disclaimer is not a toy

Camper Van Beethoven


Telephone Free Landslide Victory

Willie's comments: Combining a country-fried R.E.M. twang with multicultural musical influences and ska rhythms (by which I mean only the syncopated guitar parts- CVB has little, if anything, in common with such irritating ska-punk bands as Mighty Mighty Bosstones or Less Than Jake), Camper Van Beethoven’s first album was a minor college hit due to the strength of its hilarious single “Take the Skinheads Bowling.” Similar smarmy humor pervades songs like “Where the Hell is Bill?” and “Club Med Sucks,” but the real meat of the album is in the catchy, pseudo-ethnic instrumentals like “Vladivostok” and “Payed Vacation: Greece.” “Mao Reminisces About his Days in Southern China” in particular could go on forever and I wouldn’t care. It’s not an earth-shattering album, but an easygoing, fun one. Grade: A-



Willie's comments: The sophomore (sophomoric?) jinx apparently got to CVB on this album, because the songs aren’t all that funny or catchy for the most part. For every truly amusing song, like “(Don’t You Go to) Goleta” or “(We’re a) Bad Trip,” frontman David Lowery attempts a song’s worth of social critique that’s a bit too lofty for his stoner comprehension (i.e., “Down & Out,” “No More Bullshit”). As for the instrumentals, they seem mostly to be vehicles for Johnathan Segel to play with his mandolin rather than being built around any particular hooks. An uneven effort that’s partially redeemed by the sweet “Sad Lovers Waltz.” Grade: C+


Camper Van Beethoven

Willie's comments: Swinging their cart around to the poppier end of the musical shopping mall, CVB have a deliciously weird and listenable third album on their hands here. “Good Guys & Bad Guys” and “We Saw Jerry’s Daughter” are straightforward rock songs, but the spastic vocals of “Still Wishing to Course” and the bizarre musical experimentation of “Stairway to Heavan [sic]” will challenge you as you hum along. Lowery cedes vocal duties to his bandmates on a few songs, and “Folly,” “Peace & Love,” and the aforementioned “Still Wishing to Course” benefit from that, as wonderful as Lowery’s wheezy drawl is. Grade: A+


Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart

Willie's comments: Camper’s major-label debut has a lot less screwing around than their first three albums, which means there’s an appreciable drop in the number of novelty songs to be found here. However, there’s a marked increase in the songwriting quality- “She Divines Water” is constructed around a beautiful violin riff before getting swallowed in a psychedelic cloud of noise, and “Tania” is a Latin-flavored story about a girl Lowery pledges alliegance to “for no better reason than our lives have no meaning and we want to be on television.” There are plenty of great, original folk-rock melodies here, but the best song is a chilling cover of Kalaidoscope’s “O Death.” Grade: A


Key Lime Pie

Willie's comments: This is a substantially darker album than Sweetheart (there are no “Life is Grand” sentiments to be found on Key Lime Pie), but the lyrics are more biting and intelligent, the hooks more thrillingly perverse. “When I Win the Lottery” is hilariously unpatriotic (“When I win the lottery, gonna buy Post 306 American Legion and paint it red with five gold stars”), while “Sweethearts” manages a quick jab at Reagan within its gentle tune. The unorthodox construction of songs like “Jack Ruby” and “Opening Theme” will irritate more than a few people, no question, but a roiling version of the Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men” should win ‘em back. Grade: A

Camper Vantiquities

Willie's comments: After CVB broke up, this posthumous rarity collection was released, and there are precisely five good songs on it: “Seven Languages,” which is the catchiest song ever to use such a trippy wah-wah pedal; “Ice Cream Everyday,” which features brilliant, infectious bass work from Victor Krummenacher; “Porpoise Mouth,” a creepy version of the lewd Country Joe & the Fish song; “Axe Murderer Song,” a twisted Lowery ballad; and “Crossing Over,” which is disarmingly sweet and would’ve fit well into Key Lime Pie. The rest of it is garbage. Grade: C


Camper Van Beethoven is Dead. Long Live Camper Van Beethoven.

Willie's comments: Seven years after Camper Vantiquities failed to produce an album's worth of interesting relics from CVB's active period, they released a second album's worth of rarities, and this one is astoundingly good. Like so much within the Camper canon, this makes no sense at all, but rather than questioning it, it's best to just sit back and bask in their weird genius. Most of the songs are instrumentals, sure, but what instrumentals! "L'Aguardiente," "S.P. 37957 Medley," and "Stayin' at Home with the Girls in the Morning" are more of the awesome, violin-based hillbilly-balalaika-ska stompers at which the band excels, while Key Lime Pie's unwisely excised "Closing Theme" is finally resurrected. You also get a dramatic live rendition of "All Her Favorite Fruit" with a full orchestra, a spastic cover of "Who are the Brain Police?" on which Lowery does his best Frank Zappa impression, and a nifty psychedelic pop song called "Tom Flower's 1500 Valves." "We're All Wasted and We're Wasting All Your Time" isn't particularly noteworthy except for the fact that it features one of the best song titles ever. On the strength of this release, here's hoping that CVB hasn't entirely cleared out the vaults yet. Grade: A-



Willie's comments: In 1987, between II & III and their self-titled record, CVB thought it would be fun to spend a couple days recording themselves covering Fleetwood Mac's album Tusk in its entirety. I'd like to think this idea stemmed from some really clever postmodern conceit or a genuine attempt to rescue the album from semi-obscurity (as a follow-up to Rumors, Tusk is generally viewed as a disappointment), but the actual brainstorming session probably began with the words "Dude, wouldn't it be funny if..." and ended with a gigantic bong hit, so scrutinizing the band's motivation might not be worth our while. The project was eventually scrapped, but after the tapes were rediscovered in 2001, they were polished up, reassembled, and released as this two-disc set that's both hilariously wrong and genuinely enjoyable. I haven't been able to get my hands on a copy of Fleetwood Mac's original album for comparison, but I think it's safe to assume that CVB has successfully made these songs their own, rather than faithfully (or even respectfully) re-creating the Mac recordings, simply because these songs basically sound like typically weird Camper Van Beethoven tunes. "Angel" is turned into a ska-rocker, "The Ledge" and "That's Enough for Me" into stomping hoedowns, "That's All for Everyone" into a raucous singalong, "Brown Eyes" into a dance-pop fog, etc. Far from being a novelty fusion that's listenable only once (like, say, Black Velvet Flag), Tusk hits a charmed middle ground that draws on both bands' strengths while counteracting their weaknesses: Fleetwood Mac's melodic sense is on display without becoming one-note as it often did (Camper's eclecticism keeps things lively), and the songs' innate fizziness succors CVB's tendency to run out into experimental traffic like a hyperactive puppy at a moment's notice. I think I'm probably the only person in the world who finds David Lowery's hoarse vocals more appealing than Stevie Nicks's anyway, but even without a frame of reference that includes the original recordings, Tusk is an inventively dizzy rock record in its own right. Grade: A


New Roman Times

Willie's comments: CVB finally officially reunited and started writing songs together again, and their first studio album in 15 years is, amazingly, their strongest effort yet. (Which is saying something for a band who's hit home runs with each studio album except II & III!) New Roman Times is a brilliant political concept album about the United States collapsing, fracturing into a mess of tenuously defined independent nations, and falling into an endless pattern of wars and terrorism both civil and international. The narrative centers around a young Texan who enlists in the military, sees horrid action that results in him losing a foot, joins up with a CIA-style unit (TexSecurIntelliCorp) that's stirring up violence in The Republic of California, develops a drug habit, and then deserts and joins with the left-wing rebel faction of CVB. That might sound awfully heavy for a band composed of notorious smartasses, but although the album is long, idea-heavy, and more disciplined than usual, New Roman Times doesn't skimp on the things that make Camper Van Beethoven Camper Van Beethoven; in fact, it impressively synthesizes the playfulness of their early albums with the maturity of Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and Key Lime Pie. (Violinist Jonathan Segel and guitarist Greg Lisher deserve particular credit for their nimble-fingered exhibitions throughout.) So in addition to canted, muscular psych-folk-rock anthems like "Hippy Chix" and "White Fluffy Clouds," you've still got stomping, Eastern European-styled instrumentals ("R 'n R Uzbekistan" and the technical marvel "Sons of the New Golden West"), smirky pop-cultural humor (the army recruitment theme "51-7" drops in a lick from David Bowie's "Space Oddity," the addictive rocker "The Long Plastic Hallway" juxtaposes Busby Berkeley and David Byrne), and trippy silliness (the suite consisting of "Come Out," "Los Tigres Traficantes," and "I Hate This Part of Texas," which is an expressionistic representation of the narrator, in the grip of addiction, getting hooked up with the rebels via his drug connections).

There are no throwaways, and the lyrics add a cynical gravity to ska-based songs like the hoedown "Militia Song" and the superbly catchy "Might Makes Right." As I've mentioned, even with vague allusions to the Oklahoma City bombing, the Vietnam War, the back-and-forth terror tag between Israel and Palestine, the Unabomber, and the idiocy of the "War on Terror," the story still never topples over into didacticism, since it's expressed largely through emotional first-person narration. For instance, in the gorgeous (and heartbreaking) title track, Lowery's narrator returns from battle and gently muses, "The day we came home was a shitty day/No ticker-tape parade, we rolled down Congress in the rain/And as we crossed across that Colorado bridge, the bats flew out and darkened the sky." It doesn't even matter that the album closer, "Hey Brother," is a rewrite of Cracker's "Take Me Down to the Infirmary" because its uplifting, anthemic folk melody is a perfectly chilling contrast to the protagonist's final transformation into a suicide bomber who's made his peace with his mission. If you know Camper only as that "Take the Skinheads Bowling" band, this record might come as a shock to you, but it's nonetheless an essential purchase. Moreover, for those of us who grew up in awe of the band's previous accomplishments, New Roman Times is smart, memorable, whimsical, innovative, and catchy enough to more than reward our wait. Grade: A+


soul_crusher77@hotmail.com writes: I actually bought a used copy of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk solely to compare to the Camper version (well, also because the title track is one of the very few Fleetwood Mac singles I've found myself enjoying), and it's interesting to compare. What you assumed about the Camper Van Beethoven take on the album is pretty much true, they basically take these songs and completely Camper-ize them, but sometimes differences are sort of surprising. For instance, hearing the Camper version of "The Ledge", I assumed the original was some sort of slower folk-rock number that CVB sped up and turned to a hoedown, but instead the original was about as fast as the cover, had distorted guitars, and almost sounded like Fleetwood's attempt to keep up with new wave (well definitely not oddball Devo/Talking Heads type new wave, but the guitar tone definitely brings to mind the Pretenders or someone of their ilk). And the Camper version of "What Makes You Think You're The One" is actually more normal sounding than the original, which is sort of an awkward attempt at a rocker with annoyingly clompity sounding drums.

Another interesting development I noticed is that it seems like some songs they decided to completely goof on (performing the dippy pop of "Honey Hi" as though they were folk buskers performing a traditional ballad in spanish complete with (sampled?) street noise that keeps threatening to overtake the music, running Stevie Nicks' pretentious lyrics in "Sister Of The Moon" through an iMac and turning the whole thing into club techno, quoting the B-52's in "It's Not Too Funny"), but other times it seems like they suddenly realized "Hey, this is actually a pretty good song!" and stripped it down, but played it relatively straight. The rendition of "Beautiful Child" is a perfect example, while they naturally make it a bit more rough sounding, the sorrow in their version of the song sounds really sincere.

Basically if you're a huge Fleetwood Mac fan, you'll probably be insulted (especially if you love Stevie Nicks, almost all her songs on this are methodically ruined), but if you're a diehard Camper fan you'll probably be delighted if you don't own it already.

Oh, and am I alone in thinking the Camper rendition of the title track sounds a lot like "I Might Be Wrong" by Radiohead? And the weird manipulated echoes of David Lowery shouting "TUSK!" in the middle of the song sound like a similar bit done in extended live renditions of "Everything In It's Right Place"! Damned if Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood didn't sneak into that snowed in cabin years before they were even in a band together and steal some ideas...

mabewa@yahoo.com writes: You have GOT to hear the new Camper album "New Roman Times," it is an amazingly gonzo album. A couple more things: I think it is bassist Victor singing on "Brain Police," and I think you should give Vantiquities and II&II a few more spins--they are not the band's best work, but I do think you underrate them somewhat.








Future Days

Willie's comments: It really surprises me that Can isn't enjoying a major comeback these days. This German band from the '70s made mesmerizing, rhythmic music that was often semi-improvised, and Can's fingerprints can be seen all over such modern masterpieces as Radiohead's Kid A, Talking Heads' Remain in Light, and Stereolab's Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Future Days is their fifth album, and it fittingly contains four songs, all of which are wonderfully fabulous and terrifically stupendous. "Moonshake" is the most compact and catchy- guitars and keyboards merrily swirl around the drums in precise, unique patterns, while vocalist Damo Suzuki occasionally pops his head up from the mix to keep things on track. "Bel Air," on the other hand, is 20 minutes of droney mayhem that morphs into something entirely new every five minutes or so. If you're interested in investigating the influences of the bands you now know and love, you should definitely seek this out. It's strange, but brilliant. Grade: A-


Nick Reed writes: I'm surprised no one has written in about Can yet. Future Days is a brilliant album, definite A+ for me, but I'll accept an A- ;) This was definitely a highly influential album, but it's interesting that you don't really see that until the late 90's...it was that far ahead of the pack. Kid A in particular seems to draw a lot from this album. To me it is one of a few really timeless albums; if I didn't know it was released in 1974, I wouldn't be able to put a year on it. This could have been released last year. You should pick up more Can albums, particularly the other Suzuki-era ones (Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi) which are also A+'s, but for different reasons.




Gran Turismo

Willie's comments: After the effervescent single "Lovefool" made the Cardigans radio stars, they decided to renounce their happy-faced lounge-pop ways and take a trendy dive into trip-hop with Gran Turismo. The album proves that the Swedes are as adept at writing downcast melodies as they are at constructing summery ear-candy, but the album's lo-fi production is ill-suited to an electronic genre that relies on precise attention to every sound in the song; every note has to count. Basically, Gran Turismo is almost unlistenably tinny. Mangus Sveningsson's bass is too far down in the mix, and the cheap programmed drums have no low end at all, so that every hissing click of a synthesized high hat is like a nail being driven into your brain. On the Cardigans' previous work, the lack of bass made the songs seem appropriately weightless- as though each song was a bubble that invited you on its skyward journey. With such comparatively dark songs as "Paralyzed" and "Starter," though, the songs simply seem ungrounded. Still, no amount of poor production could dim the clear-eyed beauty of Nina Persson's voice, or detract from the melodic generosities of songs like "Erase/Rewind" and "Hanging Around." Grade: B-




Carissa's Wierd


Songs About Leaving

Willie's comments: You know how sometimes everything in life just goes wrong at once, and it's all so sad and gloomy that it actually seems perfect in a backward way? For example, a few years ago, a friend tried to kill herself and wound up in the emergency room in the middle of the night. As Jen and I drove to the hospital to check her in, the way the midnight sky was drizzling rain on my car as we drove past all the empty storefronts with neon signs still glowing into the darkness just made for a mood that was, while in no way enjoyable, just so unrelentingly and appropriately dreary that it was almost comforting in its utter misery. Does that make sense? Well, for those of you who know what I'm talking about, Carissa's Weird makes music for those situations. With simple arrangements that pluck the maximum unhappiness from weavings of violin, piano, and guitar, their third and final album is a true masterpiece of hopeless chamber pop. The vocal duties are shared between guitarists Jenn Ghetto and Mathew Brooke, and their hushed, resigned delivery wrings as much disillusionment from specifically unhappy screeds like "Sofisticated Fuck Princess Please Leave Me Alone" as from more general observations like, "I saw two fake long-stem roses on the windshield of a car." On the stunning "So You Wanna be a Superhero," Ghetto actually sounds as if she's choking back tears as she whisper-sings lonely lines like, "You were right/I can't do this/I'm going crazy" alongside an antsy arrangement of gently strummed electric guitars. Even when the drums come in, as they do midway through "They'll Only Miss You When You Leave," the effect isn't to lend the songs energy, but rather to launch them uncomfortably into a nauseous groove, like when you're so drunk that you get the bed spins. I might be making Songs About Leaving sound like a singularly unpleasant listening experience, but it's actually quite beautiful and melodic slow-core, as if Godspeed You Black Emperor had lyrics to accompany their apocalyptic soundscapes, or if Mogwai finally hit that emotional target they can never seem to locate. It's obviously not for everyone, but people who aren't afraid to face life's nasty bits head-on will find one hell of a kindred spirit here. Grade: A


JenLAP1 89 writes: I've fallen in love with Carissa's Wierd.



The Catherine Wheel


Happy Days

Willie's comments: The Catherine Wheel's music is laughably bombastic; the vocals of frontman Rob Dickinson seem like parodies of Eddie Vedder's pompous, angst-ridden screeds; and the grungier aspects of their songs sound pretty dated by this point. So why do I keep listening to Happy Days? Because for all their gothic pretensions, the Catherine Wheel writes some terrific tunes. Like every other band that emerged during the '90s, the specter of the Pixies looms large over the Wheel (particularly on "Waydown"), but they temper that with muscular hooks that improve upon the Afghan Whigs' formula, and soulful vocal melodies that sound like a cranky version of Seal. The production on Happy Days is magnificent as well- these guys get a lot of mileage out of their chorus and phaser pedals, but they also manage to create some mini-symphonies of the type that Billy Corgan would ape on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. "Fizzy Love," "Heal," and "Love Tips Up" are particularly memorable, while the lilting vocals of Tonya Donnelly enliven "Judy Staring at the Sun." The album peaks with "Eat My Dust You Insensitive Fuck," a minimal, beautiful dreampop number, with increasingly ominous elements drifting in and out of the song (I wouldn't have thought a distorted harmonica could have been so creepy) for what feels like six or seven minutes. However, as the utterly goofy title of that song suggests, Dickinson tries hard to seem righteously antisocial, but it comes off seeming fake and kind of funny (like a proto-Fred Durst). When he repeatedly warns, "You're pissing me off" in "My Exhibition," I didn't get the intended vicarious catharsis so much as get the urge to put on a good, unself-conscious They Might Be Giants album. This habit also drags down "Kill My Soul" and "God Inside My Head." Ultimately, though, Happy Days succeeds in spite of Dickinson's tantrums. Grade: B


Adam and Eve

Willie's comments: On this 1997 album, the Catherine Wheel leaps, Hopalong Cassidy-style, from one bandwagon (grungy dreampop) to another (anthemic Britpop), and is much better for the transition. Songs like "Broken Nose" and "Phantom of the American Mother" have choruses as arena-ready as any Pink Floyd ever wrote, and they're supported by rock smarts as studied as those of Supergrass or Oasis (one song namedrops Sonic Youth, another nicks a line from "Throw Your Arms Around Me" by Hunters & Collectors). Even better, Dickinson has stopped trying to bury his British accent beneath a Seattle drawl, and belts out gentler tunes like "Thunderbird" and "Goodbye" in a syrupy lilt that resembles Damon Albarn. Actually, much of Adam and Eve sounds like the disciplined, infectious, guitar-based album Blur should've recorded instead of the mess that was 13. Grade: A


Cat Power


Moon Pix

Willie's comments: Chan Marshall- the woman who basically is Cat Power, along with some bonus players from time to time- does not have a voice that's especially ostentatious. Unlike Bjork, or even PJ Harvey, Marshall doesn't grab your ear by the gonads and demand that you listen when she's singing. Her voice is breathier, and commands a very small range (much like David Bowie), but luckily, her talent lies in her ability to spin terrific melodies out of a few notes. Interestingly, by this period in her career (following three albums, two of which I didn't find very interesting and one of which I haven't heard) she takes the same minimalist approach to playing guitar and piano that she does singing, and her songs often eschew any sort of percussion. Given all that, it's amazing how varied Moon Pix really is. Cat Power's music is always slow, always hypnotic, and always strangely beautiful, but this album kicks into gear with "American Flag," a feedback-laced, druggy stupor of a song, and follows that up with the crystalline, flute-endowed "He Turns Down." The rest of the album continues the same way, traversing the map from blues to slowcore to folk. "Say" and "Cross Bones Style" in particular are two magnificent, catchy songs which should be in everybody's collection. You could call Cat Power "Dylan for Sonic Youth fans" (not that those two artists are mutually exclusive or anything), but that would be too easy. Best to say that Chan Marshall makes violently original work out of rudimentary musical elements. Grade: A


The Covers Record

Willie's comments: A couple years after Moon Pix, Marshall dropped this quiet (and brief) little work of art that probably took about as long to record as it does to listen to, but which is all the more affecting for being so intimate. While releasing an album of cover songs isn't a move that generally garners a lot of respect for a band (as evidenced by the tepid reception for the Ramones' underappreciated Acid Eaters, Guns 'n Roses' The Spaghetti Incident?, Elvis Costello's Kojak Variety, Tori Amos's vile Strange Little Girls, etc.), Cat Power's Covers Record succeeds because it's not just a whimsical placeholder in her catalog the way these things usually are. Rather, it's a deeply moving album that captures the mood of a sad, introverted girl in an otherwise empty house, singing her favorite songs to herself as a means of self-preserving consolation. Marshall lets her sorrowful voice have ample room to breathe, backing it on every song only with a piano or an acoustic guitar (or, on "Sea of Love," an autoharp) and playing in a crude style that lets each chord arrive and dissipate before a new one begins, and her lonely, ghostly singing totally owns every song she attempts. There's really no logical rhyme or reason to the songs she chooses, in fact, except that she presumably has some unexplained personal connection to them all, and that's good because the yearning emotion really does come through in her voice, whether she's discovering a magical, hidden layer of desperate desire in The Velvet Underground's "I Found a Reason" or finding beauty in the gloom of Smog's ominous "Red Apples." Furthermore, the naked arrangements often sound so unlike the originals that it'd be impossible to draw a line between the two if you didn't pay attention to the lyrics. The Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," to use the most famous example, is completely gutted, its famous riff replaced with the repetitive, chilly strumming of an acoustic guitar and the last two notes of every line of Mick Jagger's sneering melody transposed; suddenly, the song is one of overwhelming defeat rather than keyed-up frustration. Similar feats are performed throughout, and the final album contains so much heart-wrenching vulnerability that these reinterpretations are every bit as personal as Cat Power's original work, and you'll want to thank Chan for sharing it with us. Grade: A


You Are Free

Willie's comments: Part of me wants to pull a Roger Ebert and idiotically proclaim, only three months into the year, that 2003 will not see a better album than this. You Are Free packs so much sad, hopeful, pure beauty into 14 songs that it can be difficult to take it all in one sitting- in a good way, I mean. It's just so overwhelming and emotional that you might have to pull your sweatshirt's hood over your head, yank the drawstring as tight as you can, and cry for about half of the album's leisurely running time. This time around, Cat Power's music is more direct than it has ever been before; though songs like "I Don't Blame You" and "Babydoll" still rely on very basic, intentionally repetitive guitar-or-piano constructions, they're suddenly there and immediate in a way that emphasizes her newly self-assured singing, as opposed to slowly building steam with melodic patterns. Don't panic, though. Even though she's sacrificed some of her charming ethereality in favor of comparatively ambitious touches (including uncredited guest spots from Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl, though you'd never notice their presence if I didn't just tell you), You Are Free is simply a skillful honing of the humbly understated style Chan has been developing for the past eight years. She still has a truly unique sense of melody, too. Her gorgeously unhappy voice murmurs its way through sparse ruminations ("Evolution"), country-blues ballads ("Good Woman") and tight, sticky rock numbers ("Free," which I've listened to about 10 times in a row at this point) with an unswervingly compelling mix of determination and resignation. Self-contradictory as that sounds, it makes perfect sense when they're wedded to her shockingly specific lyrics... though it's impossible to explain exactly how. The dual themes of the album are the joy of freedom and the heartbreak that comes when you realize that it's futile to keep fighting for that freedom, and Marshall stitches them both together in ways that complement each other intuitively, if not logically. That sounds needlessly complicated, I know, and maybe it would be if the songs themselves weren't so content in their own bare-bones nakedness. All that means, though, is that you hit a song like the somber "Names," which is a harrowing list of the misfortunes that befell Chan's childhood friends, and it simultaneously makes you want to save the world and give up on it entirely. Buy this now. Grade: A+


The Greatest

Willie's comments: The Greatest catches Chan's mood on the upswing in a way she's never before documented, peppering her musings with adorable, lovestruck lyrics ("Could we have a seat? Why, yes- be my guest! You can hold my hand!") and playfully acting as though she's just discovered major chords, but the big change is the slick, bona fide "Memphis soul" backing band she's recruited, the core of whom used to serve as backup to one Al Green. Now, the notion of Chan Marshall standing in for Al Green is a compelling one, to be sure, but as Lambchop's Nixon proved, the tiny common ground on which indie-rock and soul can logically meet isn't necessarily the most fertile. Here, the resulting syncopated piano, brushed drums, and "choo-choo" horn flourishes are harmlessly ignorable just as often as they are refreshing: "Empty Shell" is just that, and while I appreciate the shout-out, "Willie" quickly becomes a tedious retread of the sprightly "Living Proof." The second half of the album is much weightier than the repetitive first half, with the contemplative, glowing "The Moon" and the butch "Love & Communication" in particular sporting melodies with some much-needed staying power. It's hard not to respect Chan's effort to branch out, but nevertheless, the most compelling track on The Greatest is the sole throwback to the haunting simplicity of the last two records: "Hate." Borrowing its refrain from the title of a Nirvana outtake ("I hate myself and I want to die") and reverting to solo-guitar format, Chan lets her demons coo and moan in such a desolate environment on this song that the reverb almost counts as a different instrument. Though the remainder of the album tries hard to be more lighthearted (not that it could help but be), "Hate" is a reminder of the scorching emotional wallop a Cat Power record usually packs. And I don't know about you, but that's not the bummer I want from Cat Power. Grade: B



Willie's comments: Marshall retained The Greatest's malleable backing band for her second collection of (mostly) cover songs, whose selection of country, R&B, and roots tunes serves as an enjoyable "works cited" appendum to her previous disc. As on The Covers Record, Marshall takes full advantage of her interpretational carte blanche and reworks these songs to sometimes unrecognizable degrees, depending on her mood. She strips Joni Mitchell's lush "Blue" down to a couple notes and a throbbing Hammond organ, and she gives "New York" (the Frank Sinatra one) a smoky, strutting confidence that manages to trump the original's naivete. However far she diverges from her source material, though, it never sounds like piss-take arrogance; it's just Marshall's way of personalizing songs that already mean a lot to her. There's no doubt that she means it just as much when she sings George Jackson's idol-worshipping "Aretha, Sing One for Me" as when she sings her self-penned ode to Dylan "Song to Bobby." I do wish she'd chosen more challenging or contemporary songs than Dylan's "I Believe in You" and Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain," simply because I always think it's interesting when artists as talented as Marshall cast the widest net possible in their covers (the way Barbara Manning does), but despite the sometimes predictable melodies, it's not like there's anything specifically objectionable on Jukebox. It's nice; it's just not quite as transporting as her previous tribute set, and as such, it seems like a minor entry in her overall body of work. Grade: B


Ruth McNerlan writes: I totally agree that 'You are Free' is probably the best album released so far this year. It is an immensely beautiful and intensely emotional creation that makes me want to cry and smile at the same time. Chan Marshall is an extremely talented and underrated musician, and with 'You are Free' she has created something extremely accomplished and special. Everyone needs to hear this album.



Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds


Henry's Dream

Willie's comments: It's pretty unsettling, how much Nick Cave obviously gets off on writing his wretched little stories of violence, evil, and derangement. Poseur bands like Slipknot can give lip service to the dark side, but one gets the impression that a peek inside Cave's clever, greasy head would cause those boys to crap their pants in fear. And what's amazing about Cave's music is that he can somehow manage to seem sophisticated and a little artsy while belching lyrics like, "I thought about my friend Michel/How they rolled him in linoleum and shot him in the neck/A bloody halo, like a think bubble, circling his head" (from this album's bruising opener "Papa Won't Leave You, Henry"). Henry's Dream isn't a particularly easy listen for that reason: as the Bad Seeds crank out a number of scuzzy, ominous tunes built from a strangely gratifying Aussie folk/blues/noise-rock recipe, Cave unleashes his literary viciousness in a fang-bearing growl that even embitters the relatively straightforward "Straight to You" and "Loom of the Land." However, the rewards here are plentiful, with tightly-flexed songs like "Brother, My Cup is Empty" slithering along in a way that's not only melodic and entrancing, but will cause you to think about them for hours afterward. Um... that's about all I can think of to say about this album. Sorry- it's weird and creepy and good, and that's about it. If you have any specific questions, feel free to e-mail them to me, since I feel strangely guilty about ending the review here, but nevertheless... Grade: A-


Let Love In

Willie's comments: The topic of heartbreak has basically been the go-to subject for songwriters since the advent of rock 'n' roll. From a cynical, record industry perspective, this makes sense because teenagers generally buy a lot of records, people like buying music they can relate to, and most teens convince themselves that they're living in a state of perpetual heartbreak for most of their adolescent years. Of course, I'm not saying that all songs of lost/unrequited love spring from cold financial concerns; I'm just saying that the glut of songs out there about failed romance isn't only for artistic reasons. And the fact of the matter is, most of these heartbreak songs are pretty stupid and sappy, from Elton John's "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" up through the Backstreet Boys' "Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)."

Believe me, though, when you actually get your heart broken- and not sensitive-teenager heartbroken, but real, shattered, wish-you-were-never-born, drunk-on-a-Tuesday-because-you're-alone-and-miserable-and-you-got-utterly-screwed-and-no-one-cares heartbroken- you need stronger stuff than Natalie Imbruglia simpering about how torn she is. You don't want to listen to people singing rationally about how they'll always be there for their object of affection, and how all they want is for him/her to be happy in their new situation, and how they'll miss being together, but they know this is better in the long run. You want bitterness. You want to break out "Hair Stew" by Bob Mould, or "Your Dictionary" by XTC, or "You Fucked Up" by Ween. (I really don't know what girls would want to break out. Suggestions, girls?) And if things get really hopeless, then it would be well worth your while to pick up this album by Nick Cave.

I'm unfamiliar with Cave's work in the early-'80s noise band the Birthday Party, but his solo work has always been marked by a transfixing biliousness that ranges from simple seething to outright violence. His deep voice registers measured outrage as well as it does sputtering madness (though he can't pull off sentiment very well), and although he's written a handful of beautiful songs in his day, the real meat of his oeuvre comes in the gothic, coiled-spring rock of songs like his ubiquitous single "Red Right Hand" (included here, as well as on The X-Files and, oddly enough, in Dumb and Dumber). So don't be fooled by song titles like "I Let Love In," "Loverman," and "Do You Love Me" on Let Love In- Cave presents the emotion of love as the temporal equivalent of damnation, spewing perverse imagery through gritted teeth, and periodically getting so worked up that he sounds as though he's about to choke on his own frothing anger. Even if the lyrical focus veers to other topics (Cave's ornate vision of his own death in "Lay Me Low," a frantic narrative about "Jangling Jack"), the music retains a compellingly explosive energy. It's a strangely dignified racket the Bad Seeds make, never becoming atonal or losing control, but able to communicate any number of appalling emotions through roiling rhythms, hushed backing vocals, and firm basslines. "Nobody's Baby Now" is a mistake- a wimpy, country-ish ballad that makes Max Eider sound like Bad Religion- but the rest of the album is every bit as firey, catchy, creepy, and tightly-wound as a stupid guy who blew his chance with the girl of his dreams could hope for. Grade: A


Murder Ballads

Willie's comments: Okay- in contrast to Let Love In, if you ever get to a point in your life where you can relate to this album, you may want to think about getting some counseling. The Ballads part of the title may be a slight musical exaggeration (most of the songs do superb, slow, dark rock burns, but there are also excursions into alley-cat struts and twisted carnival rave-ups- and I imagine he's using the word ballad in the literary sense anyway), but Nick ain't kidding about the Murder part. Capitalizing on the fact that his voice already sounds like it's only a couple threads away from irreversible psychosis, Cave convincingly throws himself into a number of divergent and deviant roles here, most of whom have shuffled a few people loose the mortal coil. The narrator of "O'Malley's Bar," for example, spends nearly 15 minutes sharing the grisly details of a mass murder he committed in a small-town pub (the song's sheer length isn't quite justified by its funky backing, but the protagonist is such a horrible narcissist that it makes sense to have him go on and on about himself for such a long time). A shatteringly pretty duet with Kylie Minogue(!), "Where the Wild Roses Grow," juxtaposes the inner monologue of her ingenue against that of the killer Cave portrays, and in the pitch-black satire "The Curse of Millhaven," he sings through the eyes of an unrepentant 15-year-old sociopath (the song is basically Tom Lehrer's "An Irish Ballad" updated for the Prozac age).

Murder Ballads' death grip weakens a bit when the Bad Seeds lighten their creepy soundscapes. The bland country saltine "The Kindness of Strangers" and the uneventful "Crow Jane" are so toothless Nick might as well be doing karaoke- especially when they're alongside such thrillingly morose stormclouds as the twitchy "Lovely Creature" and the startling "Stagger Lee," on which gunshot sound effects seem positively tame compared with the obscenities that Cave hurls forth. (I'll forgive a strange cover of Dylan's "Death is Not the End" because of a hilariously apathetic guest appearance by Shane MacGowan, and the fact that it's genuinely uplifting, regardless of context.) Graphic as it might be at times, this is also an impressively subtle album, with clever touches like a joke at the success of "Red Right Hand" buried in the disturbing "Song of Joy," or an opportunity for PJ Harvey's vocal murkiness to dwarf Cave's own on the sweepingly sad "Henry Lee." It's definitely not an album for all tastes, but if this description makes it sound like something you've got the stomach for, Murder Ballads is as fascinatingly upsetting as one of Edgar Allen Poe's more perverse (read: doped-up) tales of the macabre and murder most foul and all that. Grade: A-




Chamber Strings


Month of Sundays

Willie's comments: The second album from the Chamber Strings isn't as motionless and narcotic as their moniker might suggest, though you nevertheless might wind up wishing that there was a smidgen more activity throughout. Lest you be confused, this band is not a mini-orchestra- they play the same sort of ingratiating, syrupy, Beatles-derived pop that was perfected by the calmer tunes of their forebears, the dB's. The melodies are irrepressibly pretty throughout, and even the instrumentals "Beautiful You" and "Month of Sundays" stake their claim in highly desirable real estate of catchiness. Even if frontman Kevin Junior leans too often on his gift for prom-ready slow numbers (either "It's No Wonder" or "The Road Below" should have been included on this album, but not both), more upbeat songs like "Make It Through the Summer," "Let Me Live My Own Life," and "The Fool Sings Without Any Song" rank up there with anything off the Pernice Brothers' The World Won't End or Beulah's The Coast is Never Clear for the best classic-pop throwbacks of 2001. And as much as I loathe the objectification of female musicians (or comments which subordinate their talents to their appearance), why can't I stop staring at the picture of keyboardist Carolyn Engelmann inside this digipak? (Please don't be offended, Amy Wynn from Trading Spaces- you're still number one in my book.) Grade: B+


Manu Chao



Willie's comments: On Clandestino, the first solo album from Manu Chao (formerly of Mano Negra, a band about which I know nothing), nearly every song features disturbances in the form of random snippets of Spanish dialogue. These little spoken bits don't break the flow of the songs- it's not disorienting in a Mothers of Invention way- but they flutter just beneath the tunes' collective surface, and thus the act of listening to Clandestino is like tuning in to a faraway AM radio station in the middle of the night, and hearing all sorts of breathtaking Latin music that keeps fading in and out with the crosstalk of neighboring frequencies. Even if you don't generally like Latin music, I highly recommend that you check out this record, because it's worth picking up just for the fact that it captures that elusive, joyous mood of discovery that I've just described.

As for what Chao's actual music is like, that's harder to describe because I know very, very little about Latin music or its many styles and subgenres. However, I can tell you that it sounds, to my ear, like a great many influences from other cultures have been employed on this record. I'm not saying the music is inauthentic in a Christina Aguilera way or anything- the rhythms and instrumentation (exotic percussion, a brass section) on songs like "Lagrimas de Oro" are obviously drawn directly from Chao's Spanish upbringing. "Welcome to Tijuana" even steals the famous hook from "Tequila" and does interesting things with it. However, he's just as apt to slip into songs based around muted repetition of a single hook ("Mama Call" and the effervescent "Mentira..." which sound like Latin dub) or goofy whims (the "Bongo Bong/Je Ne T'aime Plus" suite, which is structured around a ridiculously bouncy keyboard bit and Chao rapping about a monkey). What I'm trying to say is that it's Latin music that can't be pigeonholed as such, and if you are at all gifted in picking up other languages, you'll be singing along to a bunch of these, because Chao writes seriously great, weird songs no matter where you're from. Unfortunately, I can't comment on the lyrics either, because I remember only little bits of my high school Spanish, and Chao's actual lyrics can't possibly be as filthy as the translations I'm coming up with... Yeah. So. It should appeal to fans of They Might Be Giants and Beck just as easily as fans of... Selena, maybe? Tito Puente? I really don't know, and I'm in over my head here. You're right. I'll just stick to my obscure twee-pop bands from now on. But I really do want you to buy this record- I promise it's good. Grade: A


Chappaquiddick Skyline


Chappaquiddick Skyline

Willie's comments: Joe Pernice (of the Pernice Brothers) is one odd little puppy. His music is gorgeous- intimate, folksy soundscapes that are often as catchy as Ben Folds Five or Fountains of Wayne- but his lyrics are, to put it bluntly, messed up. The first song on this album, "Everyone Else is Evolving," opens with the line "I hate my life," and carries this refrain throughout the song. Elsewhere, "Nobody's Watching" is a song through the eyes of a stalker that is all the more troubling for how sweet it is. Some will find the low-key arrangements of Pernice and his backup band rather boring, but it's more complex than you might think at first listen, with subtle touches like quiet harmonies from Jale's Jennifer Pierce on two tracks. It's twisted, sure, but fascinating. Grade: B+




The Chemical Brothers


Dig Your Own Hole

Willie's comments: Since music critics worldwide were fellating the Chemical Brothers over this release, I thought I'd pick it up. The critics are about half-right. "Setting Sun," which features Noel Gallagher on vocals, is deserving of all the praise it got, and "The Private Psychedelic Reel" is a minimalist gem (it consists of one brief harpsichord phrase transfigured in seemingly infinite bizarre ways for nine minutes, though the credit really goes to Mercury Rev for this song, since they apparently mixed it), among a few other top-notch techno tracks. Hole falters, though, when the Brothers get a bit too Prodigy, as on "Block Rockin' Beats," and bludgeoning repetition sets in. Grade: B





Set Your Goals

Willie's comments: Apparently one of countless talentless punk acts that landed a record deal in the Mass Punk Band Signing of 1993, CIV’s debut album is a sprawling mess of poorly-written hardcore one-offs. Not content to merely play bad, tuneless punk-rock, CIV tries to irritate us as much as possible by integrating endless tempo changes within songs, grating rockabilly rhythms, and lyrics that can’t decide whether to be civic-minded (the anti-concert violence rant “Soundtrack to Violence”) or antagonistic (a snippet of a live performance captures lead singer Civ berating the audience as “a bunch of pussies”). The result sounds like an ungodly cross between Rancid and the Flat Duo Jets with neither band’s melodic sense, or even the modest ability to write hooks of a band like, say, All. Grade: F


The Clash


The Clash (American version)

Willie's comments: Here is a partial list of statements I've made in my life that turned out to be dead wrong: 1. I freaked out some ex-Marine at Barnes & Noble when I told him that Clive Cussler was dead and ghost writers were just continuing to write books under his name. (Turned out I was thinking of Lawrence Sanders.) 2. I've told countless people that the red coloring in Hawaiian Punch comes from hundreds of thousands of those tiny red bugs you see scurrying along the sidewalk sometimes, which are bred specifically to be squashed and used as a food dye. (I heard this story thirdhand from someone who claimed to hear it on 20/20; it was probably a story on carmine, which is somewhat different.) 3. Apparently, NCAA rules don't require student athletes to waive their rights to casting a secret ballot in gubernatorial or presidential elections, and to vote for the candidate endorsed by the NCAA governing board. 4. In my review of The Story of the Clash, Volume 1, below, I stated that neither London Calling nor the Clash's self-titled album was "truly great." After getting a surprising amount of crap about that statement, I decided to go back and re-evaluate those albums. (And I did so despite the fact that one reader used a quote from Brent "Wizard's Cap" DiCrescenzo to support his argument.) Though I stand by my London Calling statement, after giving The Clash a few more open-minded spins, I must admit that it really is a great, great record. I've changed the Story of the Clash review to reflect this, too.

All I can conclude about my initial dismissal of this album is that I was in an extremely nitpicky mood- upset that some of the songs here go on too long, that Joe Strummer occasionally has difficulty barking his lyrics on-key, that the guitars sound kinda scrawny... basically that The Clash isn't Ramones or Singles Going Steady. But that's just being stuck-up, because most of the songs here are unquestionably great punk rock fireworks. "White Riot" may be an even more infectious punk anthem than "Blitzkreig Bop," "London's Burning" and "Clash City Rockers" take the same chord progression and make two fantastic songs from it, "Remote Control" lets guitarist Mick Jones sing the cleansingly pretty verse part, and so forth. And it's not as if the Clash does nothing to distinguish themselves from the pack of early punk rockers, either: their politically motivated lyrics have a crackerjack intensity to them even when they're not entirely intelligible, for instance, and the ska rhythms of "White Man in Hammersmith Palais" and "Police and Thieves" sound as fresh and joyful today as they must've back then. The balance between tunefulness and aggression here is masterful, in a lot of ways, and it's more than enough to make up for whatever churlish problems I might have had with this record a year ago. Grade: A


London Calling

Willie's comments: And now here is my resoning behind my statement that London Calling is not "truly great." It's a good album, yes, but it hasn't stood the test of time as well as other punk documents- like The Clash. For one thing, this record's forays into ska-punk (such as the celebrated "Wrong 'Em Boyo"), though they surely were monumentally innovative and interesting at the time, now sound merely generic to modern ears which have been desensitized to such things by the useless facsimiles that have been spewed out by everyone from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones to Save Ferris. For another thing, for every wonderful, stomping punk tune on here, like the title track or "The Guns of Brixton," there's a lengthy, ponderous piece like "Jimmy Jazz" and "Lover's Rock" that saps the energy the Clash built up on the more straightforward songs. Also, "Rudie Can't Fail" and "The Card Cheat" sound a lot like the band's cover of "I Fought the Law," which is an irritating enough song to begin with. So there are the problems. Sure, songs like "Spanish Bombs" are among the catchiest, most brilliant blasts of freedom rock to come out of the punk movement, and there's no denying the album's importance, but like Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols, London Calling sounds more flippy-floppy than revolutionary twenty years after its release. Grade: B and that's final.


The Story of the Clash, Volume 1 (2-CD set)

Willie's comments: Apart from the thrilling swarm of punk-rock uppercuts on their debut, the Clash never made an album that was disciplined enough to be entirely satisfying. (Though I'll admit that I haven't heard Combat Rock, Sandinista, etc. in their entirety, I've heard enough to know that they've got some problems.) Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, and the other, less notorious band members had a self-indulgent streak several hemispheres wide, which inevitably made their studio albums frustratingly uneven. That's why The Story of the Clash is so appealing- you get to hear their best songs without all the muckety muck. This double album proceeds in roughly reverse chronological order, which means that much of the first disc is disposable, since, in their later years, the Clash tended to take the Fall approach to songwriting (i.e., one riff repeated ad nauseum for five minutes or so), only with pretentious ska rhythms and without any of Mark Smith's cheeky humor. Still, you get "Rock the Casbah," "Clampdown," and "Should I Stay or Should I Go," but mostly, disc one is hideously boring and polished ("Train in Vain" sounds- no joke- like Kenny Loggins). Disc two is much better, chronicling the band's early, punkier years with classics like "White Riot," "Safe European Home," and the Ramones-esque "Career Opportunities." Even though this compilation is a bit of a mixed bag, it's still all you will ever need to know about the Clash's post-debut exploits, and therefore, I can put my stamp of approval on it. Or I could have, if those stupid security guards at FYE hadn't thrown me out for "defacing" their merchandise... Grade: B+


Billy Bruns [sic] writes: You have shown that you are one of the most incompetent people to ever grace the web with your claim: "Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, and the other, less notorious band members had a self-indulgent streak several hemispheres wide, which inevitably made their studio albums frustratingly uneven." (!!!!!!) Please, do yourself a favor and listen (just LISTEN) to London Calling. I am only a 15 year old indie music fan, but even I can recognize that The Clash are one of the greats. In the wise words of Brent from pitchforkmedia.com, "The holy trinity of rock is as follows : The Beatles, The Clash, and The Pixies. Period." If you can't realize this, you should not be allowed to critique music on the web or better yet, shoot yourself.

thatcoolbrotha@aol.com writes: I'll try and make this a lucid comment but what you're saying is insane. There are two truly great Clash albums: The U.S self-titled one and London Calling. I mean, have you even heard these albums? If you have please immediately post the reviews so I can understand why you would put down one of the greatest bands of all time. What is your opinion of them are they good , bad or both? Why are they those adjectives? I want names,dates,places,people! If you haven't bought them don't follow a crappy best of album! Listen to us all! Buy them! or borrow them from someone. You guys really are strangely biased sometimes.

Muggwort writes: I like the clash a lot but you are right, London calling is overrated but you also need to look at it's cultural significance; it was the one of the first pop/punk documents and extremely political and deep at the same time, I give it an A-

billyozark@aol.com writes: Re: Your Clash reviews - I feel the urge to appeal for you to listen to and add reviews of Sandanista. (what a nice assignment !)

SANDANISTA IS LOVED BY CLASH FANS - it is on many top album of all time lists. By embracing, playing and promoting reggae and ska, the Clash opened the eyes of many to the great British and Jamaican reggae/ska/rock steady scenes - and by doing so, helped to diffuse some of the senseless racism. The punk movement had a scary number of nazi types and in Britain skinheads who were jumping on the bandwagon . The Clash toured America with reggae bands on the bill such as the late great Black Uhuru. THE CLASH were the forerunners of the integration of "world music". Sandinista is a very important album. And it is grows on you with repeated listens (six sides of vinyl take a while to digest!) Many, many great songs, lots of fun songs, but there are some amatuerish moments, and croakin from Joe. If this is done and you agree it was fun, also try Black Market Clash. Avoid Combat Rock there last.

LoadesC writes: I agree that London Calling is overrated, but Sandinista has to be one of, if not THE greatest album/s ever.It has 36 songs of which 30 are great and many are classics. My ratings:
The Clash A
Give 'em enough Rope A
London Calling B+
Sandinista! A+
Combat Rock B+




The Clean



Willie's comments: This seminal album is a collection of singles and oddities from the band that is arguably the most influential group of musicians ever to come out of New Zealand. However, the members of the Clean would go on to better things after this album came out- Robert Scott in the Bats, and David Kilgour in the Chills- and the songs represented here have none of the former's hypnotic beauty or the latter's pop sense. Mostly, Compilation is full of bratty, Velvets-influenced surf-punk songs that hit their mark only half the time. There are a few great, speedy instrumentals (most notably "At the Bottom") and a few catchy numbers ("Slug Song," "Hold on to the Rail," "Count to Ten"), but the sound is tinny and the songs often meander. "Whatever I Do It's..." is particularly grating. As far as influence goes, Compilation is probably one of the top five indie-rock albums ever- its impact matches that of Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted or the Pixies' Surfer Rosa. However, unlike those two albums, the Clean's sound acted more as the skeleton around which bands like Yo La Tengo built, rather than as a fully formed trademark that could be aped. Grade: C+




Clem Snide


Your Favorite Music

Willie's comments: As I have tried to point out in my Lambchop reviews (and as various Lambchop members have insisted on numerous occasions), if you try to imagine what that band sounds like from most critics' descriptions- a laid-back, brainy alt-country band with mounds of strange, self-effacing humor- you won't even come close to Lambchop's actual sound. So let's try to take that miscarriage of critical pigeonholing and turn it into something positive, shall we? The band you are actually conjuring when you attempt that exercise is Clem Snide, a New Jersey band that, under the direction of frontman Eef Barzelay, specializes in an addictive brand of folksy indie rock. Barzelay's songs range from winsome and sincere (the title track, which is perhaps the best bad-mood musical friend you can have) to self-conscious and full of gallows humor (the song "1989," as in "Let's party like it's..."), but his yearning, unstudied bleating and fondness for expansive melodies keep things from tipping too far to either side. The opener, "The Dairy Queen," alludes to the "root canal music of a prom night disaster," and before the album closes with a crushingly lonely example of such (a mournful cover of Richie Valens's "Donna"), Clem Snide spends forty minutes making music as simultaneously depressing and reassuring as your best friend trying to cheer you up as you sit sobbing over a broken heart. Your Favorite Music might be two shades too country for many indie rock fans upon initial listen, but once you let these smiling-through-tears masterpieces into your bloodstream, the country elements will become just another ingredient in an immensely satisfying bowl of musical comfort food. Grade: A




Internal Wrangler

Willie's comments: Four British guys who wear doctors' scrubs in concert and make music as nervous and jittery as a hemophobic surgeon, Clinic makes some of the most compellingly uptight and paranoid rock since Devo's early days. After a series of noisy EPs (which didn't impress me much when I heard them in the record store), they proudly devoted themselves to the twitchy, stomping music that marks their full-length debut, Internal Wrangler. With a bassist (Brian Campbell) who is often content to urgently thump away at the same note for the length of an entire song, a drummer (Carl Turney) who takes a similar approach to his instrument, a guitarist (Hartley) who wields his instrument like a possessed scalpel, and a singer (Ade Blackburn) whose squeaky wheeze of a voice is often complimented by his own haunting, simple lines on a melodica (a woodwind-sounding keyboard; you'll know it when you hear it), the songs are mostly so stiff and mechanical that you can practically hear the gears and rotors interlocking and gnashing- in a memorable way, though! Blackburn's vocals are nearly as minimal as his bandmates' respective parts, but he chants and purrs against the beat in interesting ways on songs like "The Return of Evil Bill" and "2nd Foot Stomp," and his singing voice is as interesting and fey as a male Bjork. In fact, the surf-influenced title track probably would've been my favorite song of last year (if I'd been on-the-ball enough to hear it then), due to the nagging beat and Blackburn's anxious pleading. Internal Wrangler also changes things up enough to keep the songs from becoming annoying and monotonous: "Distortions" and "Goodnight Georgie" are truly beautiful, Stereolab-influenced slow numbers (the former hopeful, the latter somewhat less so), "C.Q." is a primitive, bash-it-out punk throwaway, and there are a number of weirdo instrumentals scattered all over the place. Granted, if you're stressed-out, this album will basically feel like a three-year-old pulling at your sleeve and saying, "Look at me! Look at me!" every five seconds, but by achieving an intensity that's both hypnotic and nerve-wracking, Clinic have put together a wonderful musical concoction of the sort we haven't heard in a long time. Grade: A



Clueless soundtrack

Willie's comments: There is an inordinate amount of covers on this soundtrack album. The Muffs destroy Kim Wilde's "Kids in America," Cracker does a decent rendition of "Shake Some Action" (that probably would've been better had David Lowery sang it), Counting Crows take a hideously whiny run at the Psychedelic Furs' "The Ghost in You," World Party faithfully updates Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes," and the Smoking Popes do an okay version of "Need You Around" (which you'll recognize when you hear it). Add to that a previously released song (Supergrass's infectious "Alright") and two alternate versions of previously released songs by other bands ("Here" by Luscious Jackson and "Fake Plastic Trees" by Radiohead), and that leaves only six songs that, as far as I know, were created solely for this album. With the exception of the Lightning Seeds' spirited "Change," none of them are very good. For all that, though, this album as a whole somehow equals more than the some of its parts and adds up to a pretty good time, if you keep your expectations low. Grade: B-





Ginny's comments: Beginner's luck, I say. How many bands get it right from get go? And not just right, but dead-on accurate. Coldplay paints a devestatingly beautiful portrait of the world with Parachutes, both hauntingly sad yet warm as a cup of tea. It's a delightful and rare mood, and not since Nick Drake or Simon & Garfunkel has it been done so well. The melodies are relatively simple piano and guitar-based, and Chris Martin's voice is airy and melodic enough that it doesn't even need reverb or harmony. "Yellow," the single which actually got me started on this album, turned out to be one of my least favorite songs on the album (especially after it became the sappy anthem to which concert-going couples would gaze deeply into each others eyes while they sang it to each other. Blech!), as it is eclipsed by such great songs as "Trouble," "Parachutes," and "Spies." Right on. Grade: A+

P.S.- Check out the music video to "Trouble" (The States version, not the UK version) for music video as interesting and beautiful as the song.

Willie's comments: Armed with a collection of bittersweet melodies as tear-inducingly pretty as any ever written and a singer (Chris Martin) who sounds blessedly like a more romantic Thom Yorke, Coldplay is the most consistently, casually thrilling band to emerge from the "quiet is the new loud" movement of rock. Parachutes, their debut album, kicks off with the aptly titled (and infectious) "Don't Panic": besides giving props to Douglas Adams, the song introduces the quartet as a band who is on your side and who exists only to soothe your jangled nerves. From there, things get only more rewarding. The ubiquitous single "Yellow" is, blow for blow, even more perfect and charming than Travis's similarly great "Why Does It Always Rain on Me?" while "Everything's Not Lost" is a moving, uplifting coda. Program your CD player properly, too, and the muted, piano-based "Trouble" becomes the centerpiece of one superb, epic song that begins with "Sparks" and ends with "Spies." It's rare that a band is able to cram so many hooks into a ten-song album, and it's even rarer for a band to do so with the affable, laid-back approach Coldplay takes. There are some artists, such as Yo La Tengo, that you almost don't want the world to find out about because they're your little secret and you know most people wouldn't get them anyway. Coldplay, on the other hand, makes music that's so invigorating and universally appealing that you'll want to blast it from the hilltops. Grade: A+


A Rush of Blood to the Head

Willie's comments: With a polite fair-trade screed in the liner notes, song titles like "Politik" and "Warning Sign," and the now-trite-and-ubiquitous pre-release chatter about how this album would address "our post-9/11 world," there was every reason to worry that A Rush of Blood to the Head would see Coldplay leaping into a U2-esque sea of political sloganeering that would drown the unfettered prettiness of the band's music. Happily, though, the band is far too self-aware to fall prey to a series of lofty ideas that they could never hope to realize, and their sophomore effort is simply a splendidly confident pop mantlepiece that doesn't stray too far from the humble and hummable territory they claimed with Parachutes. If the unstable state of our world was an influence on this album, it's not explicitly brought up; it's present only in the heightened urgency with which Martin wails songs about the need for comfort and a human connection, or in the vague sense of menace that pervades the epic title track. It's a testament to the singer's talent that he can deliver somewhat simplistic lyrics like "I should not have let you go, so I crawl back into your open arms" with such aching emotion that they seem profound. Even moreso than on the debut, the album is carried by Martin's voice, with the other musicians and instruments (most noticeably lightweight guitars, pianos, and strings) serving basically to provide an appropriate backing for his soul-cleansing melodies. The misty "Amsterdam" and "Green Eyes" cry out for more interesting arrangements, really- they're so tastefully appealing that they're barely there- but Coldplay's desire to play up the vocals is entirely logical when you hit a song like "Clocks," which has one of those vocal lines so perfect that it triggers some Pavlovian goosebump reaction in me and gives me shivers. Coldplay might not have the element of surprise on their side any longer, which helped Parachutes achieve a where-have-you-been-all-my-life? sense of perfection, but damned if they don't get everything else just as luxuriously right this time around. Grade: A


Matthew Clothier writes: I bought Parachutes after hearing "Trouble" on Virgin Radio via the internet, and was blown away as I think most people were. An entire album of gems! When I listened to A Rush of Blood to the Head I was still very much impressed by the band's ability to put together great tunes, but was left a little cold. Perhaps I thought they tried to go for arrangements that were a little "bigger" or more epic in scope. Maybe that at times I feel Martin being overly earnest without more darkness or edge that was present in songs like "Spies". Maybe the first album just seemed more immediate to me. It's been really hard (as I'm sure is obvious from the wishy-washyness of the comments) to put a finger on what is holding me back from loving this album as much as the first, but it's out there.

LoadesC writes: Coldplay suck and Yellow is one of the shitest songs ever.


The Comas



Willie's comments: Ever since the artistic and commercial success of Radiohead convinced their countrymen that swooping melodies without obvious hooks is the way to go, there hasn't been a lot of instantly gripping and hooky Britpop to hit the public consciousness of the United States. Supergrass still churns it out, and God love 'em for it, but you may not realize how much you actually missed the mid-'90s, catchiness-uber-alles style of, for instance, Suede and The Boo Radleys until you pick up Conductor, the masterpiece by the Comas that plays like an essential Britpop singles compilation despite the fact that they're from North Carolina. Better still, it's a breakup album, about the ugly, lonely aftermath of frontman Andy Herod's relationship with "actress" Michelle Williams from Dawson's Creek. I love breakup albums, particularly ones as articulate and emotional as this one, and when you pair Herod's lyrics with the majesty of the absolutely enormous hooks he writes, there's nothing better in my book. Atmospheric synths intertwine with fuzzy guitars, but as with the scope of the lyrics, Herod manages to insinuate himself into the genre in a manner that covers a lot of ground, avoiding sameness while still hanging onto one sound: "Tonight on the WB" takes a cue from the alt-glam of Spacehog while lambasting Williams for being unable to bring the emotion of her acting to her private life- in a gleefully nasty fashion; the two-part "Oh God" perfectly captures both the yearning, fragile loneliness of prime Spiritualized and the poncy aggression of Ash, etc. I could go on and on, individually describing the grabby bliss of "Moonrainbow," "Invisible Drugs," and the rest, but suffice it to say that there's not a moment of dullness, and whether he's contemplating the monotony of post-relationship day-to-day living ("Employment") or leveling clenched-teeth curses like "May your days be long and cold/May your mirror come back old/May your visions be too much/May you then think about us" ("The Science of Your Mind"), Herod vents and stews with the best. Conductor doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel, but it's so smart, solid, and addictive that it may remind you of what's so nice about wheels in the first place. As opposed to the jetpaks that are so fashionable nowadays, I guess... I'm not a good writer. Grade: A+


Comet Gain



Willie's comments: I've heard rumblings that Comet Gain is a band that has some sort of absurd musical/artistic/sociopolitical theory behind it (a rumor that's supported by the manifestoes that pop up in this record's liner notes, as well as the Godard-esque bohemian artwork, though that might be a piss-take), but my patience for artistic idiologies falls somewhere between my patience for inadequate parking lots and my patience for Helen Hunt, so I haven't bothered to investigate it any. I will say that if Comet Gain is intending their music as some sort of propaganda, it won't be evident to the average listener, who will mostly be conscious of the above-average garage rock that these guys smash out. Although this is Comet Gain's second incarnation (the entire original band except for frontman David Feck split after 1997's Sneaky to form Velocette), you don't at all get the sense that the band is mostly composed of scabs. Feck and husky-voiced vocalist Rachel E share the singing duties with sympathetic attention to each other's strengths, and even though the rest of the band sounds like they were recorded with a single microphone, guitarist Jon Slade stands out by virtue of a playing style that sounds like he's whacking his instrument with a tennis racket. The raw production is a boon to Hives-esque songs like "My Defiance" and the rampaging "Ripped-Up Suit!" but the hooky vocal melodies are easily the best part. Try getting "Why I Try to Look So Bad" or "I Close My Eyes to Think of God" out of your head- come on, I dare ya! Sometimes Comet Gain goes too far with the garage ethos and oversimplifies their songs ("Movies" is irritatingly repetitive), or just gets flat-out pretentious (the spoken-word verses of "Moments in the Snow"), but there's a cleverness to the tunes that shines through most of the minor fissures. And, as I plan on saying every time I review a garage-rock album, they're better than the White Stripes! Grade: B



Coneheads movie soundtrack

Willie's comments: Really, there are only three great songs on this soundtrack: Soft Cell's "Tainted Love," Paul Simon's "Kodachrome" (which contains the wonderful phrase, "When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all"), and R.E.M.'s "It's a Free World Baby," which is easily the weirdest song they ever recorded. Those are three essential songs to have in your collection, and this is, to my knowledge, the only album where you can get all three in one convenient package. However, be prepared for dross, for there is also an annoying cover of "Magic Carpet Ride" by Slash, a painful-bordering-on-racist cover of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" by the Barenaked Ladies, and "Conehead Love," which features the literally monotonous vocal stylings of Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin. Grade: C+





Willie's comments: Keigo Oyamada, AKA Cornelius, makes determinedly weird music that's more catchy and fun than a thousand Lou Begas, and much better for you. It's tempting to describe Oyamada as Beck's Japanese doppelganger, since the songs on Fantasma often careen back and forth, Odelay-style, between four or five different genres, punctuated with odd noises the whole while. However, the lounge-drone-punk of "New Music Machine" points more to an influence of Stereolab or Cibo Matto than Beck, and songs like "Mic Check" and "Count Five or Six" are entirely original melanges of sound. "2010" and "Magoo Opening" are strange, synthesized classical pieces that recall the odd, bleeping score from Clockwork Orange, while the Apples in Stereo do a fun cameo on "Chapter 8- Seashore and Horizon." Oyamada's lyrics are similarly twisted, but rather than existing merely as a kitschy anomaly to ridicule like Shonen Knife, Oyamada lets you know he's in on the joke in songs like "Thank You for the Music" and "Clash" (a tribute to the band, whose chorus is a good-natured pun on Oyamada's Japanese accent). Fantasma is an unpretentious, spellbinding journey. Grade: A-



Willie's comments: I remember reading, four or five years ago, that Phish was planning to record an album one note at a time: literally starting the tape, playing one note, and stopping the tape again. Luckily, they abandoned the project when it became apparent that it sounded like a big, sprawling mess (which, by Phish standards, is saying something). I hadn't thought about that notion again until I heard Point, the long-awaited new album from Cornelius, which sounds as though it was recorded in a similar fashion. To be fair, Point doesn't sound as chaotic as the Phish project presumably did, but every noise on the album- guitars, percussion, even Oyamada's paper-thin voice- sounds programmed and isolated from every other noise, even when it all comes together as a song. From the electrofunk of "Another View Point" to the loungey "Tone Twilight Zone," it's all very headphone-friendly, but the songs don't really go anywhere. They're just tuneful patterns of beats and sounds that are each trapped in individual Tupperware containers. It puts an ocean of distance between the listener and the obsessive perfectionist who assembled the songs, and this hermetically sealed environment doesn't allow for much of a visceral reaction to the music. Frankly, it's enough to make Stereolab seem full of warmth and humanity by comparison. Point isn't without its pleasures: the slap-happy "Drop" gets a lot of mileage out of a rhythm track composed of sloshing water noises, and I'm a sucker for the singing Macintosh computer on "Brazil." Moreover, you can't help but respect Cornelius's unabashed love of sound. However, like Beck's similarly numbing Midnite Vultures, Point is an example of that audiophilia overpowering the musician's pop skills. Grade: C+


REEDNO06@uwgb.edu writes: I can see how you wouldn't like Point, but I think it's brilliant. I guess whether or not you think the songs "go anywhere" is up to you. "Drop" and "Brazil" are indeed great tracks, and I love the songs in the middle…it goes from a bass-heavy dancable house track ("Another View Point") to a beautiful ambient track ("Tone Twilight Zone", which has an awesome video, look it up on youtube!) to an acoustic rhythmic son of a bitch ("Bird Watching in Inner Forest", my favorite on the album), to heavy metal ("I Hate Hate"). I'd give it an A or an A+…it's great music and there are very few albums that sound anything like this.

However, I still understand your comments…I felt this way about Sensuous, his new one (too much noise-manipulation and stereo tricks, not enough good songwriting), but you know what? I saw him perform last Monday (5/7/07) and it was fucking fantastic and now I really like Sensuous. If you had seen him four years ago I bet you'd have felt the same way about Point. The videos were brilliant and the band was extremely precise in synching up their music to the visuals (check out the brilliant video for "Fit Song" while you're at it…not only were they able to perform it live, but perfectly in time with the video too). A lot of the set was midtempo or ambient, but they segued "Count Five or Six" and "I Hate Hate" together, and it's amazing, they actually CAN play that fast (the ridiculous guitar/drum bashing on "I Hate Hate" was done even faster, and Cornelius himself hit so many iconic rock poses during the two songs that it seemed to make a mockery of rock music in general). You obviously have a big penchant for music so if he's playing around you (he's currently touring) you should really go see him. The ticket was $18 which is absolutely nothing in comparison to how great the show was…he came off as a pretty cool guy too. He brought a guy from the stage and played his hand on the theremin, brought this box with buttons on it to let the audience play during the final encore jam (which was cool, we were front and center!), and the band posed with their backs to the audience while one of the stagehands took a picture on his cell phone. It was four days ago and I still can't stop thinking about how great it was.

Plus, we got to see a band called "Holy Fuck"…how great is that??




Elvis Costello


My Aim is True

Willie's comments: As his stage name implies, Elvis Costello originally set out to exhume the musical styles of the 50s and early 60s, revitalizing them with a new, cynicism-propelled energy (in concept, what Elvis did wasn’t all that different from what the Ramones did a few years earlier). As such, this first album basically succeeds or fails on the strengths of the musical styles Elvis selected. While "Welcome to the Working Week" is a terrific, straightforward rock song and "Allison" is a heart-wrenching popper, too many songs rely on generic rockabilly riffs; in fact, "Mystery Dance" cheekily steals its tune from "Jailhouse Rock." It’s an intellectual triumph, but not a particularly listenable one. Grade: B-


This Year's Model

Willie's comments: With the prominent addition of new-wave keyboard parts into his songs, Elvis drops some of the grating genericism of his debut and produced what is arguably the best new-wave album ever. Elvis’s bilious lyrics range from the hilarious ("Sometimes I phone you when I know you’re not lonely, but I always disconnect it in time," from "No Action") to the brilliantly pointed ("The radios are in the hands of such a lot of fools trying to anesthetize the way that you feel," from "Radio Radio"). And the tunes themselves don’t disappoint, either- you’d have to search long and hard to find another collection of unfallible hooks that’s also so pleasant, from "This Year’s Girl" to the mad drum beats of "Lipstick Vogue." This is essential. Grade: A+


Armed Forces

Willie's comments: The slightest bit darker than This Year’s Model, and with slightly less accessible melodies, Armed Forces nonetheless contains a number of classics. "Accidents Will Happen" spirals downward in a catchy whirlpool until it finally submerges at the song’s end. And "Green Shirt" and "(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding?" are also fab, but this album is a bit top-heavy with Elvis’s phlegm and political finger-pointing. Grade: B


Live at El Mocambo

Willie's comments: Available only in the wonderful 2 1/2 Years box set (which includes the first three albums as well), or perhaps in used CD stores, this is a recording of a much-ballyhooed live performance from 1978, and it’s an unassuming document of a perfect show. The live sound hasn’t been cleaned up or tampered with for the CD, but this is the rare case where that’s actually an asset- the performances of songs like "Pump It Up" and "Lipstick Vogue" are hyperkinetic and raw without losing any of the studio versions’ ingratiating charm, and therefore this is one of very few live albums that actually transports you to the front row of the club. Grade: A



Willie's comments: My introduction to Costello was when I caught him performing two songs from this album on a rerun of Saturday Night Live. I was fascinated by how peerlessly catchy “Veronica” was, and entranced by the grabby, intelligent musings on capital punishment contained in “Let ‘Em Dangle.” So I bought the album and was disappointed by how sterile these songs sounded compared to the well-orchestrated SNL versions (G.E. Smith, I salute you!). “Veronica” is still a great song, though lacking in energy, but nothing else here is particularly good. “Coal Train Robberies” is okay, but Elvis just doesn’t seem interested in writing catchy music- or much of anything- from this point on. Grade: C-


Brutal Youth

Willie's comments: On Costello’s first album with the original Attractions in ten years or so, a depressing exhaustion hangs over the proceedings. Perhaps reuiniting with his original band left Elvis with the upsetting realization that his music since their departure had been unbearably flaccid, but whatever the reason, Brutal Youth is all half-baked ideas and stale bile. “13 Steps Lead Down” is fairly catchy, but Costello sounds like he’s on automatic pilot, while “This is Hell” is a boring, Bacharach-esque slice of lounge-pop. Even the always unique production of Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake can’t salvage anything from labored compositions like “Clown Strike.” Grade: D


Didier Dumontiel writes: as for the Beatles,you don't seem to know Costello that much.Where is "imperial bedroom"?"punch the clock "and its magnificent SHIP BUILDING?And "get happy" with its 30 tracks(yes ,folks,you read well,on a single CD!) "spike" was the beginning of the end for Costello;it retains some very good tracks ,like "tramp the dirt down" and "any king's shilling",but after it's downhill except for some tracks of "Juliet's letters" You underrate "armed forces " a lot !It's a faultless LP ,though musically it showed the abbey road influence (party girl) Your site isn't totally lousy as i said in my first message because people who like "automatic for" and "nonesuch" can't be dunces.But really your Beatles rates show your inability to relate to the sixties music.But maybe the sixties music was noy that much important and along the Beatles,who cares about the stones,byrds,velvet,procol,beach boys,dylan,and other trivia...

Rich Bunnell writes: "Brutal Youth" isn't THAT bad. In fact, I personally think it's pretty good; a lot better than "Spike" at any rate. It gets really unfocused and stale by the end of the album, but songs like "You Tripped At Every Step" and especially "Kinder Murder"(how can you not consider this song a highlight?) are as good as anything he's ever done, and "Pony Street" and "My Science Fiction Twin" are so damn catchy. I'd probably give it a B. It's hard to argue with your other Costello grades; I agree almost entirely that "Model" is brilliant and both "My Aim" and "Armed Forces" are somewhat overrated. I'd suggest that you check out more of the guy's early work; pretty much everything that you haven't reviewed before the weak "Goodbye Cruel World" is worth checking out.

John Schlegel writes: I agree that This Year's Model is Costello's best, although I admit I haven't heard all his early-period albums. Armed Forces is the first one I bought, and I like that one a lot. You are a little hard on it, but I guess it is a smidge uneven. As for My Aim Is True, I have not actually heard the whole album, but I have no desire to pick it up right away; I hear it's kind of weak and contains a lot of neo-'50s cheese. "Allison" and "Watching the Detectives" are classics, though--I actually hear them on the radio at work sometimes! Imperial Bedroom is truly an artistic milestone for Costello, although even that one is overrated and has some boring spots. But getting back to This Year's Model, that is definitely an INCREDIBLE new wave record, and an essential purchase for any rock fan; it has to be one of my favorite albums. When I first got it (used, believe it or not), I gave it a whirl and was not that impressed. But upon multiple listens, the masterful hooks in each song revealed themselves to me, and it turned out to be an extremely rewarding album to let grow on me. I even think the material on the extended play section is amazing. My favorite songs would probably have to be "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea," "This Year's Girl," and "Hand in Hand" ("If I go doooooooouuuunnn/You're gonna come with me/Hand in haaaaannnd! Hand in hand! Hand in hand!"--angry stuff!). Costello's backing band proved to be stellar on this album as well. Yeah, I would say that's a justified A+ rating.




Cowboy Junkies


The Trinity Session

Willie's comments: I've been saying for years that one of the many reasons Canada is better than the United States- in addition to their terrific health care system, strict gun control laws (and, therefore, significantly lower homicide rate), and all-around friendliness- is that they have a much higher good band-to-bad band ratio than we do. Think about it: what bad Canadian musicians can you think of? Shania Twain, Alanis Morrissette, Hardship Post, Pluto... that's all I can immediately think of. Now what great Canadian musicians can you think of? Sloan, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Eric's Trip, Tracy Chapman, Tragically Hip, Odds, Kid Koala... the list goes on and on. (Barenaked Ladies can go either way.) And here, to further tilt the scales in Canada's favor, is a Toronto band consisting largely of members of the Timmins family, the Cowboy Junkies.

This is the Junkies' second album, after the provocatively titled Whites Off Earth Now! and it consists of seven cover songs and five originals. Like any great musical interpreter, the band approaches each song with such a unique, focused vision that it's impossible to tell which songs were actually written by them and which are from other sources without prior knowledge of the songs or the album's liner notes. "Sweet Jane," sure, is the quintessential Velvet Underground cover (and this is the version that doesn't include the insipid Natural Born Killers dialogue over the intro), and "Blue Moon Revisited" is recognizable enough (though I could personally do without the luau guitar), but I had no idea that "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" was originally a Hank Williams tune, since Margo Timmins murmurs it with such emotion it seems to be spilling straight from her heart. Every number is disarmingly slow and quiet, giving off an attitude that can either be wrenchingly sad or as comforting as a warm blanket, depending on what emotional baggage you bring into it. Some listeners might miss the psychedelic stoner charm of their later, somewhat noisier work (those listeners are advised to seek out the Junkies' terrific cover of Gram Parsons's "Ooh Las Vegas"), but for those in the market for a lonely midnight album, look no further than The Trinity Session. Grade: A


Rich Bunnell writes: Bad Canadian artists: Celine Dion, Sarah McLachlan....uhm, you seem to hate Rush too (I'm somewhat ambivalent towards them, they have their good points)....I haven't heard anything by the Matthew Good Band, but the man himself seems like an unabashed prick.

Aaron Prazan writes: Willie, you seem very knowledgable and consistent with your site, but seem to have lost perspective here. You have VERY few blues artists on your site, so I can understand how "Pale Sun, Cresent Moon" and "200 More Miles.." (some of the Junkies other albums) could have drifted off the scope. Get your hands on one or both of these and you won't be sorry. The bottom line is, Cowboy Junkies is one of the most unique blues bands around due to their musical talent, innovative cover songs, and Margo Timmins' unexpected vocal interpretations. Since the band is family, they seem to have an almost instinctive ability to play well together. Their moody, atmospheric arrangements are make for great blues that is a departure from the classic, guitar driven blues we are all so used to. Don't get me wrong, they can rock, but by slowing down familiar songs and adding a desolate, pared down sound they create a totally new blues. Songs such as "Floorboard Blues," Robert Johnson's "Me and the Devil Blues," and the shapeshifting "Hunted" are great exampes. They can also do in upbeat, poppy songs like the hit single "Anniversary Song." Tying all the different arrangements together is Margo's vocal. She is not the typical throaty blues vocalist, but takes it slow and easy. In a hard driving blues riff, you'd expect a Janis Joplin or BB King wail, but you get her slow lilting voice which makes her heartbreaking subject matter even more powerful. The Cowboy Junkies are innovative, yet classic. A must for any blues lover.





Willie's comments: You should buy this album merely on the strength of its smart-aleck anthem "Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)" ("What the world needs now are some true words of wisdom like la la la la la la la la la"), but there are another dozen or so great folk/rock songs here. "Mr. Wrong" is not the theme song to that Ellen DeGeneres movie but rather a hilarious tale of the worst boyfriend in the world ("I was gonna bring you flowers, but I didn't/ It's the thought that counts and I think I'm a bit too broke"), and "Don't Fuck Me Up (With Peace and Love)" is the catchiest song you'll never hear on the radio. It's not quite a masterpiece, but it'll give you hours of listening pleasure. Grade: A-


Kerosene Hat

Willie's comments: Irritatingly indexed (99 tracks, 83 of which consist of silence), the difficult second album is mostly a success for frontman David Lowery and guitarist John Hickman. "Low" is as sinisterly catchy as anything in Chris Isaak's canon, and "Nostalgia" is one of those songs so perfectly formed it gives me chills. The middle section of this album is too dependent on wan ballads, but the dada folk of the title track and a stellar cover of the Grateful Dead's "Loser" handily salvage Kerosene Hat. Grade: B+


The Golden Age

Willie's comments: Louder and darker than anything Cracker has done before, The Golden Age can stand next to Lowery's Camper Van Beethoven and Key Lime Pie in the music galaxy. Things kick off with the powerfully ugly "I Hate My Generation" and swan-dive further into Meat Puppets-esque sonic purple gunk with "I'm a Little Rocket Ship." But then "Big Dipper" arrives, and it's just a brilliant love song- managing to be both heartbreakingly sweet and gently ironic atop a shimmering guitar riff. The rest of the album continues in much the same fashion. Grade: A


Gentleman's Blues

Willie's comments: WHAT IN CRAP'S NAME HAPPENED HERE?! When did Cracker become a worthless bluesy bar band? Roughly 90% of this album is garbage, ranging from 12-bar pop songs that are merely not any good ("The Good Life," for example) to long, droney pseudo-blues on songs like the untitled final track that sounds like- I kid you not- Vonda Shepard. "Been Around the World" and "Star" are the only glimpses we get of the old Cracker. Ugh. Grade: D



Willie's comments: Phew. It turns out that, on Gentleman's Blues, the band was just in the midst of what the Detroit Lions call a "rebuilding period." On that album, Cracker announced that they were turning away from the stoner alt-rock that made them famous, but they didn't know what to do to fill the gap left by the absence of anthemic choruses and power chords. Thankfully, that hole has been spackled over on their fifth album, Forever. Lowery and Hickman have steeped themselves in roots rock here, with country-fried guitars and scruffy rhythms resulting in down-home songs that wouldn't sound out of place being performed at a Cracker Barrel. (No pun intended.)

There's just enough stylistic variety here to keep things from getting dull, too, but not so much that it feels as smug as Camper Van. "Guarded by Monkeys" is a goofy, muscular rocker, but it is quickly followed up by the gospel-flavored folk of "Ain't That Strange." (Gomez would kill for a song with the surly, swampy appeal of "One Fine Day," I might add.) Best of all, Lowery has relocated his gift for spinning hummable melodies out of his microscopic vocal range. The infectious "Don't Bring Us Down," for instance, contains Cracker's best chorus since "Low," and the glistening "Brides of Neptune" finds Lowery earnestly wheezing a tale of mermaids. At first, the unpretentious gaiety of Forever seems like a put-on (this is, after all, the band who wrote "Don't Fuck Me Up [With Peace and Love]"). However, once you give yourself over to the spirit of fun here, you'll believe in the power of Cracker Soul. Grade: A-



Willie's comments: Like Ween's 12 Golden Country Greats, Cracker's Countrysides is a smirky tribute to the sort of old-school country/western music that reigned supreme before patzers like Garth Brooks ruined the genre. Apart from Lowery's hilarious diatribe against Virgin Records, "Ain't Gonna Suck Itself" (which turns an Onion punchline into a sweet wad of bile that's as much ? and the Mysterians as Hank Williams), it's a slurry of greasy covers that are unapologetic in their shitkickin' hickiness. Although it might've worked better as an EP, eschewing redundant versions of Dwight Yoakam's "Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room" and Hank Williams, Jr.'s "Family Tradition," it's nonetheless a record that's very smart in its stupidity, bolstered by Johnny's sweltering guitar stylings and Kenny Margolis's lively, rednecky accordion. The must-hear here is a cover of Ike Reilly's "Duty Free," which retains practically none of the original's Cowboy Junkies-meet-the-dB's detachment, instead rewriting the tune as a timely, ballsy mission statement to "get the fuck out of the USA." Terry Allen's "Truckload of Art," Bruce Springsteen's "Sinaloa Cowboys," and Ray Wylie Hubbard's "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mothers" are given the same treatment, and for the most part, Countrysides is fun with a capital FU. Grade: B+





Carl Craig


Vol. 1- Designer Music- Remixes

Willie's comments: This DJ is the best musical artist to come out of Detroit in years. On this, his third official release, he remixes the songs of various other electronic music artists and frequently comes up with stellar results. His version of Telex's "Moscow Diskow," for example, is a faithful tribute to Kraftwerk, while a reworking of Incognito's "Out of the Storm" yields a true masterpiece of trancey, spacey funk. Craig has similar luck with tracks by BT and UFO, and he gets truly weird on the electronic flamenco of "Picadillo" and Inner City's "Buena Vida." The final three tracks veer too far into irritating house territory, with headache-inducing repetition of drumbeats, but fans of the Warp or Ninja Tunes labels will be in for a thrill. Grade: B+



Creeper Lagoon


Take Back the Universe and Give Me Yesterday

Willie's comments: Here's a little serving suggestion for Creeper Lagoon's second album: take two or three Advil before you push the play button on your stereo. That way, the painkilling agents should start to kick in right around the start of the fifth song, "Up All Night," and you will have successfully pre-empted the headache you'll get from that song's mind-implodingly stupid lyrics ("Staying up all night/Gonna get wasted"). It might take stronger stuff than Advil, however, to enable you to stomach the offensively generic post-grunge bombast served up by this quartet. The would-be "soaring" choruses and flavorless melodies that compose most of Take Back the Universe could've sprung from the fakebooks of any hack Vedder-ites from Collective Soul to Lifehouse, and even the lively production of poor Jerry Harrison can't salvage aimless tracks like "Wrecking Ball" or the seven-minute "Keep From Moving." That said, the easygoing "Under the Tracks" is the sort of perfect, derivative-but-who-cares-when-it's-so-catchy pop song that Noel Gallagher used to be able to write, and the album does have two late-arriving winners in "Lover's Leap" and "Here We Are," which betray a Britpop influence that I wish the band would've explored more. Great though those three songs are, though, they're a bit of a Pyrrhic victory among the rest of the slop here. That is to say, Creeper Lagoon's music is a lot like a police sharpshooter who nails the terrorist right between the eyes, but not before he accidentally takes out ten of his own men first. Grade: C



Crooked Fingers


Bring on the Snakes

Willie's comments: I would be willing to bet that, if you took Eric Bachmann's old bandmates from Archers of Loaf and let them listen to a Crooked Fingers album, even they would never guess that he was the guy singing, playing guitar, and writing these songs. Whereas the late Archers played punky indie rock that was as tightly wound as a rubber band airplane's propeller, Crooked Fingers plays slow, lengthy folk-rock songs that sound like Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia" as played by minimalist mood artists Pell Mell. If you're in the market for whiskey-soaked, world-weary homilies, Bachmann proves to be quite talented, kicking off the album with the line "Blurry eyes half-bent and I can't take you sober," and steadfastly refusing to let things lighten up from there. Since Bachmann handles all musical duties on this album (save for percussion and a few vocals), Bring on the Snakes emerges as a confessional that's both embittered and intimate, and is bracing as a result. There's a bit too much filler here for an album that's only eight songs long ("Devil's Train" sounds too much like the searing opener "The Rotting Strip"), but if you ever get the urge to make a mix tape of songs for cruising on moonlit nights, I guarantee you will want to kick off side one with something here. Grade: B




Crowded House


Crowded House

Willie's comments: Thanks to my brother, I’ve heard every song Crowded House ever wrote roughly two million times each. As such, I’ve developed a great admiration for songwriter/frontman Neil Finn, because many of the songs he writes are durable enough to withstand the endless repeat listens that I’m subjected to. His dry New Zealand wit, bittersweet melodic sense, and subtle eclecticism result in songs that are catchy enough to deserve (though rarely earn) radio airplay, but twisted enough to not sound generic. Crowded House’s debut album is an unheralded treasure chest of ‘80s synth-rock that falls somewhere between Til Tuesday and the Fixx, and it contains that decade’s best single: the affecting relationship elegy “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” Also wonderful are “Can’t Carry On,” “World Where You Live,” and the utterly haunting “Hole in the River,” and the only weak points are the ill-advised boogies “Mean to Me” and “Something So Strong” (though the former does have some great lyrics). You have to love this album. Grade: A-


Temple of Low Men

Willie's comments: You don’t necessarily have to love this album quite so much. Finn, drummer Paul Hester, and bassist Nick Seymour evidently decided that their sophomore effort would benefit from lots of meditations on death and tuneless funk excursions like “Kill Eye” and “Mansion in the Slums.” Low Men is dishearteningly low on hooks, and sappy ballads like “Into Temptation” and the unforgivably saccharine “Better be Home Soon” have none of the lyrical or melodic bite of “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” The swinging “Sister Madly” is a lot of fun (featuring great guitar work by Richard Thompson), and there are a few scattered moments of emotion and beauty throughout, but mostly, this album is a snore. Grade: C



Willie's comments: Neil’s brother and ex-Split Enz bandmate Tim came aboard at this point to help out with the songwriting and flesh out the arrangements and vocal harmonies. His presence is appreciated. Two songs in particular are more risky and catchy than anything the band did since “Don’t Dream It’s Over”: the America-skewering “Chocolate Cake” and the good-naturedly irreverent “There Goes God.” There are still a few Temple of Low Men-style gaffes like “Whispers and Moans,” but they’re listenable when you sandwich them in with great Kiwi-rock numbers like “Weather with You,” “Fame Is,” and the brilliantly bluesy “All I Ask.” Grade: B


Together Alone

Willie's comments: Critics slagged this album’s bizarre arrangements (log drumming, digeridoos, a Maori choir) as Talking Heads-style pretension, but that seems churlish to me. How can you complain about these elements when they’re used to enliven gorgeous songs like the title track or “Private Universe” (a song whose refrain, “It feels like nothing matters in our private universe,” rivals “Don’t Dream It’s Over” for sheer emotional impact)? Happily, Neil’s songwriting muscles are fully flexed here- traditionally catchy numbers like “Locked Out” and “Kare Kare” compliment stranger (though still infectious) songs like “Pineapple Head” and “Black & White Boy.” Hester’s “Skin Feeling” is rather ugly, but it’s the sole misstep. Grade: A


Recurring Dream

Willie's comments: This greatest hits compilation is available in two versions, one of which contains a bonus disc of live tracks spanning Crowded House’s entire career. Get that one. The one-disc version is a partially successful attempt to distill the four studio albums into seventysomething minutes, appending two okay unreleased tracks (“Instinct” and “Everything is Good for You”) and one great one (the Beatlesy “Not the Girl You Think You Are”). It contains the best songs from the self-titled album and Together Alone, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t go ahead and buy those albums, and Recurring Dream also contains too many songs from Temple of Low Men, to the exclusion of superior ones from Woodface (“Chocolate Cake” and “There Goes God” are frustratingly omitted).

The live disc, however, is essential. “Love You ‘Til the Day I Die” and “Sister Madly” explode in a way that makes the studio versions sound positively sterile, while “Private Universe” and “Hole in the River” improve upon the already-perfect studio versions. “Hole in the River,” in fact, incorporates the Irish folk song “The Parting Glass,” for some idea of how terrific and inventive Crowded House was as a live band. I understand that the live disc was an extremely limited edition, but if you’re interested in the band at all, you really do need it. Grades: One-disc version: B- Two-disc version: A+



Willie's comments: "13 undiscovered gems," reads the sticker on the front of this posthumous compilation of rarities. And danged if these 13 songs aren't gems! They range from blissed-out rockers like "Recurring Dream" to folky ballads like Neil's agreeably straightforward "I Love You Dawn," and prove that Crowded House had a wealth of great material that went well beyond what made the studio albums. The dour, catchy "Help is Coming" ranks with the band's best, while Paul Hester turns in a surprisingly catchy song with "My Telly's Gone Bung." Just as surprising is the fact that Afterglow, despite its tracks being culled from numerous recording sessions, coheres better as an album than Temple of Low Men or Woodface did. It's a swirling, mysterious album, even when Neil is singing about his dog (or Paul about his TV set), and one that definitely belongs in your collection. Grade: A


John Schlegel writes: I like Temple of Low Men! It's a compellingly dark, thoughtful, introspective LP with some truly creative musical experimentation. "Kill Eye" and "Mansion in the Slums" are cool songs. I would probably agree with you that "Sister Madly" is the most instantly likable song on the album, and that Temple is a little spare on hooks. But this is really a likable album if you give it enough chances. You didn't mention "I Feel Possessed" either, and it's a classic too. I give it an A-.

Katie writes: Being a big fan of Crowded House, I'm a little dismayed to see its genius credited to Australia. New Zealand may be small, but we've got our gems, and this is one of them. [WILLIE'S NOTE: I've corrected my error. I really should know better than that.]

Iarla writes: I'm a bit suprised that you hated Temple of Low Men. It's my favourite album by them. (I hate most of Woodface by the way - I can think of 6 songs on that album I'd take - nothing more). I suggest you either make yourself a resequenced version of the album swapping "In The Lowlands" and "Better Be Home Soon" around, or just play the album without "Better Be Home Soon."






The Cure



Willie's comments: Y'know, a lot of early Goth music really hasn't aged well. Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Fatima Mansions (if they count- I count 'em); none of them sounds particularly unsettling to me, or even all that sad, anymore. Compared with the anguished (which is not to say intelligent or good) assaults of mopers like KoRn or white-face-paint-inducing pseudo-nihilists like Nine Inch Nails, the suicidal laments of these early-'80s pioneers now sound practically Beatlesy. Okay, maybe not that far to the other end, but they certainly don't have the ability to bring you down the way they once did. It's this fact that makes this early album from the Cure all the more impressive, for having made it 20 years with its forboding glower relatively undiminished. Granted, the production techniques have started to collect Social Security by now- Lawrence Tolhurst's drums are annoyingly muffled, and the hollow flanger sweeps are embarrassingly overused- and an eight-song album really shouldn't repeat itself as much as this one does, but Pornography nevertheless manages a few top-notch slices of unleavened depression. The seven-minute opener "One Hundred Years," for example, is a mechanical soundscape of hell thousands of times more claustrophobic than Trent Reznor could ever accomplish: an incessant drum loop and two-note bassline refuse to sit still as Robert Smith yelps about misery and death, and a jagged guitar plays a haunting figure that flirts with atonality but will never leave your head. Smith's lyrical imagery throughout the album achieves moments of brilliant, apocalyptic terror as well; lost love is juxtaposed with prisons and "a freshly squashed fly," and in "The Hanging Garden," animals seem to be ritualistically tortured and massacred in the most appalling way imaginable (i.e., even worse than what the beef, pork, and poultry industries do to them), judging from Smith's cries. This stuff is pretty over-the-top, though never to the degree of Goth Talk indulgence exemplified by the Swans. If you're feeling particularly determined and humorless about your self-pity, and you need a musical accompaniment to make you feel even more serious about how the world has wronged you, Pornography should serve you nicely. Grade: B



Willie's comments: This may not be "the best album ever," as South Park’s Kyle described it, but Smith and his band of unmerry men have created a near-perfect mood album for gloomy, lonely nights. The waves of keyboard strings and loping basslines that permeate much of the album aren’t forceful enough to infringe on your consciousness so much as they subtly enhance your bad mood, and the same goes for Smith’s doleful vocal pleas. The theatrics of Pornography are gone here, replaced by a mature musical approach that's more slow new wave than anything. There aren’t many hooks to speak of on this album, save for "Lovesong," which you will recognize when you hear it but forget immediately afterward. However, forgettable though it is, Disintegration is the perfect soundtrack to a good cry. Grade: A-