous anticipation.

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Barenaked Ladies

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Gordon

Willie's comments: "If I Had $1000000" is funny, yes. "Brian Wilson" and "Be My Yoko Ono" are catchy, yes. But this debut album from these folky Canadians, taken as a whole, is nearly interminable. Despite some sturdy songwriting ("King of Bedside Manor," "Hello City") and a few genuinely clever lyrical moments, it's kind of dull. "Box Set" provokes a few honest smiles from a tale of an aging one-hit wonder, but I thought it was much funnier when I was mishearing "greed" as "green" in the line "Hear my song in an ad for a bathroom cleanser/ They say it's greed." Wince-inducing songs like "I Love You," "Enid," and "The Flag," however, quickly erode much of the goodwill you might have toward the band. Grade: B-

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Born on a Pirate Ship

Willie's comments: In an ill-advised move, BNL songwriters Stephen Page and Ed Robertson jettison most of their jokey instincts on this album in favor of letting their winsome, hypersincere sides run wild on cloying songs like "Call Me Calmly" and "Break Your Heart." And the melodies are just as draggy and banal as the lyrics this time round. "Straw Hat and Old Dirty Hank" provides some much-needed tension, but it's too little, too late. Grade: C-

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Rock Spectacle

Willie's comments: I cannot for the life of me understand the popularity of this live album. It's composed of performances of BNL's most popular tunes ("Brian Wilson," "The Old Apartment") that are virtually identical to the studio versions, only with the added annoyance of thousands of fans shrieking along with the lyrics. This mindless cheering sucks the fun right out of "If I Had $1000000," but most of the other songs weren't much fun to begin with anyway. Grade: D

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Stunt

Willie's comments: The critic for Entertainment Weekly described this album perfectly: It's not BNL's cleverness that's so irritating per se, but it's that they insist that you know just how clever they are (I'm paraphrasing). Page and Robertson think they can freestyle and namedrop like the Beastie Boys, but they seem to think that their arrogance in doing so is masked by the humor of it all, which it isn't. "One Week" was dreadfully overplayed, and though I'm always a sucker for speed-singing, it got old after a few listens in a way that, say, "Sam" by the Meat Puppets never does. The rest of the album basically follows "One Week"'s example, with some Pirate Ship balladry thrown in for no good reason. Grade: C-

READER COMMENTS:

Leigh Walton writes: I won't write a screaming diatribe about how great BNL are and what a terrible person you are for criticizing them on your site, 'cause that'd be stupid.

I will point out that you noticeably didn't include "Maybe You Should Drive," the album that I feel is their strongest. I strongly suggest you buy a copy, or at least borrow one or pirate the mp3s for reviewing purposes.

I'll admit it's hit-and-miss. "Intermittently," "Everything Old Is New Again," and "Alternative Girlfriend" aren't very spectacular. Pretty much every other song, though, is excellent. Mostly in the lyrics, but the arrangements, performance, and everything else are also good. Still, when I think of BNL I think first of songwriting. Ed and Steven are really, really great writers. The lyrics, sometimes witty, sometimes powerfully emotional, always really intelligent, are the star attraction.

Have you heard the album? Do you agree?

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: CONEHEADS MOVIE SOUNDTRACK

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Syd Barrett

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Barrett

Willie's comments: Barrett was the original guitarist for Pink Floyd, and prided himself on making an unholy racket on that band's full-length debut, Piper at the Gates of Dawn. After going crazy and leaving the band, Barrett recorded this album which managed to influence an entire generation of indie-popsters (Tobin Sprout, Yo La Tengo, etc.). Most of his avant-garde guitar abuse is gone from Barrett, and is replaced with solid hooks, gorgeously downcast melodies, and a few enjoyable musical goofs. Of the latter, "Effervescing Elephant"- a silly, tuba-driven story about jungle creatures- is good, ridiculous fun. However, most of the songs are based around an acoustic guitar, an organ, and Barrett's unstudied vocals. "Baby Lemonade" is practically anthemic, while "Dominoes" resembles the Turtles' "So Happy Together," but is all the more personal for eschewing that song's uplift. This one really is a must-have. Grade: A

READER COMMENTS:

Kenneth Fairfield, Jr. writes: my favorite song on "BARRETT" is "Rats." But I think his first album "The Madcap Laughs" is his best and one of the most beautifully disturbing albums I've ever heard. It's quite possibly my favorite album of all time, if I had to choose...but that's prolly cuz I'm insane and spent about a year being completely obsessed with Syd. He's the reason I began playing guitar and writing songs. How can you have not listened to and reviewed "The Madcap Laughs" yet? Shame! And after that, check out "Opel," which I also prefer over "BARRETT."

S. Salzman writes: thanks for two great reviews and comments.. and hey! i love Rats too! i read a teen book a few years ago and it was about tow kids who could shape-shift-..they became rats and wandered in London... and also wandered the English countryside....and Rats decribes the feeling. there... and of al the reviews i have read putting Barret(album and the artist)down...one thing that upsets me... how come they never mention just how friggin great Syd's sense of rhythms and timing were/ his acoustic and electric solo rhythms cook! and he was a tone- meister ... jangly, edgy and the true psychedelic screaming guitar sound... the one.you know, everyone imitates when they are trying to replicate that sound? listen to the guitar solo (and he certainly wasn't known for his solos) on Gigolo Aunt! Now thats a meaty tone!!! and one other thing- if you listen to the outtakes (or bonus cuts as they are called on the crazy diamond set.)..notice how all the songs sound great even with Syd all alone without any embellishment..some even sound better... Am i Biased? yeah sure! but after all this time- i gotta say ... He stands alone...he sounds like no one else-yeah there are others who have tried to sound like him but he is THE DUDE.. and geeee... without him.... what themes would roger waters have made his three biggest selling albums about?lets see insanity,the dark side ,, the music business,hmmmmm....

and SYD played and wrote his own way in his own time=and because of it we got a glimpse into something very different...and something that will never happen again... he let us in there for a brief time...and if you can't listen to Effervescing elephant and smile and thinks its cute.. well i feel sorry for them ! thanks

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Basement Jaxx

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Remedy

Willie's comments: Upon its 1999 release, this debut album by British DJs Basement Jaxx was hailed as the be-all, end-all of house music. Proponents of this theory argued that the duo's songs melded Daft Punk's effortless infectiousness with a number of different sounds and timbres that prevented the repetition inherent in house music from becoming dull. For evidence of this, one need only point to the album's first single, "Rendez-Vu." The song is an instant house classic: It's as stupidly catchy as that Eiffel 65 song, but made palatable for more (ahem) sophisticated tastes by using fun tricks like vocoderized vocals and a sample of a yowling cat. However, those who awarded Album of the Year honors to Remedy evidently overlooked the fact that the album is thereafter extremely uneven. Basement Jaxx's love of sound does enliven some otherwise dull numbers- the increasingly frantic, Caribbean vocals to "Jump n' Shout," the telephone ringing in the background of "Always be There" (nice Kraftwerk reference, that). But more often than not, the songs are just that: dull. In fact, the album sort of does a nosedive into uninteresting background music after "Always be There," until things perk up again on the slow, sexy closer, "Being with U," which comes complete with finger snapping! For those not deeply into house music, this might make a good introduction, as the songs are often complete with choruses and recognizable melodies. However, it's unlikely to make the uninitiated understand the potential of house music, either. Grade: B-

READER COMMENTS:

Evan P. Streb writes: Wow. I can't believe you reviewed Remedy and didn't mention "Red Alert". That's easily one of the best dance songs of the 90s. Period. "And the music keeps on playin' on and on!"

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The Bats

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Silverbeet

Willie's comments: Unpretentious, tuneful, and full of warmth, New Zealand’s Bats belong to the same hypercreative subset of indie rock as Barbara Manning, the Pastels, and Yo La Tengo. Frontman Robert Scott used to be in the Clean, an overrated (though influential) post-Velvets mess of a group, but in the Bats, his gift for calmer, prettier melodies got to reign. On this, one of the band's earlier albums, the Bats actually sound like a less apoplectic Midnight Oil, with Scott tossing off humbly anthemic choruses as effortlessly as our President tosses off malapropisms, and filling his songs with vague lyrics rather than charged political screeds. (Even the one issue-oriented song, the environmental flag-waver "Green," is a little fuzzy about what it's trying to say.) Guitarist Kaye Woodward provides the album's delightful boy/girl harmonies, and even if the murky "Stay Away" is Silverbeet's only song that is gripping enough to force you into active rather than passive listening, the pleasures to be gleaned from the chiming, smooth sound of the Bats are best absorbed when you're feeling relaxed anyway. Grade: B+

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Spill the Beans EP

Willie's comments: This is a good place to get to know the Bats, since most of their albums sound pretty much exactly like this EP, and Spill the Beans itself costs less than $6. It's great indie rock, and if "Empty Head" is less than perfect, that's a criticism that can't be leveled at the beautiful likes of "Make It Clear," "Give in to the Sands," "Under the Law," and the title track. Grade: A-

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Couchmaster

Willie's comments: On this album, frontman Robert Scott and his cronies play easygoing, semi-jangly guitar rock that’s as catchy as it is gorgeous. “Work It Out,” “Land ‘O’ Lakes,” and “Knowledge is Power” in particular are top-notch, R.E.M.-ish delights, but the whole album is one of those subtle treasures that may not make the sort of impact on you that a masterpiece like, say, Beck’s Odelay does, but is no less magnificent for having more modest aspirations. Grade: A

SEE ALSO: THE CLEAN

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: BARBARA MANNING, THE 6THS

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Beach Boys

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Pet Sounds

Willie's comments: Pet Sounds is one of those IMPORTANT albums whose influence and impact often overshadows its quality. And, like The Velvet Underground & Nico, the Beach Boys' opus isn't quite the masterpiece it's always made out to be, when you listen to it without regard for its place in rock history. While Brian Wilson's revolutionary, multilayered production sounds just as beautiful and fresh as ever, the songs themselves don't always fare so well. "Wouldn't It Be Nice" is a truly perfect song- an unmatched portrait of teenage longing- and it's gratifying to hear the Beach Boys finally singing songs that in no way involve cars or surfing, but a lot of the songs are forever mired in the 60s. "Don't Speak," for example, has a ridiculously simple melody (and I don't mean that in the good way) that would be dismissed as lazy songwriting these days. "God Only Knows," "Sloop John B," and "Hang On to Your Ego" are standouts (though I prefer Frank Black's version of the latter), and, sure, the album is a lot of fun, but its importance really seems like more of a right-place-right-time deal than a result of the album's goodness. Grade: B

READER COMMENTS:

Joe Hinchcliffe writes: I really think it's a brilliant album, and deserves all the credit it gets (especially since no other Beach Boys album gets any, or as much as least, unjustly). It's an incredibly beautiful album and shows Brian Wilson's genious talent for arranging, producing, and especially songwriting. It's the peak of The Beach Boys (along with "Good Vibrations") and shows Brian Wilson's talent for production abilities (and an album like Friends or Love You are masterpieces that show Brian Wilson's brilliant ability to use minimal production). "Wouldn't It Be Nice" is one of those absolutely perfect pop songs, and "God Only Knows" and "Caroline No" are beautiful God-like ballads that could be used as hymns at church. At first i didn't think much of the instrumentals, but now i think "Lets Go Away For Awhile" is a beautiful idiosyncracy, and the title track has one hell of a groove. Absolutely A+ for me. One of my all time personal favorites.

LoadesC writes: I agree that Pet Sounds is a bit overrated. It hasn't survived the test of time like the Velvet Underground has. My Beach Boys ratings:

Today! A-
All Summer Long B
Pet Sounds B+
Party! B-
Smiley smile B+
Wild Honey B-
Sunflower B+
Surf's Up B+

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Beastie Boys

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Licensed to Ill

Willie's comments: I really wish the Beastie Boys had used actual drums on this album instead of the tinny 808 drum machine. While it works on vaguely new-wave-based songs like "Posse in Effect" and "Girls," the synthesized percussion distracts from the three-way rapping and lyrical charms of "Rhymin & Stealin" and "Time to Get Ill." That said, Licensed to Ill is a bona fide classic. There's no denying that the party anthem "Fight for Your Right" sounds a bit dated by now, but there's also no denying that it's still infectious. "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" is the best of the band's non-jokey songs, effectively making them seem as powerful as they boast, and "Brass Monkey" is hilariously stupid. As for "Girls," there's no worse song to hear drunken frat boys shouting along with. However, if you listen to it without the distractions of tubthumpin' idiots, it's a pretty funny song (and catchy, too!). The whole album is good, snotty fun. Grade: A-

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Paul's Boutique

Willie's comments: I read once that it was this album that necessitated some sort of legislation within the recording industry regarding distribution of royalties among artists whose songs are sampled by other artists. Why? Because, as produced by the Dust Brothers (who would perfect their art on Beck's Odelay), Paul's Boutique isn't made up of songs so much as collages of classic rock riffs and stolen beats and basslines, atop which Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D rap about girls, car thieves, and their own hip-hop prowess. Gone are the anthemic chants of "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" and "Fight for Your Right"; the Beasties have, by this point, come into their own as lovers of old-school funk, but they haven't yet mastered the genre the way they would on Ill Communication and Hello Nasty. Songs like the sinister, sputtering "Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun" and the galloping "Egg Man" are tight-knit rap manifestoes, but the omnipresent samples sometimes compete with the rhymes and rhythms of the songs (dropping a line from Sweet's "Ballroom Blitz" into "Hey Ladies" works fine, but there doesn't seem to be much point in inserting a bit from "Suzy is a Headbanger" by the Ramones into "High Plains Drifter). "B-Boy Bouillabaisse," a medley of half-finished songs, also makes this album seem a bit sloppier than it actually is. Still, the Beasties being the Beasties, things never get dull on Paul's Boutique- it's fascinating throughout. It's just not nearly as much fun as their best work. Grade: B

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Ill Communication

Willie's comments: Jenny got really mad at me for this, but the following lyrics, from "Get It Together," made me laugh very hard and are still my favorite B-Boys rhymes: "I eat the fuckin' pineapple Now & Laters/ Listen to me now, don't listen to me later/ Fuck it because I know I didn't make it fuckin' rhyme for real/ But, yo, technically, I'm hard as steel." If jazzy raps with words like those sound like your idea of a good time, you shan't be disappointed. If the thought makes you angry, you might still like the funky instrumentals (but you can also get those without the scatology on The In Sound From Way Out). Grade: B+

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Hello Nasty

Willie's comments: On one hand, I'm happy the Beastie Boys have finally grown up and started writing thoughtful, mature songs (for all its cliches, "Remote Control" is pretty insightful. And catchy to boot!). On the other hand, I miss the hilarious, misanthropic lyrics from years past, from hits like "Girls." And, while "Song for the Man" is an excellent jazz-rock song, some of the other, non-rap tunes on Hello Nasty are basically useless, like the one Lee "Scratch" Perry sings. Oh well- it's a really long album, so, despite all the missteps ("Three MCs and One DJ" is lazily constructed), there's more than enough good stuff on this album to keep me happy. "Super Disco Breakin'" and the destined-to-be-a-classic "Intergalactic" are the best songs they've done so far. Grade: B

READER COMMENTS:

Beau Mihalek writes: Good reviews, however the drum beats on Rhymin' and Stealin' are lifted from Zep's When The Levee Breaks, and don't sound like tinny fake ones to me.

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: TIBETAN FREEDOM CONCERT ALBUM, NO ALTERNATIVE; CLUELESS SOUNDTRACK

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The Beatles

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Rubber Soul

Willie's comments: Rubber Soul isn't as groundbreaking as the White Album or as ingratiating as Sgt. Pepper, but it is perhaps the Beatles' most melodically rich album. Bands from NRBQ to Supergrass have pilfered vocal lines from this LP, and for good reason: It's hard to come by songs as distinctively hooky as those featured here. "Run for Your Life" is wonderfully demented, while "Drive My Car" is good, naive fun (if your local deejay hasn't killed it for you by playing the "Beep beep/ Beep beep/ Yeah!" part before every traffic update). "I'm Looking Through You" is a terrific Paul song, featuring the multitalented Ringo on the discordant Hammond organ part. I could go on and on about the other great songs- "Nowhere Man," "Wait," "You Won't See Me"- but suffice it to say that Rubber Soul is a thoroughly enjoyable (albeit flighty) album that is refreshingly free of clinkers. Grade: A

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Revolver

Willie's comments: This album marked the Beatles' final graduation from being an abrasive (if frequently catchy) rockabilly band to being a brilliant, psychedelic outfit. There are those who insist that this album tops even Sgt. Pepper, but Revolver isn't as consistently surprising or fun. As wonderful as the bass-driven songs "Taxman" and "Tomorrow Never Knows" are on their own, their close resemblance to each other- and to "Doctor Robert"- is distracting within the space of a 35-minute LP. George's Indian excursion "Love You To" just sounds like a beta version of Sgt. Pepper's "Within You Without You," too. That said, there are lots of deserved classics here, from the peppy "And Your Bird Can Sing" to the moody "Eleanor Rigby" to the masterfully dopey "Yellow Submarine." I won't say it's an essential album, but if you see it used, it's worth dropping eight or nine bucks on. Grade: B+

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Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Willie's comments: This album routinely tops "Best Album of All Time" surveys among both critics and commoners, and while my heart is with Radiohead's OK Computer or the Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin, there's no denying that Sgt. Pepper is a masterpiece. From a production standpoint, it was definitely groundbreaking, from George Martin's tasteful string arrangements to John Lennon's insistence upon recording dog whistles at the end of the album, to confound pet owners who were listening to it. But for all the superb production, it's doubtful that Sgt. Pepper would be so fondly regarded if the songwriting wasn't so spectacular. "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" is my favorite Beatles song of all time, with its twisted carnival charm, but George's sitar-based "Within You Without You" is a treat, and "With a Little Help from My Friends" is terrific, though you wouldn't know it from listening to Joe Cocker's Wonder Years version. A thoroughly fun album, with tunes that will stick with you for the rest of your life. Grade: A

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Magical Mystery Tour

Willie's comments: The first half of this album is the soundtrack to the odd short film from which it takes its title, and the latter half is made up of songs that were recorded around the same time. As a result, it should come as no surprise that Magical Mystery Tour is nowhere near as cohesive as Sgt. Pepper- in fact, quite a bit of it seems like filler. "Flying" is an instrumental which illustrates just how important the Beatles' voices were in providing their songs not only with melodies, but with comforting, familiar timbres; the song seems lost without a singer. "Blue Jay Way" is one of the dullest numbers George ever wrote, while "Baby You're a Rich Man" and "Your Mother Should Know" also entirely fail to register. However, subtract those four songs and you're left with nothing but classics. "The Fool on the Hill" is my favorite Paul song ever because of the way the melody trots along happily and then suddenly takes a shortcut through the bad side of town in the chorus. "I am the Walrus" is an inspired, hilarious bit of drug-induced nonsense (and by the way, it's "Goo goo ga joob," not "Koo koo ka choo"), and "Strawberry Fields Forever" is gorgeous. "All You Need is Love," "Penny Lane," "Hello Goodbye," and the title track are all on here as well, making this tour a trip worth taking. Grade: B+

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The Beatles (aka "The White Album")

Willie's comments: This double-album is, for my money, a document of rock 'n' roll rebellion a hundred times more brilliant, incisive, and subversive than The Velvet Underground & Nico. The Beatles' flouting of music industry conventions is all over this album, evinced in the lack of cover art, the sarcastic self-referentiality of "Glass Onion," and the unlistenable musical experimentations of "Revolution 9" and "Wild Honey Pie." However, that's not to say that The Beatles isn't full of terrific Liverpuldian hooks and melodies- "Dear Prudence" is among their most beautiful ballads, while "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," "Rocky Raccoon," and "Piggies" are lighthearted pop pleasures. The second disc is largely uneven, with great numbers like "Honey Pie" and "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" straddling comparatively dull fare like "Birthday" and "Helter Skelter." For all that, though, the Fab Four's enthusiasm for charting new musical territory without regard for mainstream acceptance is both palpable and contagious throughout. Grade: B+

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Abbey Road

Willie's comments: I'm going to make some enemies with this one, but Abbey Road is really pretty boring, for all the critical acclaim it gets. Don't get me wrong- there are quite a few great songs here, like "Come Together," "Carry That Weight," and the absolutely gorgeous "You Never Give Me Your Money." Also, the medley of nonsensical numbers on the second side ("Sun King" through "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window," I think) is a hoot and a half. However, the album as a whole is unfocused, with songs like "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" never really locating a central melody, and "I Want You (She's so Heavy)" is ugly and interminable. Even "Here Comes the Sun," with its beautiful tune, is marred by dissonant harmonies. Maybe it was a result of internal conflict within the band, but 30 years after its release, Abbey Road just sounds lazy and sloppy. Grade: B-

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Anthology 2

Ginny's comments: It's nice that the Beatles are so legendary and all, but Anthology takes the legend a bit too far with 6 or 7 different versions of the same song- often not even bothering to "take out the outtakes" if you will. Although it's the best of the three Anthologies, you've gotta wade through a lot of crud put on these discs to amuse the obsessive Beatles' fans before you hear the quality part of it. Luckily, they chose a nice selection of songs, including "Strawberry Fields Forever," (about 4 different takes) "I am the Walrus," and "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite." When the Beatles were GOOD. Grade: B

Willie's comments: Eschewing most of the false starts and interview clips that made Anthology 1 so horrible, number 2 limits itself mostly to stripped-down versions of the songs that had such complex, lush arrangements on Sgt. Pepper, Revolver, the White album, and Magical Mystery Tour. Sometimes it's interesting ("Norwegian Wood"), sometimes it's overkill (all the "Strawberry Fields Forever"s), but it never rises above musical archaeology. I can't imagine anyone not wanting to just listen to the original albums instead. Grade: C+

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1

Willie's comments: This latest repackaging of the Beatles is based around a nifty gimmick that renders the album all but impervious to criticism: it collects the band's 27 number one hits (according to Billboard and Record Retailer) onto one CD. Add to that the original singles' artwork from around the world and brief liner notes by George Martin that are rife with sentence fragments, and voila- instant essential album, right? Right. It's pointless to quibble about the songs that were omitted from 1- terrific, important numbers like "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," "In My Life," and "The Fool on the Hill"- because, like it or not, they were never number ones. Besides, those songs all appear somewhere on the Beatles' two greatest-hits compilations 1962-66 and 1967-70 anyway. Those two compilations, in fact, illustrate why the concept behind 1 was necessary to begin with: those compendiums do an astonishingly good job of summarizing the Beatles' catalog, but you're still looking at four CDs- and sixty dollars- between the two. If you're going to pare the Beatles' work down any farther than that- especially onto one affordable CD- you're going to have to make some tough choices, so what better way to pick the songs that appear on the album than to take the certified number ones? Sure, the concept reduces the oeuvre of the Fab Four to a mere academic exercise (and, correct me if I'm wrong, but I'd always heard that the absent "Please Please Me" went to number one), but how can you be so churlish when you've got "Yesterday," "Eleanor Rigby," "Come Together," "Day Tripper," and so forth all on one album? Unless you've got money to burn, or at some point the Beatles come out with a "create your own greatest-hits CD" program like the Beastie Boys did, you'd best keep your mouth shut and make do with this affordable, thoroughly great- and consistent- set. Grade: A

READER COMMENTS:

Didier Dumonteil writes: Your site is a joke!the ratings of Beatles albums are guaranteed to net nothing but horselaughs.Don't mention them if you're not able to understand that without them,without their breakthrough circa 1965 there won't have been any REM -that I like a lot too-.Listen to "what 's the frequency kenneth?" pure revolverwith the backward tapes. Stick with Bjork,Drake and don't care with Great music

Ryan Maffei writes: Well, it looks like someone's finally smart (Will, I mean). The post-merseybeat era Beatles managed to define art-pop with the groundbreaking Rubber Soul (A+), overdid the art with the uneven but admirable Revolver (A-), taught other artists how to really craft an album with Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (A+), nearly surpassed it with Magical Mystery Tour(A)'s truly magical flipside lineup, gave listener's three sides' worth of genius (and a supplementary dollop of crap) with The Beatles (B+), masqueraded about a dozen excellent songs under suppressing artiness on the forgivable Abbey Road (A), and dashed their reputation to shreds with the under-written and under-developed Let it Be (C). What a career, eh?

And now for the best tracks from each:

RUBBER SOUL: Impossible to choose. Every one of the fourteen tracks could be the blueprint for what a perfect pop song should be. However, "Nowhere Man" seems to be the favorite.

REVOLVER: "For No One". "Rigby" introduced a world to the concept of unflinchingly cynical pop, but McCartney actually improved on the style that "Eleanor" created later on the very same album with this dark beauty.

SERGEANT PEPPER'S: "A Day in the Life". Alternately wistful and dreamlike, and horrendously disturbing; the Beatles had finally managed to create an impenetrable atmosphere with a recording studio.

MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR: "I Am the Walrus". Anyone who isn't completely blown away by this relentlessly madcap, daring wall-of-sound should burn in rock'n'roll hell along with Dee Snyder.

THE BEATLES: "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". In a sea of Lennons, McCartneys, and even Starrs, who'da thunk that George Harrison could've contributed the most emotional, powerful piece out of the 30 on here?

ABBEY ROAD: Another impossible choice, but not because everything's as solid and great as on Rubber Soul--it's because few tunes are given enough time impress me. I do know that "Golden Slumbers" has a brilliant piece of McCartney vocal work, though.

LET IT BE: No thank you. But if you must know, "I've Got a Feeling" is a fitting piece of career-closing nostalgia, and "Let it Be" is just beautiful.

John Schlegel writes: Abbey Road is "lazy and sloppy"? That's my favorite Beatles album! Side one has so many great songs (the only one I'm not too groovy on is "Because"), and I happen to like "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," thank you very much; nice, cutie-pie melody, and funny lyrics to boot. And the suite that comprises the second side blows my mind every time I listen to it, but whatever. Unlike you, I am of that flock that finds Sgt. Pepper's to be a bit overrated (though it's definitely a fabulous album). It has some mind-blowing songs ("A Little Help from My Friends," "She's Leaving Home," "A Day in the Life"), but I find some parts of it boring--like, for example, "It Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite"! Ha-Ha! Sorry, that was mean. You dissed "Silver Hammer," but that's not my favorite Beatles song or anything.

As for their other records, I actually agree with you that Rubber Soul is probably the biggest highlight from their early output (I also adore Hard Day's Night), and Revolver and the White Album are great but a little overrated; I love the former, but the later has some moments that are a little TOO weird for my tastes. Then again, I'm into Robyn Hitchcock, Midnight Oil, and XTC, so why am I harping on weirdness? I guess I just contradicted myself. Oh, well . . . I get tired of hearing people constantly rave the Beatles, so your rigid ratings are refreshing in thatregard. But, at the same time, you have to admit that it is pretty hard for THE BAND THEMSELVES to ever be overrated. There was really nothing quite like their music before, and there hasn't really ever been anything quite like it since.

tnahpellee@yahoo.com.au writes: Actually, even after the break up, the Beatles [Jonn, Paul, George and Ringo] were still wonderful. I think Ram is one of the greatest albums of all time, same for Ringo's chronically dissed Bad Boy album, from 1978. So many of the solo Beatles albums are, in fact, of high quality. There are a few I don't care for, Venus and Mars, Thirty Three and a third, Pipes of Peace and Rock N Roll to name the few. But most of the rest are of high quality. I think the music made by Paul McCartney after he left the Beatles is WAY superior to the stuff he did with the Beatles. When he was with the Beatles, John would always write the rockers, George would get into the folk stuff and Ringo has a trademark with hillbilly so Paul was basically stuck writing these peppy little pop songs, permanently: Got to get you into my life, Here there and everywhere, For no one, Good day sunshine, Lovely Rita, Getting Better, When I'm 64, Your Mother should know, She's leaving home, Fixing a hole, Hello Goodbye, Fool on the hill, Penny Lane, Maxwells Silver Hammer, Oh! Darling!, She came in throguh the bathroom Window, Golden Slumbers, Carry That Weight, Two of us, The long and winding road, Let it be. Those songs all sound pretty similar, too. There are a few exceptions, I've got a feeling, Elanor Rigby and Get back, but that's hardly anything. The double white album gave them all a chaneg to break out of that mould, it allowed george to become a rocker, John to become a balladeer and Paul to become a hillbilly. But when I picked up my first Wings album, London Town, a shining, metallic folk album with some psychedelic touches, I couldn't believe Paul could write such material. It was so diverse and it seemed Paul coudl write anything. I wont ever forget the surprise I got when I heard that. Being away from the other guys allowed Paul to really expand. The same happened with the other three, though I do feel as though John's best days were completed as a Beatle. Actually his solo career is my least favourite, and that's not becuse of Yoko. But back to the actual Beatles, I think their early stuff is REALLY underrated. The melodies to the album Please Please Me and the second half of A hard days night are really unique and original. For example, the last four songs on A Hard Days Night have such original melodies that you wonder if it's still pop music. And there's no way I could ever not like the sheer passion and energy of the first three albums.
For the revered stuff:
Rubber Soul A+
Revolver A
Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band B+
Magical Mystery Tour A+
White Album A
Abbey Road A
Let It Be B-

Tom Liron writes: It's a shame what you wrote about the beatles. each one of these masterpiece albums deserve better

review. I think that because you review too many albums maybe your judgement about these beatles album is fucked up. for example - revolver is definitely an album wich deserve a or a+. This is my opinion about it :

The first side of it is perfect, with classics like "taxman", "eleanor rigby", "yellow submarine" (one of the best ringo songs and be sure it's not dopey. the lyrics are very nice) and "she said she said". The 1st side also include the great "i'm only sleeping", the indian ispired by (with sitar) "love you to" wich is way better than sgt. pepper's "within you, without you". This song had a mystical feel and he is great. There is also "here there and everywhere" wich is a beautiful quite song.

The 2nd side is not as good as the 1st side but he had is moments like "good day sunshine" and the excellent rock tune "and your bird can sing". The other song of the 2nd side are a little bit weaker but remember it's the beatles and weak beatles song is not definitely a bad song.

All in all revolver is a must have for beatles fans. this is a great album and he is worth buying just for the 1-9 songs. revolver is also one of the 4 masterpieces albums of the beatles. the other are sgt. peppers, the white album and abbey road. and the controversy about : what is the best beatels album is definitely about this four.

dark.arkive@gmail.com writes: Reviewers are at their worst when describing their favorite band; strings of exclamation points, tossed off 'A' ratings, and sentences undergoing some variance of 'if you don't own this you're a loser/freak/Coldplay fan' make those sections tiresome quickly (your Yo La reviews and your buddy Scott's Zeppelin reviews are generally exceptions to that rule). Beatles reviews usually are either the epitome of this trend or the equally obnoxious opposite: the overly harsh, sneering 'Nah nah, I hate the Beatles, ergo hipsterdom is mine'. It is refreshing to find neither in yours.

Ironically, my opinions of their classic period albums ('65-'69) may be the exact opposite of yours.

Sadly, Sgt. Pepper's production, which was unquestionably groundbreaking in 1967, sounds somewhat dated (although not nearly as much as that of Pet Sounds) now that albums like Loveless, Endtroducing, and Kid A have continually redefined sonic auteurship in pop music. Likewise, Rubber Soul's ultra-influential memes have been copied by better bands too many times for me to actually listen to it any more.

Abbey Road and Revolver are unquestionably flawed; the former's attempts at maturity are crippled by the band's ever-present silliness, and the latter is one of the strikingly least cohesive pop albums I've ever heard. But I still dig 'em both. Abbey Road's second half is worth the gargantuan mistake of 'I Want You' (both their longest song and one of their worst, hardly coincidental) and Revolver's songwriting is unerringly strong, even if each track sounds like it's never been acquainted with the ones around it.

...aaaand then the White Album, the only Beatles album I continually return to, and the only one that would crack my top 50 albums. Huge, dense, sprawling, absurd, incoherent, bloated, sketchy, nightmarish, and beautiful as all hell, without ever seeming to know it. The least smug, and therefore best, of their works.

Besides which, without "Wild Honey Pie", there would quite possibly be no Pixies.

Damn good reviews, Will, if the fact that I love them while disagreeing with them completely is any indication.

David Dickson writes: Tsk, tsk. Somebody had the nerve to harp on the Beatles' sacred cows. Well, I'll be a Holstein. Moo.

Seriously, for what it's worth, I am one of those obnoxious mutants known as "Beatle fanboys." I firmly believe they could do no wrong--well, at least during their post-Help! period. Here's my one-paragraph summary of their career, expressed in letter grade language:

Please Please Me--B-
With the Beatles--B+
A Hard Day's Night--B
Beatles for Sale--B
Help!--B+
Rubber Soul--A
Revolver--A-
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band--A
Magical Mystery Tour--A-
The White Album--A+
Let it Be--B+
Abbey Road--A PLUS! (Ginny, Doolittle review, Copyright 20Something)

That last one's my favorite album ever, actually. I think it has something to do with the fact that it combines the trademark Beatles "hooky melodic exuberance" with "bombastic smoothly-produced emotion" for the first time. The other records were just the former without the latter.

But see, for us Beatle-nuts (har! CHEW on us. . . okay, that didn't work at all), that hooky melodic exuberance is all we need. No other band from either the '60's or beyond seems to have that weird, freakish combination of melody, confidence, singing ability, and versatility all at once. Bands like Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers may have two of those attributes, and bands like Pink Floyd and the Smashing Pumpkins may even have three--but the Beatles? All four. (One and one four all.) So THAT'S why you have us weirdos giving them A's all over the place. They just have that COMPLETENESS, y'know?

Although I definitely agree with you that Sgt. Pepper beats Revolver to hell. Whoever decided Revolver was the best ever must have been Black Francis in disguise.

SEE ALSO: GEORGE HARRISON

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: ELVIS COSTELLO; SUPER FURRY ANIMALS; ERIC CLAPTON

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT THE BEATLES


Beck

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Mellow Gold

Willie's comments: When I first heard Beck's debut album, I thought it was little more than a folky Ween rip-off. The cacophonous "Sweet Sunshine" and "Mutherfuker" seemed like pointless one-offs, and the slowed-down vocals of "Truckdrivin Neighbors Downstairs (Yellow Sweat)" pointed to a fascination with sound that overshadowed any interest in constructing useful melodies. A few listens later, however, I realized how truly great this album is. "Loser" and "Beercan" are pure genius, "Mutherfuker" is an exhilirating bit of noisy excess, and the folkish tunes are haunting despite their ironic flourishes (kazoos, for example), particularly "Steal My Body Home." I still think "Sweet Sunshine" is a Ween rip-off, but it's still cute in its own way. Grade: A-

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One Foot In the Grave

Ginny comments: Grave features a young, aspiring Beck who is just getting comfortable in his anti-folk shoes. As is featured in his later albums, Beck begins experimenting with nonsensical lyrics and fun noises, as is the case with "I Get Lonesome" and "Cyanide Breath Mint." He doesn't leave the entire album to nonsense, however, and offers tracks with emotion such as "Asshole." This album was a great launch for Beck. The intimate acoustic guitar and soft vocals are back in Mutations, hinting at Beck's long time love that began with this album. Grade: B+

Willie's comments: It's amazing that Beck was able to wring such a wide variety of styles and moods out of the inherent limitations of folk rock (save for the bouncy hardcore of "Orange Peel" and the electric buzz of "Cyanide Breath Mint"), but he does so with great skill on Grave. The album ranges from anthemic ("He's a Mighty Good Leader") to wistful ("Asshole") and everything inbetween. It's a far cry from the noise collages of Mellow Gold, but it's not a step backward- or forward, either. Sideways. Just as good. Grade: A-

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Stereopathetic Soulmanure

Ginny's comments: Do you remember when you were young and you'd sit on the floor with a wooden spoon or something and just bang everything with it and you thought it sounded like really good music even though it was just loud? If you still do that, and you still think that it sounds like good music, this is the album for you. Beck must have had some pent up energy from childhood that he turned into this album, because all it is is a bunch of painful, tuneless white noise. I love Beck dearly, but someone should have taken away his wooden spoon and handed him a feather on this album. Grade: F

Willie's comments: This one is a step backward, however. An interminable collection of stupid joke-folk tunes ("Satan Gave Me a Taco") and idiotic noise bursts, Soulmanure literally doesn't have a thing on it that's worthwhile. Even fans of pointless, idiotic noise (Korn fans) will find this alternately too irritating and too bland to listen to ever. Grade: F

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Odelay

Ginny's comments: Even though I'm an art student, it still baffles me at times how some things can be considered "art" (a lot of childish looking Picasso art, for instance) to anyone other than the pretentious. On Odelay, Beck was able to have fun with noise and nonsense and end up with an album that is, to many, considered a masterpiece. He gives us many flavors of songs that are (for the most part) easy and fun to hear, from "Jackass," light-hearted and spirited to "Novocane," which is loud, yet somehow hilarious. I think Beck has found the answer to masterful art- if it pleases the artist, it doesn't matter who does or does not like it. Grade: A-

Willie's comments: If someone gave you an hour to summarize every album ever made, what would you do? Beck made Odelay, and met that challenge more precisely- and entertainingly- than anyone else in the world possibly could. Incorporating elements from rap, folk, indie rock, punk, jazz, country, funk, and even 50's commercials, Beck synthesizes everything into one endlessly likeable musical smorgasbord. People who criticized the hilariously catchy "The New Pollution" for sounding a little too close to The Beatles' "Taxman" missed the point entirely- Beck is trying to represent every moment in popular music up till 1996. That's the Beatles part of popular music. This whole thing is pure genius- and it's all as catchy and listenable as all get-out. Grade: A+

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Mutations

Ginny's comments: What makes Mutations so interesting, yet beautiful in its simplicity is that Beck recorded it within a matter of a few weeks while on tour. While most bands tend to tire of the music scene altogether while touring, Beck's sanctuary from the stresses of tour is his guitar- recorded in this satisfyingly lengthy album that could be considered a mature version of One Foot in the Grave. Aside from all those soul-searchin, bile-spewin lyrics lies the heart and soul of the album- the melifluous acoustic guitar accompanied by the mystical sitar. All this while working on a new studio album and touring the country. Wow. It's nearly too good to be true. Grade: A

Willie's comments: Beck goes pop? By his standards, yes. What you have here is a surprisingly calm and sincere album of folk-based ditties that is entirely free of the irony so prevalent on previous outings. Songs like "We Live Again" and "Cold Brains" are smooth and flawless enough to be entirely radio-ready, while the heartfelt "Nobody's Fault (But My Own)" shows just how far Beck's songwriting has progressed since the old days. This isn't the "official" follow-up to Odelay (as DGC took great pains to point out upon its release), but rather a between-albums diversion, so it's easy to forgive Mutations for being a tad one-note and just relax in its gentle beauty. Grade: A-

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Midnite Vultures

Willie's comments: Crimony. This is not an album that Beck needed to make. It's supposed to be a soul/funk party album, but, despite sporadic moments of giddy fun, this is a big letdown given the perfection that Beck is capable of. He reportedly spent several sleepless months putting these songs together, and the effort is evident on tracks like the Peter Gabriel-esque "Milk & Honey," which seemingly contains every timbre known to man, organized to hypnotically weird effect. However, too many songs on Midnite Vultures just don't have the anthemic hooks that a good party album requires: "Sexx Laws" is infectious, but "Broken Train," "Nicotine & Gravy," and "Peaches & Cream" are irritating and draggy. The album's coda, "Debra" (whose original title was "I Wanna Get With You and Your Sister Debra"), is a soulful parody of R&B horniness, but despite Beck's amazing falsetto voice, it's a joke that's already been done to much more hilarious and explicit effect by Ween and South Park's Chef. The only truly perfect songs here are the aforementioned "Sexx Laws" and the thrillingly bizarre technopop of "Get Real Paid." I give Beck credit for continuing to try new things and to undertake new experiments with every new album, but Midnite Vultures is nonetheless underwhelming. Grade: B-

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Sea Change

Willie's comments: Wrong and ignorant as it might seem, Beck Hansen does have his detractors. I can't fully understand their mindset myself, any more than I can understand how a person would be drawn into the KKK, but as best I can interpret their aesthetically confused (possibly under the influence of some mind-altering chemical agent) ramblings, the argument goes something like this: Beck might have a few good ideas, but he's all attitude. Whether he's taking on the role of a freaky-ass white George Clinton (Midnite Vultures), a postmodern musical collagist (Odelay), or even a straightforward indie popster (Mutations), he feels a need to put snarky quotation marks around everything he does. He's always been too bratty to really be pretentious, and too pretentious to really be bratty, but Beck always has an off-putting smugness about him that borders on arrogance and makes it hard to fully enjoy his music. These people are obviously paint-huffers, but regardless, Sea Change should make these misinformed souls re-evaluate our favorite post-everything ragamuffin.

There is not an iota of attitude on Sea Change. It's the Beck album you never imagined Beck was capable of making: a heartbreak album that's marked by whiskey-soaked songs of loneliness, despair, and suckerpunch reality. Most of the songs revisit the folksier, acoustic-based territory of Mutations or One Foot in the Grave, but it's not for fun this time around. A single knowing smirk would derail the crushing effectiveness of tunes like "Guess I'm Doing Fine" (an honestly gorgeous old-school country tune that singlehandedly trumps Wilco's entire discography) and "Round the Bend" (on which an apocalyptically sad string section presents the sounds of giving up), and Beck is smart enough to keep things humble here. He doesn't even sound like himself on some tracks; "It's All in Your Mind," for example, is sung in a gentle, clear voice entirely free of the histrionics that usually mark his delivery. If anything, a working knowledge of the ironic cool that he usually purveys makes Sea Change all the more affecting. The emotionally shattered exhaustion of lines like, "We're so tired now, altogether in a snakepit of souls" would be scorching on any record, but coming from a guy who usually sings about discount orgies on the dropout buses and mixing business with leather, it's hard to doubt the veracity of what he's singing.

Producer Nigel Godrich (OK Computer, Mutations, R.E.M.'s Up) is again on-hand to wring every last drop of musical gold from the filthy washcloth that is Beck's broken heart, and his presence is vital to Sea Change's success. Beck's songwriting is the best it's ever been- check out the wonderfully strange melody on "Little One"- but Godrich is his safety net on songs like "End of the Day," which aren't really throwaways to begin with, but are brought up to the rest of the album's standards by subtle production flourishes like the barely noticeable multitracking on Beck's voice. Ultimately, though, songs like the muted funk of "Paper Tiger" and the mirage-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel "Lost Cause" would sound great even with Lou Barlow acting as producer, because they're so brutally open and beautiful in their sorrowful, slow beauty. It's another landmark album that will hopefully get Beck the respect he deserves from you anti-Beck philistines. Grade: A+

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Guero

Willie's comments: Though my record-reviewing regimen is hardly what one would call "disciplined" to begin with (or "reliable"... or "necessary" if you're kind of a jerk), I put off writing up Guero for a long, long time. Why would a fairly big Beck fan do such a thing, you ask? Because every time I considered it, I realized that reviewing Guero would mean sitting down and closely listening to it at least a couple times, which is a task that struck me as requiring so many more kilowatts of energy than I am capable of producing that the very notion would exhaust me to the point where all I could do is head for the couch and watch some South Park DVDs. It is a drainingly uneventful record, is what I'm saying. In theory, it's another of Beck's wacky genre-splicing good-time collage albums, but in practice, there's exactly one song that contains any sense of fun, discovery, or relevance. That would be the utterly delightful single "Girl," an upbeat bottle of pop energy which bops along to the breeziest, most complex and catchy melody Beck has ever let himself sing. It's a mighty steep drop-off to everywhere outside of that song, though. Where Midnite Vultures at least had the confidence of its own overproduced horndog convictions, Guero is a charmless, slogging retread. Not only does it play like a nearly song-for-song copy of Odelay, but by track five ("Black Tambourine"), Beck is already recycling melodies from track one ("E-Pro," which is itself a foolish attempt to build a song around a recognizable Beastie Boys sample, succeeding only in reminding the listener of what a superior concoction "So Whatcha Want" actually is), and seemingly daring you to maintain any interest. It's as if Beck and the Dust Brothers- again retained as producers- think that if they lay down enough midtempo, dubby rhythms and breakbeats, we won't notice that there's not a hell of a lot going on with the songwriting, because that's about all songs like "Earthquake Weather" and "Go It Alone" consist of. Sometimes a slide guitar joins the non-fray, but that's generally as imaginative as the production gets. (For the record, I also sort of like "Hell Yes" in spite of myself, mostly because I'm amused by the chorus, with its vocoder, Japanese-girl spoken bits, and lyrics like "I'm cleaning the floor/My beat is correct." Those who find the song as lacking as the rest of the disc are not necessarily wrong, though.) Too bad, because Beck's cannibalism of his own career would be almost forgivable if he at least went about it wholeheartedly; instead, Guero is so timid, lazy, and uninspired that it's an active bummer. After all, it's hard to shake one's booty when the dancefloor is covered in flop sweat. Grade: C-

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Guerolito

Willie's comments: On a mission of mercy, 13 musicians, including big names such as Boards of Canada, Ad-Rock, and Air, each remixed a song from Guero, and the results are assembled on this disposably diverting companion disc. For the most part, Beck's vocals are retained intact but are demoted below the new electronic production, so there's not much of a center to the proceedings. That is, it feels less like a collection of Beck remixes and more like a breakbeat compilation that happens to feature Beck. The guest artists can hardly be expected to work alchemy on such underwritten songs, though, so even the overall listenability is a step up. At its best, Guerolito illustrates how much more enjoyable Guero could've been with a little creative effort: frequent Beastie Boys collaborator Mario C. doesn't do much to "Earthquake Weather" except give it some much-needed atmosphere, while Air scraps "Missing"'s tired arrangement in favor of a simple, effective Tears for Fears-style nostalgia glaze and Diplo dizzies up "Go It Alone" with some welcome contrapuntal percussion. Most tellingly, Dust Brother and Guero co-producer John King himself turns in a perfectly dandy revision of "Rental Car" with little more than some ominous Casio lines and old-timey vocal samples. Ultimately, despite these improvements and a couple interesting reversals (the Islands turn "Que Onda Guero" into a twee, organic festival of woodwinds; El-P ratchets up the tension of "Scarecrow," smashing its ostensibly celebratory buzz), Beck's absence and the leftover Guero malaise make this kind of a nothing project. Not that remix albums are generally "desert island list" fodder in the first place, but Guerolito is noteworthy for being better than its stagnant source and not much else. Grade: B-

READER COMMENTS:

John Schlegel writes: I am not a Beck fanatic or anything. But considering that I just downright loath most '90s music, comparatively speaking, I find Beck to be easily one of the most creative and talented musical masterminds of his time. I do absolutely LOOOOOVVVEE Mutations, perhaps the Beck album you can adore without being gargantuanly into the artist; definitely his masterpiece. I once had a used copy of the widely praised Odelay, but for some odd reason, that album just never did a whole lot for me. It's not "bad" per se, but personally, I just never "got" it. It has some great songs though, like the singles and this other country-fried one I don't remember the title of. And, I should probably add, the man seems to be a prominent live performer--at least judging from his frequent appearances on Saturday Night Live.

Cole Bozman writes: well, I'm no scientologist, but I can't say I like Beck that much either. [RAMBLE.MODE: ON] I've heard all four of his "major" releases, and really, aside from parts of Midnite Vultures (ignoring the horrible lyrics), it just didn't do anything. if I didn't remember clearly getting each album from the library, I couldn't tell you that I actually listened to them. I vaguely remember "Loser", but that could just be from seeing the video on whatever crappy video channel I was watching at the time. it completely passed me by, basically. I don't get what's so great about him. and no, I don't give a crap about his smug indie personality, either. and what the hell's this, the FLAMING LIPS are backing him now? WHY?! I'm never going to see the Lips live if they keep pulling this kinda shit.

oh, uh..what was I saying? oh yeah. Beck sucks. you're delusional (but feel free to fire back with a scathing comment about my Silverchair reviews or whatever). later.

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: A LIFE LESS ORDINARY SOUNDTRACK; TIBETAN FREEDOM CONCERT ALBUM; SUBURBIA SOUNDTRACK

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: FOREST FOR THE TREES; AIR; PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

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Belle & Sebastian

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If You're Feeling Sinister

Ginny's comments: If you've heard of this band, you probably already love them. If you haven't, then you must. This group of seven(!) Scottish band members possess a unique sound all their own- so overwhelmingly light-hearted one feels as if they are floating away while listening to them. Sinister is Belle's first major release and, although it's a tad homogenous, it offers some dark lyrics that are comfortable when you feel alone in a world of fakes (think: Radiohead) (Radiohead aren't fakes; their lyrics are like that) such as "Stars of Track and Field Are Beautiful People" and "Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying." Good driving music, good sleeping music, good everything music. Fullfills FDA's recommended daily allowance for goodness. Grade: A-

Willie's comments: Upon first listen, the only song to really stand out on Belle & Sebastian's breakthrough album is "The Boy Done Wrong Again," a pensive little folk tune with the most gorgeous melody I've heard in quite some time. The rest of the songs initially just come across as affable, interchangeable guitar strummers that are never less- or more- than pleasant. However, if you listen a little closer (and are able to get past the abrasive opener, "The Stars of Track and Field"), Stuart Murdoch's complex, tuneful, witty gems become more engrossing: "Judy and the Dream of Horses" and "Like Dylan in the Movies" in particular. If You're Feeling Sinister still lacks the ensemble charm of its follow-up, The Boy with the Arab Strap, but it's still a nondescript little pleasure. Grade: B

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Dog on Wheels EP

Willie's comments: Four top-notch songs with inventive arrangements, gorgeous melodies, and Stuart Murdoch's trademark lyrics about tragic characters. There's not a whole lot to say about this EP- it's entirely of a piece with the rest of B&S's canon- except that it shouldn't be overlooked simply because it's an EP (despite its prohibitively high price). The title track is indispensable due to its clever, mariachi/Stereolab vibe, and the closer, "Belle & Sebastian," contains the band's most heavenly chorus ever, but be forewarned: The part that goes, "Poor Sebastian went too far again/ Crashed his car in the rain" will be stuck in your head for quite some time. Grade: A

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Lazy Line Painter Jane EP

Willie's comments: The second in the band's between-album trilogy of EPs is something of a misfire. The title track features Abba-esque vocals by Monica Queen, whose theatrical approach to singing is more than a little exhausting. "You Made Me Forget My Dreams" and "Photo Jenny" aren't unpleasant, but are also uninspired and unremarkable. The sole keeper, "A Century of Elvis," is one of Stuart David's spoken-word outings, and proves once and for all that his somewhat aimless stories benefit from the lush backing that B&S provide, rather than Looper's sterile mechanics. For the most part, this EP is as slothful as its titular artist. Grade: C

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3..6..9 Seconds of Light EP

Willie's comments: After a few months' respite following Lazy Line Painter Jane, a reinvigorated B&S returned with this mini-masterwork. It's still an EP, which is an irritating enough format, but it contains five great songs. "A Century of Fakers" takes the backing track from the previous EP's "A Century of Elvis" and fashions it into an entirely new song thanks to Stuart Murdoch's melodic gifts. "Beautiful" and "Put the Book Back on the Shelf" are similarly charming, but the two bonafide classics are the unlisted final number (an apology to the makers of the old Belle & Sebastian TV program "for all the trouble we've caused") and "Le Pastie de la Bourgeoisie," which is the band's fastest song ever recorded, and a contender for their catchiest. Grade: A

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The Boy With the Arab Strap

Willie's comments: This time ‘round, Stuart Murdoch plays down his fondness for rockin’ acoustic guitar thrashing in favor of gentler, more well-thought-out melodies. The result is something like Simon & Garfunkel, if Paul & Art were more willing to throw bagpipes and Moogs into the mix, or to veer off into free jazz compositions like the wonderfully weird "A Space Boy’s Dream" (penned by Looper’s Stuart David). With a trilogy of opening songs as strong as "It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career," "Sleep the Clock Around," and "Is It Wicked Not to Care?" how can you go wrong? Grade: A

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Lazy Line Painter Jane 3-EP box set

Willie's comments: The three EPs released between If You're Feeling Sinister and The Boy with the Arab Strap (all reviewed above) are included in this box. I wish the band had just compiled the three EPs onto one disc, like the Beta Band did on The Three E.P.'s, but priced at around $18, Lazy Line Painter Jane is still a pretty decent value. Grade: B+

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Legal Man EP

Willie's comments: Typical of B&S's unpredictable whims, this 3-song diversion was released only weeks before their full-length album Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, and contains what are presumably outtakes from that album's sessions. The title track is hilarious- a psychedelic go-go number that plays like the Beatles' "Taxman" rewritten for the Austin Powers soundtrack. "Judy is a Dick Slap" is even weirder- a full-on, instrumental Stereolab tribute that is followed by some delicate piano noodling. Finally, "Winter Wooskie" is a solid, "normal" Belle & Sebastian song. Legal Man is even more slight than the rest of the band's work, but it's also their first effort that could be described as fun. Grade: A-

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Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant

Willie's comments: With literally hundreds of musical contributors to this album (well, not literally...), B&S's fourth LP had many high hopes going for it before its release. The Boy with the Arab Strap benefitted immeasurably from the songs that Murdoch didn't write- "Is It Wicked Not to Care?" "A Space Boy's Dream," and "Seymour Stein"- so it was natural to assume that the Scottish consortium would make similar magic with Fold Your Hands Child. Well, they didn't. Falling prey to the "too many cooks in the kitchen" syndrome, this album consists of little more than forced attempts at eclecticism. "Beyond the Sunrise" and "The Wrong Girl" are both tinged with country music; a genre that does not allow for the usual subtlety of Belle & Sebastian's fragile pop. "The Chalet Lines" is Murdoch's searingly painful portrait of a rape victim ("[My friend] asks me why I don't tell the law/ Oh what's the fucking point of it all?") that would be a tremendous emotional success if the music had any forward propulsion at all. As it is, the song meanders along for a minute or two, stops leisurely, and then starts up again. It's tedious when it should be haunting. There are a few decent numbers- "Woman's Realm" and Sarah Martin's "Waiting for the Moon to Rise"- but the only song with a melody that even touches the brilliance of Dog on Wheels or The Boy with the Arab Strap is the epic opener "I Fought in a War." The band is talented enough to be forgiven for this album-length indulgence (not that I'm recommending you buy it), but let's hope they're a bit more focused next time 'round. Grade: C

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Dear Catastrophe Waitress

Willie's comments: Following a mini-album of songs and musical scoring they did for Todd Solondz's film Storytelling (which I have yet to investigate because the film left such a bitter taste in my mouth), B&S recruited ex-Buggle Trevor Horn- who just this year has also produced records by Seal and Tatu- to helm their full-length return to form. And it's a brilliant marriage of band and producer, as most of the tunes here have a sunny buoyancy that seems odd for this smirky crew, but is enthusiastically sustained for most of the record. Honestly, it took me five or six listens for this album to click with me, as I was initially put off by the occasional tendency to squander a song's momentum (as on the opening single "Step Into My Office, Baby," which lets a great, stomping hook float away into the ozone midway through), as well as Murdoch's continuing, sadistic fascination with putting his lyrical characters through hell (on the title track and "Lord Anthony"). Once I listened close enough to realize that those were the exceptions on this otherwise pop-happy album, however, little gems started leaping out at me everywhere. "Piazza, New York Catcher" is a beautiful acoustic track in which Murdoch sympathetically(!) narrates a cozy-but-passionless romance and yet still finds room for a hilariously nasty joke about Mike Piazza's questionable sexuality ("The catcher hits for .318 and catches every day..."). The lengthy "Stay Loose" is a surprisingly angular, retro-styled track that suggests a less sterile 10cc, and "I'm a Cuckoo" gives Steely Dan a similar poke in the ribs. With peppy strings, horns, and other instrumental syrup drenching the songs, Waitress's flightiness could easily have crashed this project into a marshmallow mountain, but the band deftly avoids becoming cloying or (for the most part) too smug as they bop their way through hook after hook. Instead, you get an album that's nearly as comfortable and- once you get into it- gently emotional as The Boy with the Arab Strap. Grade: A-

READER COMMENTS:

Nick Karn writes: This band kind of goes against my musical tastes being a reaaaally lightweight pop band, but somehow I was introduced to them through the song "Sleep The Clock Around" on a mix tape and I absolutely fell in love with it, and had a similar reaction to seeing the "Is It Wicked Not To Care?" video from 120 Minutes on eMpTyV, so I definitely had to get 'The Boy With The Arab Strap', and was I ever impressed. A phenomenal pop album where every song is a little gem of its' own. "Dirty Dream Number Two" in particular is probably one of the more heavenly, addictive songs I can think of - I'd probably give that one at least an A, maybe A+. B&S really have a certain charm about them in the atmosphere (which is very rich with background nuances as well) that pulls me in, and there aren't all that many bands whose melodic sense blow me away more. Since then I've acquired 'If You're Feeling Sinister', which I think is a little inferior (probably A-), despite critics and fans overwhelming praise of it - still "The Stars Of Track And Field" and "Like Dylan In The Movies" are great, and 'Tigermilk', which I haven't fully gotten used to yet, but after a couple listens it's probably a B or B- in my book - the melodies and arrangements aren't as focused as they would be on the following two full lengths, but there are still some interesting songs like "Electronic Renassaince". I haven't heard any of their EPs yet (though I probably should) or their new album [Fold Your Hands], but you're certainly not the only reviewer I've seen who's kind of 'ehh' on it. I'll still probably check it out anyway, since I'm a recently converted fan.

Joe Friesen writes: The only standout on "If You're Feeling Sinister" on firist listen is "The Boy Done Wrong Again"? That's the only song I dislike on the whole thing. And since when have Belle & Sebastian ever done anything that could be called "abrasive"?

You know, Willie, sometimes I think you and I are very different people.

And, about "The Boy With the Arab Strap": About a year and a half ago, I was driving home late at night. I had "Arab Strap" in my CD player, and I tried to put another CD in thinking I'd already taken "Arab Strap" out. This basically broke my CD player, but I could still listen to "Arab Strap". Since I friggin' hate the radio, this basically left me with nothing to listen to in the car but "The Boy With the Arab Strap" until I took the whole thing apart to fix it three months later. It drove me absolutely CRAZY, and to this day I cannot listen to it without it inducing my gag reflex. But thankfully I'm still not sick of "Sleep the Clock Around". It's always been my favorite B&S song, and I can listen to it today no problem.

SEE ALSO: LOOPER

SEE ALSO: GENTLE WAVES

SEE ALSO: THE REINDEER SECTION

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: THE BUGGLES; DAVID BYRNE

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Ben Folds Five

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Ben Folds Five

Los comments du Ginny: Ben Folds is skinny balding guy in his early thirties. What he lacks in aesthetics he makes up for in charisma in his music. "Philosophy" offers us a view into the twisted id of Folds set to the tune of floofy piano playin. Other songs are less of a joke and are, well, genuine, such as the shy "Best Imitation of Myself." Because this is Folds' first album, he added some "filler" songs ("Jackson Cannery," and "Alice Childress") which the album would be shorter, but better without. Alas, this album sets Folds aside from the rest of the blandness that runs through the radio unharnessed. Whatever is even better, cuz that phrase rhymed. Grade: B

Willie's comments: Alternately clever and frustrating, Ben Folds's debut album is fatally short on catchiness. Except for the brilliant and affecting "Best Imitation of Myself" and the carnival-tinged underdog tune "Boxer," Folds meanders aimlessly, never quite stumbling on a proper melody. I find "Jackson Cannery" peerlessly irritating, and by the song Folds sings about his uncle (I forget the title), his adenoidal vocals evoke "Weird Al" Yankovic, which is distracting to say the least. Grade: C

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Whatever and Ever Amen

Ginny's comments: Ben Folds doesn't like generic radio music. His novel idea of taking beautiful piano melodies and adding bitter, dark lyrics became an instant hit with the intellectual listeners, but sadly, his songs (I give you "Brick") were also a hit with the rest of them because no one really listened to the lyrics (except to the infamous "Song for the Dumped"). This makes Ben Folds live a bit unbearable at times, but he makes up for it by being such a cool guy. Grade: A-

Willie's comments: Yes, like everyone, I love the funny rave-up rockers "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces" and "Song for the Dumped" off this album, but lately, I've come to be even more fond of the ballads, which surpass the best efforts of other bands by light years. For example, the painful details of a failed relationship that make up "Smoke" and "Selfless, Cold, and Composed," and the heartbreaking "Brick" (whose lyrics you people really should pay attention to- She's getting an abortion! It's not a happy love song!). That said, the album is still a lot of fun, with bouncy tunes like "Kate" and the swing-ish "Steven's Last Night In Town" lightening the mood a little. Grade: A

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Naked Baby Photos

Ginny's comments: Why Ben Folds and co. came out with a B-sides album after only two albums under their belts astounds me. Folds had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to come up with enough folderol to make a complete album. Most of the songs sound like crappily recorded bootlegs (even the swearing is hard to make out in "Song for the Dumped"), and the studio songs consist of nothing other than Folds and friends goofing off with the recorder on. "Tom and Mary" is as close as this album comes to an actual song, but fails to even resemble the beauty of Whatever. It's eating up a space in my CD holder that could be used for something better- say, an album by The Kingsmen. Grade: D

Willie's comments: Couldn't have said it better myself, Gin. Grade: F

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The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner

Ginny's Comments: One of the first things that drew me to Ben Folds was the self-parodying mantra the band clung to so adamantly: pop music written to essentially mock pop music. When I listen to Messner, however, Folds seems to have become what he's been against from the beginning. Messner contains some masterful piano playing. Folds can flat out play the piano and that is an established fact; however, he seems to have become mesmerized with his piano playing to neglect other important aspects of his music such as content. The lyrics range from boring and trite ("Narcolepsy," "Don't Change Your Plans") to sophomorically self-conscious ("Army," "Your Redneck Past") to eye-rollingly corny ("Regrets"). He mentions LA and rednecks too many times to be taken seriously. And unless this album is full of esoteric jokes and stories about Jane and Lorainne, etc., Folds is just pulling rhymes out of thin air. "Hospital Song" offers the only promising lyrics about a hospital patient who just discovered he's dying, however, the lyrics are a mere 2-3 lines set to the most boring tune Folds has ever created. "Lullaby" begins as a wispy, gentle tune that devolves into meaningless ramblings and hackenyed rhymes ("we took a small flight/in the middle of the night/from one small place to another... with my aunt grandpa and brother.") If that doesn't make you want to gag, it will just as easily make you wish you were a narcoleptic and sleep through this one. As a side note, if you are looking for a great piano player that hasn't strayed into Crapland, try Brad Mehldau- famed pianist for his outstanding versions of Radiohead songs. I'm counting on you to make the next one a smashing one, Ben... Grade: C-

Willie's comments: I'm beginning to think Whatever and Ever Amen was just a happy fluke. This thrown-together collection is bursting at the seams with creative strain, and there's not a song in the bunch as well-written or thought-provoking as those on Amen. "Hospital Song" comes close, with some truly disturbing, sad lyrics set to a slow, tinkling tune, but it's vastly outnumbered by tuneless crap. I really wanted to like this one... Sigh. Grade: D+

READER COMMENTS:

Matthew Clothier writes: Is it me, or does Ben Folds' piano and singing sound startlingly like Joe Jackson? Does anyone know who Joe Jackson is or did I just create him during one of my blackouts...I really enjoyed Whatever and Ever...especially "Kate" but I just can't seem to lose that pesky Joe Jackson comparison.

David Berson writes: The Joe Jackson comparison is abit there, but to me they sound more like Squeeze than anyone else. I keep expecting to bust out playing "slap & tickle" anytime I hear them on the radio or at work. I've never really seen the interest in the band. They can write good pop hooks but they also seem to have no originality whatsoever. They need strong psychedelics.

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: SQUIRREL NUT ZIPPERS

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The Beta Band

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The Three E.P.'s

Willie's comments: The consensus about this collection of the band's early EPs seems to be that the songs are far too repetitive and far too long. This latter criticism is well-founded: songs often clock in at around 7 or 8 minutes, with the aptly-titled "Monolith" stretching out past 15, and none of them really need to. But the idea that the Beta Band is too repetitive is kind of silly, when you consider that the same people who complain about the repetition are often die-hard Stereolab fans. On The Three E.P.'s, the songs are often country-based trip-hop numbers that repeat one simple hook over and over and over- and they're as entrancing in their way as any drone-rock masterpiece from Stereolab, Yo La Tengo, or the Silver Apples. "Dry the Rain," "The House Song," "Push It Out," and "She's the One" might not have a whole lot happening over the course of the song, but it's all effectively hypnotic, spiced up with catchy melodies, too. And The Three E.P.'s is a much better hybrid of country and electronica than that Luke Vibert/B.J. Cole album, anyway. Grade: B+

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The Beta Band

Willie's comments: As musical experimentalists go, The Beta Band are as fearless as anyone. Whereas bands like They Might Be Giants generally bend musical genres for some logical reason, The Beta Band gathers up as much musical material as they can and throws it all down on tape, to hilariously weird effect. Their debut studio LP is full of oddly-structured pop songs, constantly altering lead vocals (sounding variously like Beck, Sting, and Hunter S. Thompson), Kraut-rap hybrids, bizarre noises and wonderful stream-of-consciousness lyrics like “Listened to the Beach Boys just a minute ago/ Wild Honey/ It’s not their best album/ It’s still pretty good.” “Round the Bend” is as catchy as the Band gets, even though it is grounded by a strange orchestral sample and a cuckoo clock, while “The Beta Band Rap” starts off as a circa-1940 commercial jingle before locking into a white-boy groove, and jutting off into rockabilly skronk. It’s all good-natured, catchy weirdness, even if the songs do tend to get bogged down with surprisingly frequent moments of inertness. Grade: B

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Hot Shots II

Willie's comments: After publicly disowning their self-titled debut (in a fit of overreacting, if you ask me- no one can deny the greatness of "'Round the Bend"), the Beta Band finally starts writing songs that sound like songs on Hot Shots II, albeit songs that don't lose the band's snarky sense of humor or kitchen-sink approach to arrangements. "Squares" and "Gone" would sound perfectly at-home on an album by Portishead or Alpha if not for the distinctively cheesy-smooth vocals of Stephen Mason, while "Dragon" culminates in the most tantalizingly happy refrain of the year: "I've never been the type to sing all night, but aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh!" The songs are tighter, more concise, and catchier than anyone could've predicted from their previous work (the band also integrates electronica elements a bit less overtly here than their tourmates Radiohead have been doing), resulting in an album that withstands- and commands- compulsive relistens. At the end of the album, the band falls into cutesy stream-of-consciousness rambling, on the somewhat annoying "Eclipse" ("The music we make is not particularly good... the people with the answers lie, so no pizza for them") and "Won" (a lengthy sample of Nilsson's "One" turned into a rap song- not as bad as it sounds, but still too long). The first nine songs are spectacular enough to make for a great listening experience in their own right, however. Grade: A-

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Heroes to Zeros

Willie's comments: On their final album (they broke up a few weeks after its release), The Beta Band sounds lost, unable to conjure the atmospheric magic of their previous album or their earlier, nonchalant rhythmic poppiness. Instead, it just sounds like they've spent the past few years listening to Interpol and Gomez, and uncomfortably tried to fit the former's droney guitars and the latter's production-happy blues-rock influences into their own laid-back style of composition. It just flat-out doesn't work. Mason's cocked-eyebrow delivery, while perfect on the shuffling likes of The Three E.P.'s and the spare Hot Shots II, is too passive to carry energetic tracks like "Assessment" and "Out-Side," which just leaves the insubstantial arrangements to wobble back and forth between a couple chords, with chintzy electronic percussion occasionally cropping up. He fares better on "Space," a successful, halting lope around Hot Shots II territory, and the pretty "Simple," but on the remainder of the mellow tracks, like "Wonderful" and "Pure For," his repetitive chants of love don't make for particularly compelling listening, considering the fact that the arrangements sound simultaneously strained and underthought. It's a bummer that, for all their talent, the Betas never came up with a true masterpiece, but Heroes to Zeros is pretty clearly the end of the line. Grade: C

THIS ARTIST APPEARS ON: HIGH FIDELITY SOUNDTRACK

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Beulah

Handsome Western States

Willie's comments: By this point, it doesn't really seem like it means anything to say that any given band is a member of the Elephant 6 Recording Company. Since there are now 43 bands that are contained within the Elephant 6 bigtop, and many of those bands have nothing in common except for the fact that head Apple in Stereo Robert Schneider likes them (and, usually, an affinity for optimistic psychedelica and Pet Sounds), the whole idea of this musical community is kind of weird and random. That's not going to stop me, however, from pointing out that Beulah is- or was- indeed an Elephant 6 band, and an incredibly talented one at that. However, you wouldn't know it from listening to this spotty collection of lo-fi early tracks. Frontman Miles Kurosky and multi-instrumentalist Bill Swan recorded this comparatively stripped-down affair themselves over a period of 16 months, and while it's always listenable, it's mostly unremarkable and never especially gripping. Apart from Swan's sporadic trumpet flourishes, there's little evidence of the lush arrangements they'd later become famous for, and Kurosky's vocal melodies don't hit as often as they should, either (for every serviceable tune like "Maroon Bible," there's an attitude-over-songwriting throwaway like "Rust with Me" and "The Rise and Fall of Our Hero's Reward"). So what's left is an okay clump of guitar-based indie-pop songs that don't do much to distinguish themselves from those of a million other Pavement-and-Built to Spill-inspired acts. Even if you're a big fan of their next couple records, you really don't need this. Grade: C+

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The Coast is Never Clear

Willie's comments: Their third album, The Coast is Never Clear, features a dozen summery pop songs that are as clever as Pavement, as hummable as Sloan, and as ear-friendly, production-wise, as Belle & Sebastian's best work. Those comparisons don't quite prepare you, though, for the unparalleled melodic depth of songs like "Gravity's Bringing Us Down" (which contains six distinct sections, all of which flow seamlessly and lunge straight for your catchy-bone) or "A Good Man is Easy to Kill." The horns, strings, and other bubbly instruments that occasionally pop up to contribute a flourish or two would be welcome on any album, of course, but on a record that's already as satisfyingly catchy as this one, the timbre-stuffed nature of the songs seems like an unexpected bonus- like getting a new car for your birthday and then discovering that the trunk is full of diamonds. (I may be overstating it a little, but The Coast is Never Clear is one of those albums that you buy on impulse and then congratulate yourself on having taken the chance. Pick it up today.) Grade: A

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: APPLES IN STEREO

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Big Fish Ensemble

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Field Trip

Willie's comments: Big Fish Ensemble walk the thinnest line between charming musical inventiveness and irritating, sophomoric indulgence. When they're good (as they often are on this, their first real album), they play terrific dustbowl rock that can compare favorably with Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 and the Monks of Doom. Songs like "Fire Engine" and "Pabst Blue Ribbon Light" sound like the catchy score to a Western film. Also when they're good, their lyrics are eloquent enough to shoot into your heart like a poison arrow; on Field Trip's best song, "Distant," singer Paul Schwartz bemoans the way a lover has changed after moving to a big city to touching effect ("You used to feel safe in my arms, but now you think you can do anything"). However, on songs like "Houseplant," "Spare the Asparagus," and "Message from Ferdinand," their smarmy jokes quickly wear thin ("God loves you even when you fart," for example), and they begin to evoke the witter-than-thou aesthetic of the Barenaked Ladies, which makes it a bit of a chore to make it through the album in one sitting. Grade: B-

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Big Lebowski soundtrack

Willie's comments: The near-perfect, eclectic, bizarre soundtrack to a near-perfect, eclectic, bizarre film! The Coen brothers and T-Bone Burnett have assembled a collection of forgotten classic-rock jewels (Dylan's "The Man In Me," Captain Beefheart's wonderfully trippy "Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles"), warped orchestral numbers, and all-out oddities (The Gipsy Kings' hilarious flamenco take on "Hotel California"). The album's centerpiece (as well as the movie's) is Kenny Rogers and the First Edition's "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)," a genius bit of psychedelic rock. All this and a blazing new Elvis Costello tune! The perfect soundtrack to an afternoon of doobies and White Russians. Grade: A-

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Bjork

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Debut

Willie's comments: After the Sugarcubes (mercifully) broke up, Bjork started a solo career, charting her own path. Sometimes that path is marked by why-didn't-I-think-of-that brilliance, sometimes it's frustratingly enigmatic, but it's almost always entirely original. Debut can be seen as the blueprints for where Bjork was heading. The album is unsteady and unfocused, with Bjork veering from enchantingly strange trip-hop to bland orchestral ballads, never quite blending the two as she would on Homogenic. Some songs are as good as anything she's ever done: "One Day," "Come to Me," and "Violently Happy" are hypnotic and infectious, while "Human Behaviour" is bolstered by a driving, dramatic arrangements (the timpani are particularly great). However, Debut is hampered by chintzy keyboards (on the otherwise fine "Big Time Sensuality"), Luscious Jackson-esque aerobicizing ("There's More to Life Than This"), and Bjork's own accursed tendency toward camp ("Like Someone in Love"). If you're absolutely in love with her later work, then you'll definitely enjoy this album, but it's not a good place to start. Grade: B

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Post

Ginny's comments: It's a safe bet to say that Post is the Ice Queen's opus. Each song is masterful and unique in its own way with enough quirky noises and instruments that even Willie would be impressed. "Hyper-ballad" is a beautiful and intrinsically dark song, while songs like "It's Oh So Quiet" and "Army of Me" offer booming rhythms and elaborate brass harmonies. Bjork's quavering voice strains out each track perfectly. She has the voice power of Tori Amos's most angst-ridden songs, but can also be as gentle as the Eurythmics. This is definitely an album that belongs in every music lover's collection. Grade: A+

Willie's comments: Bjork's second album is enchantingly eclectic. "It's Oh So Quiet" is a hilarious, bipolar Broadway number, and "Cover Me" is a fascinatingly twinkly leidsong, but the bulk of the album is made up of mutated electronica. "Enjoy" and "Headphones" bear the markings of trip-hop hero Tricky (who cowrote them), but Bjork's ever-expressive singing is still the highlight. The bassy "Army of Me" and "Hyper-Ballad" are the most conventionally catchy of the lot, but bear in mind that Bjork's idea of conventional is still pretty weird. She adopts an ominous vocal tic in the former, while the latter is a song about throwing things off a cliff: "I imagine what my body would sound like/ Slamming against those rocks/ When it lands/ Will my eyes be closed or open?" Even at her most twisted, though, Bjork is unerringly listenable and captivating. Grade: A

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Homogenic

Willie's comments: Putting a more sophisticated spin on her unique brand of bass-heavy, fascinatingly weird pop, Bjork spends much of Homogenic backed by a full orchestra. The strings nicely compliment the ominous undercurrents of songs like “Hunter” and “Joga”; not to mention the odd contrast they provide to Bjork’s voice and the billiard ball percussion. Songs like “Joga” and “Bachelorette” are bursting with despondent prettiness (though both are, strangely enough, love songs), while “Alarm Call” is all twisty hooks, and “Pluto” sounds like a dance club sitting atop a volcano about to erupt. “All is Full of Love” is a little too happy to fit in among these darker tracks, but it's a fine song, and I'd be silly to say Homogenic is less than completely compelling. Grade: A-

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Selmasongs

Willie's comments: In 2000, Bjork starred in Lars Von Trier's beautifully wrenching film Dancer in the Dark, in which she played a woman named Selma who escapes the escalating horrors of her life by imagining herself in Hollywood musicals. Selmasongs contains seven of Bjork's songs from the film (yet it costs as much as a full-length album), but it's curiously unsatisfying as a listening experience. There's no denying the beauty of Bjork's compositions- almost every song builds a Homogenic-sized orchestral epic around a rhythm track taken from everyday sounds (trains, factory sounds, footsteps)- and Bjork's full-throated singing is more powerful than ever, but most of the songs feel bisected without Von Trier's color-soaked choreography, and don't make much sense when removed from Dancer in the Dark's storyline. You'd never know by listening to the ebullient "Cvalda," for example, that Selma is daydreaming about dancing with her best friend through the factory where they're working a grueling night shift- a juxtaposition of naive imagination and working-class pathos that moved me to tears during the film. Or that "107 Steps" actually carries a brutal undertone in the context of the film (which I won't give away). In addition, the film's most hauntingly gorgeous number- the a capella "The Next-to-Last Song"- was inexplicably excluded from Selmasongs. The only song that really warrants a spin on your stereo is the Oscar-nominated "I've Seen It All" (which should've won, Bob Dylan or no Bob Dylan), a duet in which Radiohead's Thom Yorke shows up to take the place of Dancer's Peter Stormare, and to apply his Midas touch to a song so sweeping it sounds like it could blanket the world in its sadness. Great as it is to hear two of the world's best singers belting out a song worthy of their talents, though, if you're thinking of plunking down $15 for this EP, you might as well just spend the extra five or ten bucks on the Dancer in the Dark DVD. Grade: C+

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Vespertine

Willie's comments: Less an album than a twelve-song valentine, Vespertine finds Bjork skipping gaily through her unique musical fields, collecting some of the most beautiful sounds known to man and then using them to form some of the most delicate, heartwarming love songs in the history of pop music. (And who better to program the beats on this album of unparalleled prettiness than electronica duo Matmos, whose last album, A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure, was a perfectly jittery collection of real surgery noises?) There are no thumpy, theatrical tirades like "Army of Me" or "Hunter" to be found here; the arrangements gently tiptoe around Bjork's voice, with harps, chimes, bells, and unobtrusive rhythmic clicks acting as exclamation points to the pixie lunatic's musings on romantic and sexual contentment. It's not never boring or overly restrained, though; Bjork sounds like she's performing a mammogram on her larynx throughout Vespertine, squeezing, stretching, and pounding that sucker to wring every last drop of emotion from her throat. It works wonders, too- whether she's breathlessly saying "I love him" over and over in "Pagan Poetry" (the album's most immediately digestable song) or cooing about the joy of adolescent sexual discovery (I guess) in "Sun in My Mouth," each song attains the same breathtaking grandeur as the opening shot of The Sound of Music, only with better music. Bjork wants to share her happiness with you. Let her. Grade: A

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Greatest Hits

Willie's comments: I suppose it makes a little more sense for Bjork to have released a recent greatest hits compilation than for Nirvana to have done so (Bjork has four studio albums not counting Selmasongs, Nirvana had three), but not much. Especially since she is presumably still on the "active" roster as far as her recording career goes, this album seems a little premature, wouldn't you say? However, what sets this disc apart from such useless cash-ins as similar collections from the Stone Roses, the Gin Blossoms, Bob Mould, and others is that it plays like that great mix CD of all your favorite Bjork tunes you never got around to making after Vespertine came out. Rather than just letting her record company slap all of her singles together all willy-nilly, Ms. Gudmundsdottir allowed her die-hard fans to vote on the tracklist for this project via her website, so you're basically getting a consensus of her 15 best tracks when you buy this album. Granted, you're still getting most of the singles, since "Human Behaviour," "Army of Me," and "Pagan Poetry" really are among her strongest, but you also get such delightful surprises as "All is Full of Love" (and the appropriate exclusion of "It's Oh So Quiet"- a fun song on its own, but one that would've seemed overbearing given the simmering nature of most of these tracks). There's also a remarkable flow to the tracks, weaving a spellbinding entryway into Bjork's world that can be ominous or gorgeous, but never seems disjointed. The requisite new song, "It's in Our Hands," amounts to little more than Bjork emoting over a To Rococo Rot sample, but it's casually beautiful nonetheless. I would've liked more Post songs on here to replace some of the shaky Debut offerings ("Big Time Sensuality"?), but then, I didn't vote, so I guess I can't complain. Again, this is hardly an essential compilation, since three of the four records Greatest Hits draws upon are already must-owns, but it's as amazing as one could hope for, given the circumstances. Grade: B+

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Medulla

Willie's comments: It seems as though Bjork has finally completed her metamorphosis from quirky pop pixie to completely unfathomable nattering goofball. Her fifth album, Medulla, plays out mostly without the help of any instruments except for the sounds that can be made by human voices, and it's never clear exactly what the hell she's up to. The presence of the ever-snarky Mike Patton (of Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, Lovage, etc.) providing vocal samples on the stompy "Where is the Line" and the hilarious meowing and "waka-chika" noises on "Triumph of a Heart" invoke a sense of fun that then tumbles over into not-funny-anymore spookiness on songs like "Ancestors" and "Oceania," which are fascinating but nearly unlistenable cacophonies of panting, gasping, whistling, and guttural noises that are programmed into a thorny collage over which Bjork does her inimitable yelping melisma. And lyrics like "This tooth is warmth-like/And these teeth are a ladder up to his mouth" don't do much to clarify her intentions. Is it some sort of pop answer to Christian Bok's dada vocal experiments? Is it intended to be as silly as it sounds? What am I listening to? This isn't to say that inscrutability hasn't always been one of the singer's charms, but never before have her songs sounded so inaccessible, so insane, so little like songs! We're not talking about the sort of disciplined difficulty of an album like Radiohead's Kid A; Medulla sounds like Jodie Foster's character from Nell getting stinking drunk and then going on water slides until she gets sick. There are still surely pleasures to be had here: specifically, "Submarine" and "Desired Constellation" combine Post-style hooks with Vespertine's exquisite beauty, while the choir-backed "Vokuro" is an exotic masterpiece, and it's impossible to accuse Bjork of lacking in originality throughout. (You know how everyone always says how "daring" it is when PJ Harvey and Tori Amos fall into pseudo-orgasmic moaning and bellowing? Medulla makes their respective vocal styles sound as unruffled and bland as Shania Twain.) But originality and quality are two very different things, and this album has long stretches of frustration for those of us who aren't on Bjork's unique, peculiar wavelength. You might love it, or you might think of the album as a giant question mark, but I recommend you figure out on which side you yourself fall before picking this up. Grade: B-

READER COMMENTS:

LoadesC writes: I agree with your asseessment of Bjorks first album. Human Behaviour is the only great track. I've never sought out her second album because I think It's oh so Quiet is awful. My ratings:
Debut B
Homogenic A
Vespertine B+
Greatest Hits A-

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Frank Black

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Frank Black

Willie's comments: It's doubtful that Frank Black will ever top the hyperkinetic genius he exhibited as Black Francis in the Pixies, but at least his ambitions are there. On this, his first solo album, Black veers toward the poppy end of the rock spectrum (as opposed to the searing noise that marked his final effort with the Pixies, Trompe Le Monde). "I Heard Ramona Sing" is as straightforward as Black ever got, while "Los Angeles" and "Fu Manchu" are more complex than anything he'd done before, and "Parry the Wind High, Low" is just as odd and intriguing as the title suggests. Black isn't as energetic as he was in his past incarnation, and he hasn't quite figured out what to do to fill that void yet (he plugs it with lots of keyboards, mostly, which is kind of incongruous with some of his songs), but it's a noble first effort. Grade: B

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Teenager of the Year

Willie's comments: This album will either give you a headache or keep you listening for weeks on end (though you'll be puzzled either way). With 22 short songs that aren't quite catchy, but aren't exactly off-putting, either, Black rants about pop culture with crunchy guitars, stripped-down arrangements, and at least one singable hook per song. Those hooks are unevenly placed within a song, however- the anthemic, eponymous chant of "Pure Denizen of the Citizen's Band" seems as though it'd be a chorus, but it appears only once. Black's lyrics are mind-bogglingly intelligent and elliptical (I probably listened to this album 20 times before I realized that "Two Reeler" is about the Three Stooges), and peppered throughout are clever songwriting flourishes like the stolen Nirvana riff that opens and closes "(I Want to Live On an) Abstract Plain." "Big Red," "Headache," and "Whatever Happened to Pong?" are standouts, but the driving song "Calistan" is truly transcendent. Grade: A-

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The Cult of Ray

Willie's comments: Taking the odd song structure of Teenager of the Year to its next step, the songs on Cult of Ray often veer unsteadily, with the music not really sticking to one particular meter or tempo, or, alternately, Black will sing with no regard for rhythm. This isn't a good thing, however. It mars the otherwise-catchy "Men in Black" and makes "The Last Stand of Shazeb Andleeb" nearly unlistenable. There are a few good surf rock tunes on here- "Kicked In the Taco," for example- and "I Don't Want to Hurt You (Every Single Time)" is as sweet a love song as Black is ever going to write (I like the line "I wish you could be whats-her-name"), but this is a difficult listen that doesn't really reward you much. Grade: C+

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Frank Black Francis

Willie's comments: For a band that released only four proper albums, the Pixies have proportionally been repackaged and resold more than pretty much any other band except maybe the Beach Boys. The past few years, a decade after the band's dissolution, have seen a greatest hits album bundled with a live album (Death to the Pixies), an album of B-sides, an album of BBC sessions, another greatest hits album (Wave of Mutilation), and an eponymous collection of outtakes from the Come on Pilgrim sessions. So whether you're going to be interested in the new, post-Pixies-reunion two-disc set from Frank Black is a question of whether you're the sort of person who already owns all that completist fodder. Frank Black Francis bookends the Pixies experience with one disc of demos that Black recorded by himself, with an acoustic guitar, into a Walkman, the day before the band was to record Pilgrim, and another disc of recently recorded renditions of Pixies songs rejiggered by Black and the Two Pale Boys (Andy Diagram and Keith Moline, best known as the backing band for the solo work of Pere Ubu's David Thomas). Neither disc is going to make a believer out of someone unfamiliar with the Pixies' legacy, but they both hold a certain novelty for fans.

The demo disc is pretty cool in its friendly nonchalance: without his unhinged yelps, a thumping rhythm section, or Joey Santiago's tornadic lead guitar, the young Black Francis sounds like a cheerfully nerdy kid who subsisted on a bizarre diet of the Violent Femmes and Screamin' Jay Hawkins throughout his adolescence. Even as he whales on his acoustic guitar in high-energy, surf-inflected songs like "Isla de Encanta" and "Broken Face," the aggression is a put-on for Pilgrim's producer, and it's interesting to hear something like "Subbacultcha," so sneering and abrasive on Trompe Le Monde, performed in such a casual, VH1 Storytellers setting. A lot of songs sound understandably unfinished, but still more (most notably "Break My Body") are fascinating in their naked setting. As for the "treated" disc, it reminds me a lot of Devo's E-Z Listening Disc: an idea that's kind of fun in both concept and execution, but still not enough so that its existence makes sense. The Two Pale Boys back Black's newly recorded vocals with shambling arrangements of echoes, electronics, and horns, and the results veer from the engagingly spacey ("Where is My Mind?") to the thuddingly lacking in ideas (a punishing 15-minute version of "Planet of Sound"), but the whole endeavor is so unmotivated that you'll either find it brilliant or idiotic. The unsettling, trumpet-driven dirge that is "Nimrod's Son" is the only song on either disc that improves upon the original Pixies recording, though, so I'll reiterate my warning that Frank Black Francis is only for adventurous die-hards. Grade: B

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Blue Man Group

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Audio

Willie's comments: When they're not whoring for Pentium in those asinine commercials, the inventive Blue Man Group performs a musical stage show in which they wear unusual costumes, present unorthodox images, and play strangely catchy music on unconventional instruments. (It's like a hallucinogenic Stomp with actual melodies and interesting things to look at.) Their first album robs them of the visual element of their show, but it more than makes up for it in the songwriting. Audio consists of 14 instrumental songs that sound like a James Bond soundtrack performed by a futuristic Zulu tribe. Propulsive, noisy drum beats and spaghetti western guitars are virtually the only normal-sounding instruments on this recording. You also get to hear the sounds of big poles wooshing through the air, organs being horribly mistreated, and, most thrillingly, paddles striking PVC pipes of various lengths. This last element produces the band's rhythmic melodies, and produces a sound that resembles a hollow guitar arpeggio, but somehow better. It's heard to best effect on "PVC IV," but it's a staple of virtually every song. Audio doesn't provide much variation in mood- though the masterpiece "Rods and Cones" does go through several distinct phases- but it is still an exciting and immensely satisfying listen. Grade: A

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Blur

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Parklife

Willie's comments: Like a musical version of Brassed Off or The Full Monty, Parklife underscores the depressing havoc that is working-class England in the post-Thatcher era, but still tries to make the best of things. Songs like the three-legged “Bank Holiday” and “End of the Century” are effortlessly catchy and fun, but there’s still a dark underpinning of sadness at the country’s current situation. This isn’t true of all songs- “Girls and Boys” is a hilarious anthem admonishing Spring Break culture, for example- but for catchy, keyboard-speckled Brit-pop that also makes ya think, Parklife is hard to beat. Grade: A

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Blur

Willie's comments: Apparently, this tempestuous album is Blur’s attempt to meld the crude style of American indie rock with their British affinity for complex musical arrangements and experiments. Indeed a lofty project, but frontman Damon Albarn and his cohorts manage to pull it off. They manage to do so by mixing equal amounts of conventional (if tattered) infectiousness- songs like “Song 2” and “M.O.R.”- with more challenging fare like “Country Sad Ballad Man” (which is partially ripped off from Pavement's "Brinx Job") and the amazingly dreary “Death of a Party.” It takes a few spins to fully appreciate Blur, but it’s worth the investment of your time. Grade: A-

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13

Ginny's comments: Long live rivalries. If you aren't a Blur fan, you're an Oasis fan. If you're a fair-weather fan like me, you volley back and forth between the two bands, siding with the one that has the best recent album. 13 was highly anticipated, seeing how to the ball was in their court cuz Oasis's last album was a flop. 13, however, was nothing like I was expecting. It offered strange, experimental tracks that were sometimes entertaining and other times a nuisance. Whether Damon Albarn found spiritual enlightenment making this album or not I can't say, however, Blur lacks a voice in 13. It seems to wander around aimlessly- hardly the work of an Enlightened One. I'd say more, but I'm tired. And you get the point. Grade: C+

Willie's comments: Shortly after Albarn broke up with that Justine chick from Elastica whose last name I forget, Blur recorded this expressionistic statement of misery and loss that is as unappealing as actually being dumped. While I have nothing against harsh, noisy dissonance in music, a whole album of the stuff is a bit much (as demonstrated by Baboon). The one concession Blur makes to traditional musical form on 13 is the bland ballad “Tender,” which is competent, but pretty dull. As for the rest of the album, it’s unlistenable, harsh bollocks (except for the hilarious- and gratifyingly catchy- “B.L.U.R.E.M.I.,” which incorporates a Donald Duck-esque refrain). Grade: C

READER COMMENTS:

Jeff Czerniak writes: [Regarding 13] Did you actually LISTEN to this album? It has plenty of great tracks. It's all produced by electronic guru William Orbit (he produced Madonna's Ray of Light) and it shows... I don't think anyone else in the free world knows how to generate the ultra-distorted guitar sound that's found on "Bugman". They get funky (go to time index 7:02 on track 10, if you don't believe me). And I think "No Distance Left To Run" could be classified as a normal song like "Tender", that is, if you listened to it. Since I must make concessions, I'll admit that "Caramel" sorta gets on my nerves, and that "Optigan 1" is just showing off Orbit's considerable synth collection, but other than that, this album is pretty groovy. It at least deserves a B-range rating. P.S. If you dis Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong one more time, I will be forced to swear very loudly to myself.

LoadesC writes: The self-titled album is a failed attempt to sound like American Indie bands. It's fairly unlistenable and even the best songs aren't that great.
Modern life is Rubbish. A
Parklife. A-
The Great Escape. B+
Blur. C+
13. B+
Think Tank A-

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Bonnie "Prince" Billy

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I See a Darkness

Willie's comments: Bonnie "Prince" Billy is the alter ego of Will Oldham, an alterna-folk artist who used to be in Palace, I guess, and who also records albums under his own name. (Given the fact that it's a pseudonym, I don't know whether I should technically be filing his reviews under B-O or B-I, honestly. Perhaps I should rethink this whole career path in editing...) Anyway, on this 1999 release, Oldham makes slow, melodic music that's calculated to be a little too quiet to go down easy, considering the unrelenting creepiness of his subject matter. Though his voice is lulling in its unpracticed emotion, and the arrangements are paragons of hushed, minor-key understatement, these songs intentionally sound like the product of a man about to snap. The seething "Another Day Full of Dread," to name just one, falls into a sing-songy refrain that sounds like a serial killer's mantra ("Nip, nap, it's all a trap/Boo, biss, and so was this...Smile awhile, forget the bile/And watch it all come down"), and it's made even more unsettling by the fact that Oldham is barely whispering his lyrics, backed up by a band that's barely audible throughout the album. I suspect the whole disc was recorded with one microphone, because the production is pretty well nonexistent; all the instruments are pushed to the background, whether it's just the ubiquitous piano and bass, or other touches like a wah-wah guitar on "Death to Everyone" or even drums on "Madeleine-Mary." Rather than being aggravating, though, this minimal approach mostly works, since it only heightens the tension of these folky freak-outs. That is, if you can't be sure you're catching everything, it's even more shiver-inducing to hear snippets like the perverse crescendo of "Nomadic Revery" ("All around a left buttock and all around a right!" supported by Stones-esque "woo woos" that sound more like preying owls than joyous exclamations). Like a comatose Nick Cave, I See a Darkness isn't for those who are easily disturbed, but for those who don't mind the uneasy feeling of sitting on a front porch, listening to a stranger spin insanely compelling stories that you worry might culminate in him driving a knife into your chest, you'll really dig this. Grade: A-

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Master & Everyone

Willie's comments: Oldham has grown a grizzly get-off-mah-property! beard by this point, which might imply that his songs have become even more deranged and creepy, but Master & Everyone is actually surprisingly sweet, after a fashion. Performed mostly by Will and his brother Paul, this record is as intimate and warm as I See a Darkness was distant and off-putting; with muttered vocals and sparse acoustic arrangements, it sounds like the product of a recluse in the mountains who's been doing nothing but listening to Pink Moon for the past 20 years and obsessing over that one great love that got away. Oldham's lyrics of isolation and loneliness ("Why can't I be loved as I am?/A wolf among wolves, not a man among men") are so heavy with regret that it sounds as though he can barely push them past his lips, but the melodies to which they're wed are pure, folky bliss. Hook is too strong a word to describe the understated way songs like the yearning "The Way" or the hangdog "Even If Love" stick with you, so perhaps it's better to compare them to dreams that leave you with specific images that nag at you for weeks, even if you can't recall the context. It's all very slow and very quiet (it's recorded well, but the most approachable sound on the album is the occasional singing of Marty Slayton- a chick- whose lilting vocals provide a comforting counterpoint on songs like "Hard Life"), but it's one of those records where every little detail feels like an epiphany, and whose beauty both mutes and amplifies the sadness of its subject matter. Grade: A

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Boo Radleys

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Everything's Alright Forever

Willie's comments: Even though it's been quite a few years since they've put out any product, I still believe that the world needs only one My Bloody Valentine. Thus, I really have no use for this early effort from the Boo Radleys, which lazily buries half-formed melodies beneath strata of staticky guitars and then calls it a day. The better songs could actually pass for My Bloody Valentine, which is somewhat impressive when you consider that this album probably cost substantially less to make than Loveless, but most of the songs just feel like an attempt to cash in on the dreampop trend by guys who never really got it in the first place. Grade: C-

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Wake Up!

Willie's comments: What's remarkable about this now out-of-print effort from the Boo Radleys is how bloody happy it is compared with the band's later works. It opens with some joyous Brian Wilson harmonies on "Wake Up Boo!" and then suddenly explodes with horns, like someone flicking on the lightswitch at a surprise party. From there, it only gets better (except for the somewhat abrasive "Joel"), with frontman Martin Carr writing some of the catchiest, lushest, most effortlessly hooky songs since Sgt. Pepper. "Charles Bukowski is Dead" is an infectiously silly tribute to the determinedly classless writer, "Twinside" is a fun rave-up that incorporates the old Batman theme, and "Martin, Doom! It's Seven O'Clock" coasts through on the strength of its title alone. "Find the Answer Within," however, tops anything the band has done before or since, with an utterly beautiful melody and lyrics that are a million times as inspiring as R. Kelly could ever dream of writing. Grade: A+

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C'mon Kids

Willie's comments: Whereas Wake Up! is a gorgeous Brit-pop symphony, C'mon Kids is a musical heroin rush. You know the bombastic few opening chords that hard-rock bands like to open their albums with before they settle into more tempered melodies? The Boo Radleys manage to parlay that anarchic sense of frenzied energy into an entire album, and it's evident from the title track forward. The band plays with every production technique they can think of here, providing a unique flavor for every song without sacrificing melody. "Meltin's Worm" is an infectious, creepy song that incorporates a theramin to the best use I've ever heard (and don't give me that "Good Vibrations" crap). The gritty "Fortunate Sons" is as harsh as a Nine Inch Nails song, but still singable (albeit with flanged vocals). "Ride the Tiger" is simultaneously entrancing and danceable. And they include a Hudsucker Proxy reference in the liner notes! It doesn't get much more creative than this. Grade: A

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Kingsize

Willie's comments: If Oasis wasn’t perfectly content to let artistic stagnation rule their music, they might sound something like the Boo Radleys on this, their final album. From the ghostly mystery track that opens the album to the final note, Kingsize is packed with sizzling pop nuggets that are very well-constructed and very, very British. "Monuments to a Dead Century" is breathtakingly beautiful, and most of the songs (most notably "High as Monkeys") are beefed up with strings and odd keyboards. The repetitive "Free Huey" becomes rather bludgeoning after about 30 seconds, but this is otherwise a masterpiece. A wonderful end to a wonderful career. Grade: A

READER COMMENTS:

LoadesC writes: I cant believe you haven't reviewed "Giant Steps". It was far and away their best album.Here are my ratings for their albums.
Learning to walk. B
Everythings alright Forevor. B
Giant Steps. A+
Wake Up. B+
C'mon Kids. A-

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Boredoms

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Vision Creation Newsun

Willie's comments: You know, for a band who made their name on crazy noise and kitchen-sink mayhem (I once heard Joe Jack Talcum from the Dead Milkmen describe them as "Ween and the Butthole Surfers on speed and alcohol"), there's not nearly enough interesting sonic goop on their seventh-or-so album to be worthwhile. Vision Creation Newsun is divided into nine nameless tracks, but it plays like one lengthy- and very repetitive- song with a bunch of different sections. For long stretches, the album offers little more than tribal drumming atop semi-ambient guitar drones, and the rhythmic exercises can be addictive, but only rarely do the Boredoms dare to get melodic or let their inner, ADHD-stricken childen come out to play. (Track eight, the album's highlight, hits a peculiar groove by starting off with a cheerful, chiming melody and then taking a hypnotic detour into several minutes of electronic argle-bargle that sounds like a cassette deck vomiting up mile after mile of tape.) That doesn't leave much to get excited about. Drumming, drumming, occasional electronic tweaking, noise, drones... I guess all the elements of a great modern psychedelic record are here, but the band doesn't use them in the service of songs so much as just throw them into a huge, bland pile and call it a day. Even Yamatsuka Eye's usual freewheeling vocal stylings are in short supply, vanishing for most of the album after the enthusiastic cheering he does on the opening track. I guess even the most famously bizarre of us can't be inspired all the time, and like I said, there are some moments of greatness here; the problem is that all the great moments could be compressed into one killer track instead of spread out over an entire record. Grade: C+

READER COMMENTS:

Nick Reed writes: Vision Creation Newsun gets a C+? That's one of my favorite albums! Okay, I concede that it's very repetitive. But to me, it's like the next generation of what came to be known as 'krautrock' in the 70's - long and hypnotic grooves with fantastic rhythms, kind of like trance music with acoustic instruments. I love the sound of it - it's very powerful and noisy, but at the same time it definetely rocks and progresses forward. I always get a lot of energy out of it.

You are right though that this isn't the Boredoms as they've always been - the original Boredoms were very noisy and anarchic - the description of them being a cross between the Butthole Surfers and Ween does kind of apply of you're only considering the early incarnations of those bands, and you turn the intensity up tenfold. Albums like Pop Tatari have about 3-4 albums worth of music on them, but it's so disjionted and jarring that they're tough to listen to. In the mid-90's they toned it down a bit and became interested in more rhythmic things, basically meaning tracks with lots of drums on them. Super Ae came out in 1997 and with it the Boredoms got a whole new fanbase. The band is still around - last Friday I saw them perform in Chicago, and it was amazing - the entire show was about two or three long pieces, none of which I recognized. It was three very coordinated drummers, and of course Eye who was playing this 7-neck guitar with a big stick (nearly every string was broken by the end), and one other guy who was kind of behind the scenes. I don't think the Boredoms have lost the intensity of their early days - the show was still very high energy, and Eye acted like a freak all night, so in all it was a great show.

Anyways I just wanted to say you should give them another chance! If you still think VCN is mediocre, try out Pop Tatari and see what you think!

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David Bowie

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The Man Who Sold the World

Willie's comments: I've mostly gotten to know David Bowie by way of his singles and mid-to-late period work, so it took a few tries for me to get acclimated to this, his third album. On one hand, it's amazing to discover that many of Bowie's musical trademarks were already firmly in place even before the Ziggy Stardust era: that vibrato; the Stylaphone; epic, multi-part album openers ("The Width of a Circle," in this case); weird song structures in which the bassline sounds like it should really be the vocal melody- and the vocal melody sounds like it's half-improvised, which can be thrillingly creative or thuddingly aimless. However, The Man Who Sold the World also occasionally sounds like it's fishing for ideas from the same macho blues-rock pond that Led Zeppelin drank from in copious amounts. Well, perhaps macho is the wrong word, because Bowie's dandy-fop voice really couldn't sound macho even if you morphed it with James Hetfield's, but guitarist Mick Ronson does indulge in a fair amount of early-'70s guitar showboating here. "The Width of a Circle" and "She Shook Me Cold" are the two best examples of the Zeppelin-isms that show up here, but this being Bowie, these songs are unusual enough to appeal even to those of us who find Zeppelin intolerably, soul-crushingly boring. As I stated above, sometimes Bowie's melodies flit around in a way that's less than engaging, but like Frank Black's Teenager of the Year, every song here at least has half a hook to hold your attention- the opening verse to "Running Gun Blues," the ghostly backing vocals on "After All"- and there are a few sci-fi gems mixed in on here as well. The title track (recently resurrected by Nirvana) is outstanding weirdo pop, with a guiro and sitar-ish lead guitar swaddling a catchy vocal line, and "Savior Machine" is a disturbing, jazzy piece about a man-made God who asks people to please not believe in him. (Sounds really pretentious, and maybe it is, but it works.) It's a surprisingly dark little rock odyssey here, and the mood can be a touch oppressive, but at least Bowie doesn't entirely give up on the notion of songwriting here the way he would on Diamond Dogs. If you're curious about the title track- as you should be- the rest of the album is enough to convince you to stick around. My version of this album also includes four charming bonus tracks (the best of which is the blues-rock jam "Lightning Frightening"), in addition to the nine that appeared on the original record. That's the version you want to buy, because it ups the fun quotient of the album immensely. Grades: Original Version: B. Version With the Bonus Tracks: B+

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Diamond Dogs

Willie's comments: As much as I love Bowie, this wasn't an album that needed to be made. By this point, the whole Ziggy Stardust thing was becoming a bit overwrought, and the pretentious references to 1984 sprinkled throughout this album are pretty laughable. The first couple songs are passable, but the album quickly degenerates into tuneless no-wave and generic futuristic cliche. Grade: C-

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Station to Station

Willie's comments: If "Space Oddity," Bowie's first single, didn't still have my vote as the greatest song ever written, I might think that the title track that opens Station to Station was Bowie's finest moment. Over the course of ten minutes, Bowie's Thin White Duke slithers around an energetic, funky arrangement like a shark swimming through the portholes of a sunken gallion, locating five or six different vocal hooks that can be made from his three-note range. As rock epics go, "Station to Station" is right up there with "Paranoid Android" and "Bohemian Rhapsody." This song is followed up by the concise (but still wonderful) "Golden Years," and then returns to the theatrical camp of his earlier work on the four remaining tracks. (Some versions of this album append two redundant live tracks as well.) Bowie's operatic vocals on songs like the repentant "Word on a Wing" straddle the line between grating and fun, but the proto-Talking Heads dance beats save this exercise from becoming a bland Diamond Dogs redux. Grade: B

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Low

Willie's comments: The first half of Low is the best glam rock record ever produced. Tunes like "Be My Wife" and the inimitable "Sound and Vision" resonate with tempered, campy weirdness that makes the already bent melodies all the more intriguing. Toward the end of the album, though, collaborator Brian Eno takes the reins and churns out some of his patented ambient songscapes, run through the Bowie machine and turned into extraterrestrial incidental music. Philip Glass turned this entire album into an orchestra piece, just for your information. He really didn't need to. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and Low sure as crap ain't broke. Grade: A

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Heroes

Willie's comments: If, like me, you find Bowie's pseudo-inspirational Microsoft theme song "Heroes" unbearably chintzy (not to be confused with the Wallflowers' pseudo-hip cover of the tune which served, briefly, as FTD's theme song), the album from which the song was culled shan't surprise you. The first half of Heroes is consumed by the same thumpy space-funk that dominated Station to Station (only with strangely two-dimensional production), while the latter half is composed mostly of corny instrumental collaborations with Brian Eno- the bastard children of the far superior collaborations they turned out on Low. Save for the amped-up opener "Beauty and the Beast," there's very little here worth your time. Bowie was never a pretender to Pavarotti's throne, but he seems to abandon the very idea of singing on confused tracks like "Sons of the Silent Age." Ultimately, Heroes sounds laughably dated today; Bowie's best albums sound like they're decades ahead of their time, but this one was released in 1977 and wouldn't sound out of place as the soundtrack to a 1983 slasher film. Grade: C

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Lodger

Willie's comments: The final prong of the late-seventies Bowie/Eno trident, Lodger relies less on melody and more on rhythm and texture than, well, any of his previous work, but strangely enough, Bowie's syrupy pop skills aren't missed because of the huge dollops of inspiration that are being flung all over the place. There's an awful lot to absorb as a result; from the Arabic influences of "Yassassin" to the less-dated-than-you'd-think disco elements of "D.J." (which has such an amazing bassline that Blur stole it for "Girls & Boys"), and without a single prevailing mood, Lodger goes down like a serendipitously tasty mixture of twelve kinds of cereals in one bowl. Even Bowie's vocals rocket about in laughing-gas fits of antsiness: wailing operatically one moment, speaking in a dead monotone the next, often with three or four tracks vocalizing in different styles simultaneously (most notably on the head-spinning tempo game of "African Night Flight"). The album is far from tuneless, mind you- "Fantastic Voyage," "Boys Keep Swinging," and "Look Back in Anger" are the most interesting melodically- it's just that the melodies themselves feel like delightful, subtle bonuses amid musical puzzles like the wobbly "Repetition," which sounds like the Talking Heads' More Songs About Buildings and Food being abused by some dude with a whammy bar. At times, the disc is almost distracting in its heterogeneous messiness, but just when it starts to seem that way, an amazing new sound, rhythm, idea, or hook will surface to make those feelings subside. Grade: A-

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ChangesBowie

Willie's comments: Bowie is arguably the best singles writer of all time (that's my argument, since he did write the best single of all time: the perfect, dramatic "Space Oddity"), and most of this compilation album serves to corroborate that theory. Showcasing the many phases of David's career, ChangesBowie moves from early Ziggy Stardust sci-folk to trippy drone-funk (the wonderful "Golden Years") to 80s synth-bombast ("China Girl" and "Let's Dance"). Aside from one or two dubious choices- such as the inclusion of the stultifying "Jean Genie" over, say, "Sound and Vision"- ChangesBowie is a great place to start for the neophyte. Grade: A

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Black Tie White Noise

Willie's comments: If Brian Eno’s Nerve Net was morphed with the music they play while showing the local forecasts on the Weather Channel, the result would probably sound a lot like this. Smooth jazz melodies (and horns) dance atop housey, programmed rhythms on songs like "Looking for Lester" and "You’ve Been Around," creating an overall impact that’s pleasant, but not as innovative and rebellious as one would hope for from someone as creative as Bowie. It’s Bowie for your parents, basically, but if you’re in the mood for cheese, Black Tie White Noise is good sharp cheddar. Grade: B

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Earthling

Willie's comments: The thought of a 50-year-old man generating a Nine Inch Nails-inspired drum-and-bass album might sound cringeworthy, but Bowie is adroitly up to the task. Sounding right at home amid the galloping beats, explosive guitars, and Kraftwerkian keyboard sounds of techno, Bowie is energized beyond belief on breakneck tracks like "Little Wonder" and "Dead Man Walking." The harshness of the techno noises is leavened by the underlying tunefulness of the songs David writes, and touches such as synthesized strings and close harmonies (particularly on "Looking for Satellites," which features guitars that dart around beautifully like random transmissions in search of a radio) add a human touch to this most mechanized of musical genres. Grade: A

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Heathen

Willie's comments: Between Earthling and this album, Bowie came out with an album called Hours, which might be the first album on which he finally took on the persona of a normal, mortal human being, as opposed to an extraterrestrial, machine, or sci-fi protagonist. What little I heard of that album was moderately interesting, but Bowie works wonders with his newly accessible, "real" musical approach on Heathen. If Earthling found him dabbling in an electronic musical genre that had (at the time) been touted as a jittery expression of fin de siecle angst-or-whatever, Heathen sounds intentionally aimless; the somewhat confused sounds of waking up, realizing that it's the 21st century, and wondering why everything is either the same as or worse than it used to be. On the heartbreakingly mournful "Slip Away," David wonders what happened to Uncle Floyd, the beloved New York kiddie show host who proved just as popular with '70s stoners as kids themselves. (Apparently, David hasn't seen Teletubbies.) "5:15 The Angels Have Gone" is another slow, pensive meditation on spiritual and physical loneliness, and "A Better Future" strangely uses a dippy new wave arrangement to demand a more favorable direction for himself, his lover, and the world. (I'll admit I haven't quite figured that one out yet.) To top it off, Heathen is spiced up with three rather unexpected covers: a bouncy version of Neil Young's "I've Been Waiting for You," a slick, dancey reinvention of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy's "I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship," and a run at the Pixies' "Cactus" that, if nothing else, improves upon the original's flat Albini production.

If that all sounds like a headache-inducing stew of incompatible ingredients for an album, it makes more sense if you view it as a more "mature" version of a nostalgia smoothie like Beck's Odelay; Bowie combines elements from most of his previous musical excursions ("Heroes"' grand- if overrated- sweep, the rhythms of his dead-sounding '80s synth-pop, his early glam posturing, the fragility of "Life on Mars?", etc.) and carefully fits the pieces together over the course of 40 minutes to see what, if anything, he is left with in the year 2002. Racked with regret and self-doubt though Heathen is, it also ultimately delivers the encouraging conclusion that David Bowie as a socially functional sum of his parts is just as creative, moving, and brilliant as he ever was. (I guess we could all extrapolate a lesson from that if we were so inclined, but I'm not really one to do things like that.) Grade: A

READER COMMENTS:

David Berson writes: Great job on the site..lots of excellent reviews and interesting perspectives. Oh but youre totally wrong on your review of Bowie's Diamond Dogs. :) I think that Diamond Dogs is one of his best albums. The lyrics are pretty much great, except for some silly, nonsensical references (charlie manson/cassius clay?). "Diamond Dogs" and "Rebel Rebel" are excellent pop songs, the title track just recently becoming a terrible cover by Beck on the Moulin Rouge soundtrack. "We Are the Dead" & "Big Brother" are excellent dark, "gothic" songs, that are still more interesting and eloquent then your local neighborhood goth poetry slams. Or say listening to horrible gothic bands like Nosferatu. There's cool experimental pieces like the opener "Future Legend", which sounds like a tripped out Burroughs fantasy, or the ending "Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family." I think the best piece on the album is the "Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing Reprise", which is an awesome piece of music, it hints at gothic & no wave sounds, predating their development by years, and also containing great guitar work, moody atmospherics and tripped out lyrics. The only two songs I feel could have been omitted are "Rock n Roll with me" which sounds like an elton john outtake *gasp* & 1984 which is an ultra-commercial r&b wannabe. I guess David always wanted to be a "young american". Yes, Diamond Dogs is a pretentious cracked out, smacked hooked odyssey. But it is also excellent. A-

LoadesC writes: I think Diamond Dogs is an absolute classic! It is an incredibly brilliant concept album.It deserves an A rating. In my opinion, only Hunky Dory, Low, and Ziggy Stardust match it.

dark.arkive@gmail.com writes: I'm surprised (and impressed) to see such ardent defense of Diamond Dogs in the comments above mine! Ashamed to admit that my own experience with the album doesn't extend much beyond "Rebel Rebel". As you said regarding the (equally badass) "Station to Station", "Rebel Rebel" would easily be my favorite Bowie moment were it not for the existence of the Valhalla-reaching "Space Oddity", which easily tops any of Brian Wilson's smuggy non-compositions as the best song of the 1960s.

Anyway.

Very pleased to see you give proper props (hee) to Low, which may rank as his most influential work as well as his best. It's open to debate whether it should be revered or condemned for incubating Trent Reznor, but it's hard to imagine any of modern electro-pop existing without "Sound and Vision", or post-rock ever descending from the moon (or rising from Antarctica) without "Warszawa". Once again, there're many who won't soon thank Dahvid for that, but eh. Long live Mogwai!

Very cool, Will, to give such praise to his more contemporary works--few are willing to laud Earthling, and I think it's got as much to do with his older works and with hipster scoffing as with the actual music. If nothing else, it's got a terrific cover, which matters more than many would think.

My curiosity is piqued by the lack of a Ziggy Stardust review. Too much pressure, Will?

Huh? Scared, Will? Scared of the spacemen?

ARE ya?

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: THE CONAN O'BRIEN ALBUM; GROSSE POINTE BLANK SOUNDTRACK

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: LOU REED; BRIAN ENO; QUEEN; PET SHOP BOYS

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The Breeders

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Last Splash

Willie's comments: Kim Deal first displayed her songwriting chops on the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa with “Gigantic,” a song whose sunny hooks wound up overshadowing just about all of the songs Black Francis wrote for that album. Once she and the Pixies parted ways, she teamed up with her sister Kelley and released this album to massive critical acclaim. (There's an earlier Breeders album, with Tanya Donnelly on it, but it's pretty mediocre.) Last Splash is basically one long album of “Gigantic”s: Bouncy singalong choruses; churning, spiked guitars; and goofy, happy lyrics (shown to best effect here on the horny girl anthem “Divine Hammer”), punctuated with grinding noise blasts that always relent a split second before they become unbearable. “Cannonball” was a deservedly huge hit (and continues to be, judging from its inclusion in the trailer to South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut), and Last Splash is full of similar charms, particularly the sweet cover of Ed’s Redeeming Qualities’ “Drivin’ on 9.” Grade: B+

SEE ALSO: PIXIES

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: NO ALTERNATIVE

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: GUIDED BY VOICES; SONIC YOUTH

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Bright Eyes

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Fevers and Mirrors

Willie's comments: Bright Eyes is basically the musical LiveJournal of Conor Oberst, a precocious guy from Omaha who's been doing this since he was 15 years old. (How depressing is that?! When I was 15, I was busy memorizing all the lines to Billy Madison.) Although he's exceptionally talented at coming up with unique arrangements for his songs- which range from lo-fi acoustic whisperings to daffy, Elephant 6-inspired singalongs with horns and organs and whatever else is nearby- Bright Eyes' main reason for existence is to give an outlet to Oberst's lyrics, which are a tense, verbose mishmash of observational journal entries, amateur philosophizing, self-pity, heartbreak, and self-conscious cynicism. Add to that the fact that Oberst's vocalizing is presented in the form of a hyperactive, now-hear-this bleat that hits maybe two notes per song if you're lucky, and you've got yourself a recipe for an artist who falls frequently into the love-him-or-hate-him category. Personally, I think he's brilliant (if perhaps too intense for me to get an urge to listen to him more than once every few weeks; however, my friend and coworker Jon plays these CDs every single day, so I can vouch for the fact that they do start to grate one's soul like a Brillo pad after awhile), but if you're curious, Fevers and Mirrors is definitely the place you want to start. For one thing, this record contains Conor's most concise and immediately gripping songs to date, most notably "The Calendar Hung Itself," which is a spectacular journey through post-breakup jealousy and depression ("Does he know that place below your neck that is your favorite to be touched? And does he cry through broken sentences like 'I love you' far too much?") that's set to an addictively menacing conga-line beat. Though the songs themselves are kaleidoscopic in their embrace of various indie-rock styles ("Sunrise, Sunset" has the distinction of melding a mandolin-based waltz with a firebrand emo chorus), as I've said, the lyrics unify the whole thing into an eloquent, bitter whole that's marinated in so much distressing imagery you'll be transfixed. Luckily, Fevers and Mirrors also boasts a hilarious fake radio interview with Conor, in which he acidically mocks his own "feel sorry for me" persona, and provides one of the few moments of levity you'll hear on any of his products. It's rock for when you hit rock-bottom, and it's breathtaking. Grade: A-

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Lifted, or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground

Willie's comments: Basically more of the same, but with 13 songs that are drawn out to 73 minutes (and not in a groove-happy, Yo La Tengo way), parts of this record really do sound like the product of a young man who's had the word prodigy thrown at him so many times that he's started to believe that he urinates holy water. Take the ten-minute album closer, "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and To Be Loved)," for example. It's one of very few songs I've ever heard that made me actively angry, because it just pushes the self-righteousness needle straight off the scale: over an admittedly peppy Salvation Army-rock backing, Conor delivers a sprawling, nine-paragraph screed in which he announces that he's perhaps not the world's biggest fan of George W. Bush, public schools, materialism in all its forms, the three major networks (FOX somehow escapes unscathed), or music critics, among other things. You know how Andy Partridge basically disowned XTC's "Dear God" because he admitted that the topic of religion is way too big to handle in a three-minute pop song? Well, even at ten bludgeoningly repetitive minutes, "Let's Not Shit Ourselves" commits the same mistake 200-fold, by biting off and then spitting out a dozen different topics without bothering to say anything deeper than "this sucks" about each one. I apologize for harping on it, but this is definitely one of my five most hated songs of all time, because it's So. Bloody. Arrogant.

Luckily, none of the rest of Lifted is that bad, and in fact there are more than enough truly great songs on here to make it worth picking up if you've already become a Fevers and Mirrors addict. Chief among these is "Waste of Paint," a song so movingly naked in its desperation and misery that my friend Jessi has used it to convert at least 10 people (including myself and the aforementioned Jon) into Bright Eyes fans, and totally negates all the bile I spewed in the previous paragraph. With nothing more than a frantically strummed acoustic guitar, Conor tells several anecdotes of woe and loneliness until he finally turns inward and laments, "Will my number come up eventually like love's some kind of lottery where you scratch and see what's underneath? (It's 'Sorry'; just one cherry; 'Play Again- Get Lucky!')" It's a true heartstopper- so much so that in my experience, most of the people who listen to the song need a few minutes to collect themselves afterward. So don't misinterpret my earlier griping to mean that Conor's lost his muse. There are plenty of such treasures here, whether they're stripped-down acoustic confessionals or big, ornate blowouts. I'm just saying that at this point, Conor needs someone to tell him "no" when he goes off the deep end with the self-centered angst (or, now that you mention it, when he tries to pull something like "Laura Laurent," which is a rather blatant Lambchop rip). And somehow, I don't think his new flame Winona Ryder is going to be the one to do that... Grade: B

SEE ALSO: AZURE RAY

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: OF MONTREAL; NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL

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B.R.M.C.

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Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

Willie's comments: Defiantly lo-fi and unfairly lumped in with the Strokes because of it, B.R.M.C. transcends the "garage band" label by drawing on a much wider palatte of influences than the label implies. Though their charm is derived largely from the way they bash out every song in a punkishly elementary style, it's easy enough to spot the tunes' forebears from all over the rock history timeline. Examples: "Awake" wavers between the hallucinatory glee of "Strawberry Fields Forever" and the bad-trip monster rock of the Butthole Surfers. "Red Eyes and Tears" pilfers its monotonous vocals (and their off-kilter rhythm) from the paranoid new wave of the Fixx's "Red Skies." The hotwired "Whatever Happened to My Rock 'n' Roll (Punk Song)" actually tramples the Ramones' "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?" as a nostalgia song (largely because B.R.M.C. doesn't have Phil Spector on hand to turn the thing into a horn-driven Berlin Wall of sound). And, less happily, "White Palms" is a dense nugget of overreaching religious imagery that succumbs to the same bombast that periodically swallows U2 and the Verve. The melodies are simple and gothic, but memorable, and the terrific basslines throughout the album mitigate even the noisiest guitar ramblings like a tube of Chapstick. Like the Strokes, B.R.M.C. can't really make any claims to originality on any level, but there's nevertheless something invigorating about hearing raucous, basic rock done really well. Grade: A-

READER COMMENTS:

Matthew Reed (entirely correctly) writes: I am confused about how you came up with so many influences for BMRC and left out /The Jesus and Mary Chain. /This is confusing because, ultimately BMRC sounds almost exactly like JAMC, so much so that I thought they were a tribute band. I think any influences you here are the bands that influenced the band that BMRC is ripping off, which by the way does not necessarily make the music unlistenable. I like the record, but ultimately would rather listen to /Psychocandy /or /Darklands, /two albums I noticed you have failed to revue.

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John Brodeur

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Tiger Pop: Songs by John Brodeur

Willie's comments: John Brodeur's debut album kicks off with the hyperkinetic sounds of a radio being tuned, and then launches into a joyous pop hook which prominently features a Moog: the sounds of a bedroom rocker who has been set free in a professional recording studio. Thing of it is, Brodeur manages to maintain this contagious sense of childlike excitement throughout Tiger Pop's entire running time- a feat not seen since the Presidents of the United States of America's debut album. Rather than relying on mere novelty and energy, though, Brodeur crafts intelligent, unusual pop songs that owe as much to the psychedelic rockers of the '60s as they do to indie singer-songwriters like Beck and Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Magnum. (Juiced-up songs like "Sucker" and "Infected" could have been penned by his fellow '60s plunderers Sloan.) He then swaddles his melodies in multi-timbred arrangements that would shame Tchad Blake, and croons them in a sarcastic, stoned voice reminiscent of Gordon Gano.

I could have used fewer scrawny acoustic songs like "Kitten" and "Peace," and more tracks like the stomping "Changing Your Mind (Again?)" which is a terrific plea for a friend to stop going back to a destructive relationship ("Another feather in your cap?/ I've heard it before, it's a load of crap"). Still, if sitting through the weaker numbers means I also get to hear intelligent, unique pop gems like "Remains of a Heart" and "Easier," that's something I'm perfectly willing to do. Grade: A

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Broken Spindles

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Broken Spindles

Willie's comments: This is the one-man project of Joel Peterson, bassist for the interestingly sloppy emo-new-wave band The Faint. His debut album under the Broken Spindles name is a sputtering collection of semi-electronic instrumentals that doesn't quite earn its keep. Though Peterson displays a sureheaded command of styles ranging from indie-disco ("Downtown Venues") to growling synth nuttery (the second half of "Videosection," which could've been a backing track from Bjork's Post) to delicate, chiming wintriness ("A Dinner Party Ambience"), he dilutes a lot of that charm with unchecked self-indulgence. Midway through the album, the hooks dissipate, the arrangements unfurl, and the listener's patience storms out in a huff, until the album bows out with 14 minutes of unstructured synth refuse that's not novel enough to qualify as experimental, nor interesting enough to qualify as listenable. It's the sort of thing that would totally wow all the other kids in Recording and Engineering 101, but doesn't really warrant a second listen outside of that context. Grade: C+

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: OF MONTREAL

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BT

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Movement in Still Life

Willie's comments: There's something to annoy everyone on this, the third album from DJ/guitarist BT. In his mad dash to dip his toes into every sub-genre under the "techno" umbrella, he manages to steal stylistic elements from plenty of more innovative acts without quite figuring out what gives those bands their crossover appeal. Thus, "Love on Haight Street" is a Massive Attack/trip-hop rip-off with rapped vocals that contain enough affected attitude to turn off those who might be drawn in by his more mellow stuff (as opposed to Massive Attack, who take care to make the vocals in their songs laid-back and welcoming, if detached). Conversely, Moby and Air should be able to sue BT for the bubbly, ingenue-voiced "Mercury and Solace" and "Running Down the Way Up," respectively. That said, there are still plenty of good ideas here. Each song is splayed with interesting videogame noises and vocal effects, and songs like "Dreaming," "Shame," and the stupendous "Satellite" are stuffed to the gills with great melodies. The album is worth purchasing if only for "Never Gonna Come Back Down," on which Soul Coughing's M. Doughty rants, raps, shouts, jokes, and prophesies doom over BT's infectious big beat backing (if you're looking for the song on Napster, avoid the truncated Gone in 60 Seconds version- you miss out on lots of Doughty's great, unhinged babbling). Movement in Still Life could have used more moments of jaw-dropping weirdness like that, but it still makes for a superb electronica mix tape. Grade: B+

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: SOUL COUGHING; CARL CRAIG

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Jeff Buckley

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Grace

Willie's comments: I don't get it. I have plenty of sensitive-girl friends who say they can't make it through this disc without crying, but I personally can't make it through without needing some coffee. And I ordinarily love this style of semi-folksy, melodic pop belted out by show-offy tenors- even a bunch of them that sprang up in Buckley's wake (no gruesome pun intended, I swear) like Coldplay and Turin Brakes- but Buckley just bores me stupid. There's just not much plaintive beauty here of the sort that makes this genre effective; instead, Grace is clouded by overlong folk-rock cul de sacs like "Eternal Life," plodding pseudo-blues like "Mojo Pin," and most irksomely, songs on which Jeff has sex with his own voice ("Grace" and "Corpus Christi Carol," both of which would have Ronnie James Dio saying, "Dude, you're overdoing it"). As for his much-lauded cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," well, Jeff might've gotten there first, but Rufus Wainwright's wrenching cover stands as the definitive version of the tune. That basically leaves "Last Goodbye," which is an enjoyable attempt to re-create the rock smarts U2 exhibited on Achtung Baby, and "Dream Brother," which ends the album on a satisfyingly ghostly note. Apart from that, there's not much about this album that's emotional or evocative, unless you count evoking a desire to put on a DRI record to wake yourself back up. Grade: C-

READER COMMENTS:

ddickson@rice.edu writes: Call me a sensitive girlfriend, then, even if I AM a dude. In my opinion, Grace kicks serious folkie kiester. You just gotta realize, it ain't about the melodies or excitement. It's all about the atmosphere. Buckley sounds about 20 years older and more mature than he is (around 25, I think). Considering the fact that your counterpart had a cartoon boy shove Crimson King up his butt, I'm not too surprised you don't like it. Still, this is ethereal stuff for folkie wimps like us. Sensitive girlfriends, rejoice.

longduckdongrox@yahoo.com writes: Well i am a sensitive girl but everyone i have shown the CD to loves it. It is full of love, life and music that can send chills through your bones. I think it is kind of an aquired tast but i think that is what makes it so great. It is not the same as all the bull crap rap out there these days and it gets you tinking. He is an artist and can paint a vivid portrait with music wich is very rare these days. But yes you are entitled to your own opinion but i would say he is one of the best singer out there and anyone who has not heard it yet should give it a chance and find out for themselfs.

Noa writes: Tsk tsk. Please listen to his other work (including live) and keep Robert Plant out of your sweet head. sad face:(

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Buffalo Daughter

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Captain Vapour Athletes

Willie's comments: I once read an article in TV Guide that unfavorably characterized the profusion of early-‘90s sketch comedy shows as “islands of brilliance in oceans of strain,” and I always liked that phrase, so I think I’ll steal it: The debut album from Japanese pop trio Buffalo Daughter contains a few isolated islands of brilliance in oceans of strain. Occasionally, they hit on a kicky combination of kitschy pop elements, free-form electronics, and amusing samples (as on the decent “Cold Summer,” which sounds like the product of their scene-mate and friend Takako Minekawa), but more often, there are simply no ideas to be found. That leaves a lot of brief noise interludes that might make for interesting collages if they had more than one or two pieces (“Counter Parrot,” “Kelly,” “Vapour Action Forever,” etc.) and mid-tempo songs that just sort of run in place (most annoyingly, “California Blues,” a two-note headache that goes on for a year). Only the ten-minute “Ll303VE” really satisfies, dragging a pleasingly squishy synth-bass loop on a shopping spree of beats, spacey keyboards, echo effects, and other random elements that finally achieves the whimsical, mosaic-based bliss the rest of the album barely hints at. Mostly, Captain Vapour Athletes is experimental pop without a hypothesis to justify the experiments, and that’s a formula that laypeople may recognize by the name “screwing around.” Grade: C

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: TAKAKO MINEKAWA, AIR, UNKLE

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Buggles

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The Age of Plastic

Willie's comments: Like Devo's "Whip It," the Buggles' big new wave hit "Video Killed the Radio Star" paints a somewhat inaccurate- and rather too whimsical- picture of its creators' prevailing musical style. With its anthemic, female-sung chorus and up-front infectiousness, it's a great song and one of the best singles of the '80s, but if that's the only song you've ever heard by the Buggles, you're missing out on a lot. And also, you're probably under the impression that the band's debut album, The Age of Plastic, is basically stuffed to the gills with similar upbeat, slight-sounding electropop tracks- but that's where you're wrong! Apart from "Radio Star" and the somewhat more aggressive "Clean, Clean," the album overall favors a gentler, subtler, and occasionally darker approach to its new wave stylings, and the effect still sounds futuristic. The duo of Trevor Horn (vocals, bass, guitar) and Geoff Downes (synths 'n' such) playfully dabbles in the same themes of robots, technology, and commercial-industrialism gone wild that plenty of bands had tackled before- Kraftwerk, Devo, etc.- but rather than allowing their music to become as mechanical and distant as the subject matter, the Buggles play up their music's strange humanity to affecting effect. "(I Love You) Miss Robot" and "Johnny on the Monorail" are particularly efficient-sounding and sad, highlighting Downes's atmospheric keyboard work with simple, downcast melodies. The album is never dour, though- it just finds inspiration in the way meaningful interpersonal connection is increasingly rare and difficult in this day and age. ("This day and age" being the '80s, I guess, but it nevertheless remains relevant.) "Astroboy" plays like pleasant filler, but apart from that, there's not a single song on here that isn't stunning in its catchy expansiveness. Simultaneously soothing and lonely, The Age of Plastic is like riding the moving walkways in an empty, unfamiliar airport at midnight. Grade: A

SEE ALSO: YES

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: BELLE & SEBASTIAN

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Built to Spill

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There's Nothing Wrong with Love

Willie's comments: Upon first listen, Built to Spill's songs sound about as organized as a plate of indie-rock spaghetti. The tunes abruptly shift rhythms, there are countless guitar overdubs running all over the place like hyperactive puppies, the vocal lines occasionally sound like they were made up on the spot, and the songs just generally zig when you expect them to zag. Amazingly, hairy frontman Doug Martsch manages to shoehorn all of these elements into a framework that is surprisingly catchy, memorable, and fun- not just in the vaguely groovy way that Modest Mouse's musical patterns sidle into your brain, but in a familiar, rock 'n' roll way that makes you hungry for more. "In the Morning" is a terrific opener that braces you for everything to come- there are at least a dozen distinct guitars playing at various points throughout the song- but you don't have to wait long for a more conventionally catchy song. "Big Dipper," though still pretty weird, is at least as infectious as, oh, "I am the Walrus." Sure, it takes some getting used to, but there's absolutely nothing wrong with There's Nothing Wrong with Love. Grade: A

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Perfect from Now On

Willie's comments: Every song on this album (Built to Spill's third, I think) would make a perfect penultimate track on a Pavement LP, should that band ever decide to reunite and farm out the songwriting duties to outsiders. Martsch's songs start off slow and tuneful, with achingly pretty melodies and guitar lines that sound as though he's constantly pausing to ponder what note would sound the best after the previous one. After three or four minutes of this, though, the band leaps into Jam Mode, ratcheting up the energy and the tempo, and spraying the song with hollow, distorted guitars that serve only to raise the song's adrenaline- never intruding to the point of overpowering the melody, which by this point has evolved into something bearing little resemblance to the beginning of the song. Martsch's singing voice, too, is sincere, high-pitched, and vulnerable enough that you can't believe him when he sings, "I would hurt a fly." "Velvet Waltz" is especially fragile and majestic, while "Out of Site" touches on plainspoken rock brilliance. I can't believe Jen and I had this album just sitting there for three years before I finally listened to it all the way through last night! We need to get with it. Grade: A+

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Keep It Like a Secret

Willie's comments: For better and worse, Martsch has reined in his guitar safaris on this album; the songs are much shorter, somewhat faster, and generally stick to one main musical theme without ever letting things boil over in the wonderful way Perfect from Now On did. This means the songs are more immediate, with identifiable hooks(!) driving "Center of the Universe" and "Bad Light." Upping the BPM of songs like "Sidewalk" might rob them of the relaxed, introspective quality that makes the band's best work so intimate, but the band's newfound energy should appeal to even casual listeners. Besides, it's not as though Keep It Like a Secret is bereft of emotional moments- "Carry the Zero" has a melody as heartbreaking and memorable as you could ever hope for. If you're curious about Built to Spill, I'd start here. This album is an excellent warm-up for the slightly superior explorations of Perfect from Now On. Grade: A-

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Ancient Melodies of the Future

Willie's comments: Regarding the album's title, it's not entirely inconceivable that a group of anthropologists could have come across a cache of sheet music from the Mayans or Aztecs or some other long-gone civilization and then given custody of these extraordinarily beautiful tunes to Doug Martsch, to release to the public when he feels we are ready for them. After all, who else has such an unimpeachable ear for melodies, and the instinct to know how to properly place the instruments around them so the song sparkles and shimmers like a tinsel-filled cornucopia? The vocal lines on this album may be Martsch's best yet, as he now seems to have fully mastered the short-and-sweet aesthetic he introduced on BTS's previous album. The opener, "Strange," for example, boasts an ear-massaging arrangement of fuzz bass and fuzzier keyboards, touching on "anthemic" even as the melody spirals around like a DNA strand; it's easily my favorite Built to Spill song. From there, Martsch indulges in more of his famed, lovely guitar dancing, whether he's anchoring a song with a simple slide-guitar line in "Happiness" or giving in to forceful, basic acoustic strumming on "In Your Mind." Among Built to Spill's many thrilling attributes, and the one that is most on display here, is the way they can make every new sound that's introduced into a song, or every new musical approach, seem utterly revelatory. Grade: A

READER COMMENTS:

Billy Bruns writes: Thanks for finally getting to this band. Your Built to Spill reviews are dead-on. Now if you would only get to reviewing some Brainiac (start with Bonsai)....... Oh yeah, I get to see BTS play at Bumbershoot '01 along with Ween, Guided by Voices, Stephen Malkmus, and the Supersuckers. Just felt like rubbing that in.

I don't think this post will age very well.

The Disclaimer Music Review Archive's very own Jenny Rydin writes: Do you have my Built to Spill CD? I wanted to listen to it tonight. Can I have it back please?

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Burn Witch Burn

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Burn Witch Burn

Willie's comments: After the great joke-punk band The Dead Milkmen (whose albums you can find inexplicably underrated elsewhere on this site) disbanded, vocalist Rodney Linderman ("Rodney Anonymous" to Milkmen fans) got together with a bunch of his friends from Philly and started making music that's been described as anything from "American Gothic" to "Celtic folk-punk." Which is to say, it's hard to describe, in a great, original way! Granted, the rhythm section of Steve Demarest (bass) and Todd Yoder (drums) grounds things in ways so simple, catchy, and insistent that it's actually not too much of a stretch to compare them to the bottom end of early Dead Milkmen numbers, but that's where the similarities to Rodney's old band end. (Well, plus the out-of-place ramble "Treetop Flotilla," on which Rodney is unable to restrain himself from taking sideways stabs at Bob Crane and Led Zeppelin.) Most of the songs are based around great, gloomy instrumentation by Bill Fergusson and Rob Piekarski, who, between them, play the mandolin, guitar, banjolin, and bouzouki in a fascinating, Irish/Gypsy/Camper Van Beethoven-influenced style. Topped off with shared vocal duties between Rodney and his violin-playing wife Vienna, and dark lyrics that involve lots of death, murder, supernatural occurrences, and other sorts of nastiness, Burn Witch Burn is an odd little critter of a band. And this, their only album, is by turns creepy, wickedly funny, and gorgeous. Most of that latter attribute can be, er, attributed to the songs that Vienna sings, actually: with a confident, strong voice reminiscent of Grace Slick, she brings a mournful beauty to songs like the murder tale "How Beth Found Fame," "Kavorkian," and a driving cover of the Rolling Stones' "Citadel." As for Rodney's songs, well, he's no Shane McGowan, but his snide, spitting delivery brings a nice tension to the already unsettling music, especially on the aggressive "New Tsar & Catapult" and "Beaumont Arkansas." An oddity, to be sure, but Burn Witch Burn is so full of musical ideas- and ideas that aren't often explored or juxtaposed in the rock world- that it's worth searching out. Grade: B+

SEE ALSO: THE DEAD MILKMEN

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Butthole Surfers

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Rembrandt Pussyhorse

Willie's comments: Y'know, considering the fact that the Butthole Surfers' usual fare basically consists of a rock 'n' roll toilet overflowing with beer vomit, Rembrandt Pussyhorse is remarkably restrained. The focus here is on creating a bizarre, druggy atmosphere that will merrily wring tears of helplessness from you if you're feeling even the slightest bit vulnerable- not through excess, but just applying a steady, increasing pressure on your mind till you want to scream. Though guitarist Paul Leary usually coaxes enough unholy noises from his instrument that it sounds like he's strumming Medusa's head, he limits himself here to providing musical accents, with the occasional moody step into the spotlight. (Most notably on "Whirling Hall of Knives," where he contributes an impressive drone that somehow manages to beat you in the head even as it does pretty much nothing.) Only the first couple tracks, "Creep in the Cellar" (downcast piano song on which a violin is used as graffiti) and "Sea Ferring" (slippery drinking song featuring what may be singer Gibby Haynes's most inspired vocal lunacy ever) come close to sounding like proper songs. The rest of the record is practically ambient, albeit ambient in a messed-up way that doesn't preclude huge, ominous drum beats, British-accented nattering about "licking the shit off the floor," stomach-gurgling noises, or a hilarious, deconstructive cover of the Guess Who's "American Woman." I doubt subtle is a word that gets thrown around very often in regards to the Buttholes' oeuvre, and it's still not a perfect fit for, well, an album entitled Rembrandt Pussyhorse, so let's put it this way: You know when you're drinking, and you're just on the border between being pleasantly wasted and being irretrievably sick, and then you stupidly take that one last sip that puts you over the edge? This album is that sip. Grade: A-

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Hairway to Steven

Willie's comments: (NOTE: I've gotta re-write this review soon. I'd give it a B+ now; I think it's really interesting. So this review is based on my first couple listens, and will hopefully soon be replaced.) One of my biggest musical philosophies is, if you can't be catchy, be weird. And vice-versa. Texas's Butthole Surfers have a reputation for cramming unearthly noises into their songs, but this collection is surprisingly tame, for the most part. The weirdest idea on the album is the lack of song titles (lewd doodles appear in their place), and perhaps the album title itself. That's not a good thing, especially since the "catchy" element seems to be eluding Gibby Haynes & Co. here, too. The first track starts things off in a promising fashion, with stomping guitars and Haynes convincingly growling like a boogeyman, but it fizzles after a few minutes. The song with the refrain "I saw an X-ray of a girl passing gas" behaves in the same fashion- starts off infectious, but quickly blows it. Songs go on too long and go nowhere in the process... Leary's characteristic psycho-delic guitar stylings are here, but it's mostly a drag. Grade: C+

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Independent Worm Saloon

Willie's comments: I think someone needs to explain the Butthole Surfers appeal to me. I think I'm a fan of theirs for the wrong reasons, because I find their hookier songs great, but their long, dark, seemingly aimless noisemaking leaves me cold. It doesn't even make sense to me; it's evidently intended as music to take hallucinogens to or something, but rather than making happy jams you could get lost in like the Grateful Dead, or spacious, enveloping soundscapes like Spiritualized (or even Flying Saucer Attack), the Buttholes specialize in psychotic cowpunk wailing that makes it sound like your stereo is going to eat you even when you're not baked. Wouldn't that make for an unpleasant trip? Seriously- I'm asking. I don't get it at all.

As a result, Independent Worm Saloon just sounds like a sprawling wreck to me. Gibby Haynes's lyrics are uninspired (except on "Dust Devil," in which he bellows, "He's got the power of an upright in his Goddamn hand!"), the 17 songs each last an eternity, and they all lack any sort of driving hook. You know you've got problems when the least annoying song on the album is the one titled "The Annoying Song" (which really is glorious, with Gibby's pitch-shifted vocals and King Coffey's insistent drumming). "The Wooden Song" and "Edgar" are passable sea chanties, too, but this album is still nowhere near good enough to recommend. Or even listen to again. Grade: D+

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Electriclarryland

Willie's comments: This, however, is a catchy album. It turned off most of the Surfers' longtime fans, but for those of us just getting to know 'em, it's gratifyingly listenable and bizarre. "Birds" and "Ulcer Breakout" are bracing, speedy punk tirades, while "Ah Ha," "Jingle of a Dog's Collar," and "Cough Syrup" are brilliantly twisted pop (the latter ends with a lovely, acidic cello bit). And I can't even describe the insane head trip that is "My Brother's Wife." The album peters out after "Let's Talk About Cars," and I could do without the Springsteen country of "TV Star," however. And "Pepper" is a blatant rip-off of Beck's "Loser," but it's still really good, though. I don't know. See what you think. Grade: B+

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Weird Revolution

Willie's comments: What we need around here is some truly bizarre, offensive music. I'm not talking about the focus-grouped, mainstream "naughtiness" of Blink-182, the Howard Stern jokes of the Bloodhound Gang, or even Eminem's violent hatemongering. I'm talking music that shows as little respect for the eardrums of the listener as it does for his moral sensibilities. I'm talking about obscenely weird rock 'n' roll that keeps you coming back for second helpings because it's not calculated to be offensive; it's just made by genuinely twisted individuals who get their kicks making a racket and saying whatever they please. In short, I'm talking about the bracing sonic assault that used to be joyfully spewed forth by Ween, the Butthole Surfers, and the Boredoms. With the former and latter bands courting maturity and accessibility on their recent albums, however, it looked like the Butthole Surfers were our last hope with the long-delayed release of Weird Revolution.

The album starts off promisingly enough: the title track finds lead singer Gibby Haynes mimicking Malcolm X in a rant about the injustices that the United States has committed against "the weird masses." ("The freaks can't be formally normalized, nor can we be normally formalized!") It's a classic Butthole combination of audacity and willful stupidity, all set to electronic beats that make the song sound like the Prodigy sloppily consuming King Missile. Sadly, though, the rest of the album totally fails to live up to Gibby's promises of "complete weirdification."

The taste of the popular success they got with "Pepper" must have pleased the Buttholes mightily, because Weird Revolution is stuffed with tracks that sound designed to be radio-friendly and "quirky," rather than indulging their usual musical psychosis. They even stoop to imitating, without discernible irony, the styles of radio whores like the Barenaked Ladies ("Dracula from Houston"), Cake ("Intelligent Guy"), and- I'm not kidding but I wish I were- Natalie Imbruglia ("Jet Fighter"). The pedestrian drum programming, uninspired lyrics, and complete dearth of memorable tunes throughout the album are a huge disappointment coming from a band that used to wield their instruments like out-of-control fire hoses and gleefully bellow bizarre tales of violence, sex, and X-rays of flatulence. Sorry, folks, but 20 years after its inception, the Butthole Surfers' weird revolution has finally been put down by the Normal Man. Grade: C-

READER COMMENTS:

nsnyder@nyc.rr.com writes: Yeah, you have to take acid to appreciate the Butthole Surfers in a way that can't be appreciated normally at all. It may sound unlikely or even ignorant of people's ability to appreciate and experience different things, but the music was made by people who spent 15 years on acid, heroin and anything else they could get their hands on. It's psychedelic post-punk and it's only party music to people who've shared private little moments experiencing it together for the first time in complete amazement while staring at the ceiling.

It is a bad trip. The thing about bad trips though, is if you know what's going on it's funny and very cool. Seeing demonic skulls dancing idiotically and lip-syncing the lyrics to Jimi (the first song on hairway to steven) is not as frightening as it may seem. It's like a Rocky Horror experience, in a way. Goofy.

I've freaked trippers out by accident by playing Sweatloaf from Locust Abortion Technician, thinking they'd just love it, but when you're not expecting it, it's pretty bizarre to hear a father tell his son, "And son, if you see your mom this weekend, be sure and tell her... SATAN! SATAN! SATAN!"

Anyway, I don't really recommend tripping. It's a life changing experience and everything, but sometimes people get carried away and really fuck themselves up.

For instance, Paul Leary once said in an interview, "Wow, man, I'm really flying" in a jittery and weird voice, almost apologetically. The interviewer said, "What do you mean, you're high?" and he said, "No, man, I've been high for 18 years straight, man. I'm permanently stoned. I'm always flying."

I recognized the tone of voice and the quavery voice. It's not cool to feel like that.

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: SUBURBIA SOUNDTRACK ALBUM; DUMB AND DUMBER SOUNDTRACK; ROMEO & JULIET SOUNDTRACK; SATURDAY MORNING CARTOONS' GREATEST HITS

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: THE DEAD MILKMEN; MEAT PUPPETS

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Buzzcocks

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Singles Going Steady

Willie's comments: Making good on every promise punk ever made, this collection of A-sides is an undisputed classic. I think it's better than any studio album the Ramones ever made (which is an unfair comparison, I know, since this isn't a studio album), in fact. If Matthew Sweet sped up his songs by 200% and increased the volume of his guitars by a similar amount, the result might sound a bit like this. "Ever Fallen in Love?," "Promises," and "I Don't Mind" are as heavenly and catchy as a punk song can be, while still making emotional commentaries on love. "Orgasm Addict," on the other hand, is pure dumb speedpunk that paved the way for The Dead Milkmen (and the same goes for "Oh Shit!"). From start to finish, it's a noisy treasure. Grade: A+

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David Byrne

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The Complete Score to The Catherine Wheel

Willie's comments: Shortly after the Talking Heads' masterpiece Remain in Light, Byrne was commissioned to score a Twyla Tharp dance production, and I really wish I could have seen the final result, because as far as I can tell by listening to this (mostly instrumental) album, there's no frickin' way anyone could dance to such self-consciously esoteric musical snippets as "Ade." Either way, The Catherine Wheel is only periodically engaging as an album- in the clavichord-based funk of "Dinosaur," the straight rock of "Big Business" and "What a Day That Was," and particularly the fascinating, schizophrenic samplefest of "The Red House." The rest is basically useless. Grade: B-

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My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (with Brian Eno)

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Rei Momo

Willie's comments: I feel bad saying David Byrne is pretentious, because his heart really is in this collection of Latin/African-based ethnic rock songs, but it's really not something he should've done to begin with. Some of his Talking Heads charm and catchy musical ability is still here, and setting it to a salsa beat does pep things up a bit- "Independence Day" and "Don't Want to Be Part of Your World" bubble like strangely exotic pop. However, "Loco De Amor" is cloying, and much of the rest of the album is just plain bad. Grade: C-

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Uh-Oh

Willie's comments: Shuffling back toward his poppier roots from Rei Momo territory, Uh-Oh integrates the African beats and musical quirks more subtly into more traditional songs. Byrne's solo lyrics are still a bit too self-consciously kooky (think the musical equivalent of Ally McBeal), with songs about sex-change operations and de-evolution, but most of the songs are fun. To a point. Grade: B

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David Byrne

Willie's comments: Returning to pop basics as he did so well on the Talking Heads’ Little Creatures, Byrne imbues his self-titled album with an air of detached loneliness. The bare-bones arrangements of “A Self-Made Man” and “Sad Song” call attention to every gentle twitch of Byrne’s lilting voice, making lines like “The clown will laugh in your face/Ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho” as calming as they are creepy. “Back in the Box” and “Angels” are plenty catchy indeed, while “My Love is You” is probably the only love song ever written to make lyrics like “Sometimes, dear, you tell me I’m an asshole/Sometimes you’re an asshole too” sound charming. If he ever gives up on rocking for good, Byrne proves he could easily fall back on becoming a singer/songwriter. Grade: A-

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Feelings

Willie's comments: Finally! The eclectic rock solo album we always knew Byrne was capable of! While I’d say this album is Byrne’s first solo outing that can stand next to Talking Heads albums like Speaking in Tongues or Talking Heads 77, it’s an album he never could’ve made with the Heads. So much of this album’s appeal lies in the way Byrne collaborates with several diverse musical artists, bending their stylistic tendencies to suit him. The Black Cat Orchestra provides a lovely, Beatlesesque background for the lightweight “They are in Love,” two of the guys from Morcheeba add trippy elements to the album throughout, and a long-overdue partnership with DEVO makes for some thrillingly creepy future-pop (“Wicked Little Doll”). Heads fans will warm right up to catchier numbers like “Dance on Vaseline” and “The Civil Wars,” but the best songs are the sitar-based “Daddy Go Down” and the satirical “Miss America” (“I love America, but boy can she be cruel/ And I know how tall she is without her platform shoes”). Grade: A

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Look Into the Eyeball

Willie's comments: In retrospect, "They Are In Love" from Feelings was not just a sweet, effective coda to a masterfully eclectic album, but it was a preview of everything that was to come on Byrne's follow-up, Look Into the Eyeball. On this LP, Byrne dives head-first into pseudo-ethnic orchestral pop, with mixed results. Byrne seems to have entirely lost sight of the fact that most of his best work has been, if not outright aggressive ("Life During Wartime"), at least willing to look at the world through an ominous funhouse mirror ("Miss America," "Once in a Lifetime"). His attempts to be cute, on the other hand, have always been annoyingly precious, and much of this album is bogged down with such fey pronouncements as "Beauty rests on mattress springs/Wearing just her underthings" atop a sappy bed of strings-sans-rhythm section. Admittedly, Byrne does pull off two playful, sincere doozies with the breezy "Neighborhood" and the witty "Everyone's in Love with You," but a little of that stuff goes a long way. Much better are the peppier songs that bring Heads-esque funk back into the mix, like "Desconocido Soy" and "Like Humans Do." Byrne is no longer an angry young man- if you look into his eyeball now, you'll see a Powerpuff Girls-esque twinkle where there once was a hypnotic swirl- but if nothing else, this album proves that he's going to remain entertainingly weird to a ripe old age. Grade: B-

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Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Music from the Film Young Adam

Willie's comments: Those of us who are familiar with Byrne's film scoring work only from the cheesy filler that was still the best part of Married to the Mob are in for a happy surprise here. This mostly instrumental soundtrack to the Ewan McGregor film Young Adam is so emotional, moody, and eclectic that it manages a feat few other scores do: it makes for a beautiful, self-contained album in its own right. (As much as I do love the quirkiness of Jon Brion's Punch-Drunk Love music and Stephin Merritt's tinkertoy Eban and Charley soundtrack, the only other score soundtrack I can think of that is this good is The Insider. Maybe The Last Temptation of Christ too.) With arrangement help from members of Belle & Sebastian, the Delgados, and Mogwai, Lead Us Not Into Temptation finds Byrne more focused than he's been in ten years. Without ever becoming homogenous or dull, he manages to conjure the dreariness and emotional dislocation of the Scottish Moors, pulled through an understated labrynth of jazzy fumbling ("Seaside Smokes"), Graeme Revell-esque string sweeps ("Inexorable"), typical Byrneian polyrhythms ("Body in a River"), and stirring ambient noise ("Mnemonic Discordance"), with an army of strings, keys, and great basslines in tow. For a little more substance, Byrne sings on two excellent, haunting slices of chamber music at the end of the album, and there's also a terrific, saxaphone-led rendition of Charles Mingus's "Haitian Fight Song" by the Hung Drawn Quartet. It's good to know that, even after the free-flying overkill that's been his stock in trade for most of his solo career, David can still do restraint. The result is a luminous work of muted passion. Grade: A

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Grown Backwards

Willie's comments: Damn it, David Byrne! Shortly after the unqualified success that was Lead Us Not Into Temptation, you have to hit us with another only-half-tolerable album full of twee, Afro/Latin/orchestral pop songs that does the bare minimum to reward the patience that it requires. Grown Backwards is far from a failure, mind you, but the first half is full of so much inspired stuff that it makes the plunging quality of the second half all the more disappointing. So many of these songs make me instantly imagine a Christopher Guest-inspired dance instructor who's clapping and shouting, "One! Two! Cha-cha-cha!" that it nearly overshadows how cool David is capable of being. Cool enough to cover a Lambchop song ("The Man Who Loved Beer") and actually improve upon its grumblecakes brilliance. Cool enough to recruit Rufus Wainwright for a rendition of an opera tune ("Au Fond du Temple Saint" from Les Pecheurs de Perles) that's a work of pure genius in its mixture of two of the most distinct voices in rock dueling with two parts of an amazingly difficult, florid melody. Cool enough to verbally kick the ass of the entire Republican Party with a They Might Be Giants-style horn-and-keyboard arrangement ("Empire," produced- as is most of the album- by frequent TMBG collaborator Pat Dillett). But then the whole thing just disintegrates into a melange of cutesy, aren't-humans-silly? observations and head-smashingly dull faux-ethnic melodies ("Glad," "Civilization," "Lazy," et al) that it makes you want to subject him to a Clockwork Orange-style session of re-education by having him listen to Fear of Music over and over until he remembers what a 4/4 beat sounds like. Grade: B-

SEE ALSO: TALKING HEADS

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: RICHARD THOMPSON TRIBUTE ALBUM

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: DEVO; JIM WHITE; BELLE & SEBASTIAN; DELGADOS; MOGWAI; RUFUS WAINWRIGHT

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