disclaimer is not a toy


Daft Punk

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Homework

Willie's comments: Until Air came along, Daft Punk was the reigning French electronica duo, and for good reason. Their debut album, Homework, is a masterpiece of house grooves and beats, spiced up with plenty of innovative sounds to keep things from getting boring. Though the disc takes a few songs to really get going, things leap into the stratosphere with "Da Funk," a joyous loop of a single. From that point on, Homework manages to keep your body moving while still contributing hummable tunes- or at least engagingly weird ones (like "Teachers," which consists of the band listing their influences in distorted, Ween-inspired voices). It's a testament to Daft Punk's songwriting skills that "Funk Ad," which closes the album and consists of a brief portion of "Da Funk" played in reverse, can seem just as essential as top-notch cuts like "Indo Silver Club" and "Fresh." Grade: A-

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Dandy Warhols

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Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia

Willie's comments: You have to get ten tracks into the Dandy Warhols' Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia until you hit a song that fully lives up to its- and the band's- potential: "Bohemian Like You." The song is a joyously fuzzy glam rock number with a chorus that's as heavenly and perfect (punctuated with an ecstatic "Woo!") as the similarly awesome verses require to make a truly great song. Too often, the Warhols' other songs ("Godless," "Mohammed," et al) forget the importance of a chorus, following up terrifically melodic verses with lengthy instrumental bits that don't really go anywhere special. The way the music scene is at the moment, though, maybe we should be grateful for bands that even manage to get their verses right, and the Warhols definitely do that. Courtney Taylor has a million different singing voices, resembling, by turns, Elliott Smith, Beck, Thom Yorke, and Smash Mouth's Steve Harwell, and the band effectively locates musical moods as multifaceted as his larynx. "Nietzsche" is inspired dreampop, "Get Off" is infectious Britpop (made all the more impressive by the fact that the Warhols are from Portland), and "Sleep" is a successful approximation of Pink Floyd's melancholy acoustic numbers, etc. As I said, "Bohemian Like You" is the only song on here that's utterly perfect; some are overlong, some are underwritten, and a couple ("Horse Pills" in particular) are just annoying. However, Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia nevertheless displays more songwriting smarts in 56 minutes than most bands display in 20 years' worth of material. Grade: B+

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Welcome to the Monkey House

Willie's comments: Still no choruses. Anywhere. At all. Ever. Rather than attempting to re-create the druggy atmosphere of their previous work, though, the Dandies take a hard left turn into New Order-influenced electro-pop this time around, aided and abetted by Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes as co-producer on most tracks. It's a very interesting choice: songs like "Scientist," "We Used to be Friends," and others are imbued with all sorts of cool, programmed percussion and sequenced basslines that put forth an energy that the songs might not otherwise have, and use the rhythm to stretch out the interest level over a few more minutes than some of these tracks really deserve. Frankly, I'm increasingly irritated by Taylor's stubborn insistence on holding the songs to one riff that's repeated over and over and over, changing the vocal line but never the accompaniment (Mark E. Smith could get away with it because of his insanely compelling delivery; Taylor's whispered doldrums- not so much), but it doesn't matter so much when the songs are actually danceable! Think house music, I guess. Also, it's nice to hear Taylor's fascinating falsetto on "Plan A" and the terrific "The Dandy Warhols Love Almost Everyone," and Evan Dando contributes the first interesting thing he's done in 10 years by co-writing the supple Bowie tribute "The Last High." There's still a tendency to lean toward exhausting, pseudo-brainy, sub-Stephen Malkmus irony here, unfortunately (the bong sample that opens the wan "I Am Over It"; lyrics like "Wire is coming back again/Elastica got sued by them/When Michael Jackson dies, we're covering 'Blackbird'"), and the whole record derails into BoringLand for the last four songs, but most of the songs get a mild buzz going, and if you were into the Dandies' other work, you won't feel terribly disappointed by Monkey House. I wouldn't pay full price, though. Grade: B

READER COMMENTS:

Joe Friesen writes: I live in Portland, hometown of The Dandy Warhols. And you cannot imagine how fucking sick of these cretins I am. People are constantly dragging me to their shows, and it seems like each one is worse than the last. Every song they play sounds exactly the same -- drony, faceless, lethargic indie-rock -- and the band's indier-than-thou arrogance continues to skyrocket. And their songwriting is dreadful; they only have one good song, and it's only good because it rips off "Brown Sugar"!

Honestly, I think if I see one of them on the street, wearing their trademark "ironic" clothing, I might just punch them in the nose. Or yell out "You suck!" Or just walk past without saying anything, but quietly scoff at them in my mind. It's all good.

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: LEMONHEADS

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The dB's

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Stands for Decibels

Willie's comments: Combining Beatlesy cheek, spastic new wave rhythms, garage rock melodies, and an admitted Big Star fixation, the dB's were a terrific early '80s band whose members went on to work with R.E.M., Yo La Tengo, and (less impressively) Hootie & the Blowfish, among others. With these qualifications, it comes as no surprise that the debut album from the band is a lost classic. Guitarists Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey traded off songwriting duties (except for the full-band effort "Dynamite," which is a giddy combination of Doppler effect singing and stuttering organ), with Holsapple crafting infectious, poppy love songs like "Big Brown Eyes" and "Moving in Your Sleep," and Stamey handling the artier rock songs like "Espionage" and "Cycles Per Second" (which sounds like the hyperactive kid brother of Elvis Costello's "Lipstick Vogue"). It's as light on substance as most great '60s pop, but if you hear these songs once, they'll stick in your mind until your dying day. Grade: A-

SEE ALSO: CHRIS STAMEY

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: FREEDY JOHNSTON, R.E.M., YO LA TENGO

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Dead Kennedys

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Frankenchrist

Willie's comments: Judging from the legions upon legions of interchangable, "Jello for President!" punk kids who unquestioningly swallow every word that falls from vocalist Jello Biafra's mouth, I wouldn't have thought that the Dead Kennedys could have done any wrong in their eyes, but from what Mark Prindle tells me, this album (their third) alienated a few of them. The skinhead hardcore ones, anyway. See, it's not really composed of the pounding, tuneful hardcore the band became known for (except for the brief "Hellnation," which just sounds like a noisy wad of glop no matter how many times I listen to it); for the most part, the focus is on multi-part, lengthy, and above all angry punk-rock satire that most closely resembles the crazy surf-rockabilly of the Cramps. But the Cramps never attempted anything as ambitious as "Jock-O-Rama," a tirade against suburbia's amoral culture of high school sports that finds room for an ironically anthemic chorus, an almost countrified break, and a hilarious cheerleading chant ("Snap those spinal cords! Ha ha ha!"). As intelligent and funny as Biafra's snide diatribes against Big Business, corrupt politicians, MTV, and complacent American soullessness can be, they'd become wearying if it weren't for the killer choruses and ceaselessly inventive guitar work of East Bay Ray. If you can find a song with a cooler surfing riff than "Soup is Good Food," I'd like to hear it. The tunes average out to around four-and-a-half minutes apiece, and I have to say that average probably could've been taken down on some overlong numbers like "Chicken Farm" and "Stars and Stripes of Corruption," but the fact that the album doesn't go down easily in one sitting is chiefly because there's such a surfeit of substance on Frankenchrist that it's hard to take all at once. It's catchy, it's weird, it's cynical, scary, and hilarious, and that's more than enough to make up for its flaws. Grade: A

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The Dead Milkmen

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Big Lizard in My Backyard

Willie's comments: As ex-Detroit Tiger Jim Walewander once said of the Milkmen, "They’re funny, they’re loud, they’re fast, they’re violent- they’re my band." I couldn’t have said it better myself. And you may understand why after listening to this, their debut album. Or you may find yourself peevishly wondering who would bother to release this crap. It’s an uneven and polarizing album- speedy punk rants like "Takin’ Retards to the Zoo" and "Nutrition" are hilarious and catchy, but teensploitation tracks like "Lucky" and "Plum Dumb" are, well, plumb dumb. The winners outnumber the losers just barely ("Gorilla Girl" makes up for a lot of bad choices, though), and you could do a lot worse, I guess... Grade: B

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Eat Your Paisley!

Willie's comments: This was the first Milkmen album I purchased, and I thought it was pretty good at the time, but now that I’ve grown up (and compared it to the rest of the Milkmen’s catalog), this is a pretty dull, uninspired album. Rodney Anonymous has zero vocal range, and for some reason, the band decided to make Joe Jack Talcum’s guitar and Dave Blood’s bass sound ridiculously chimey and ridiculously twangy, respectively. None of that helps already-weak compositions like "Happy Is," "Swampland of Desire," and "50 Things." However, "Air Crash Museum" is a hysterical tale about just what it sounds like ("Jim Croce’s in the corner/ The Big Bopper’s by the stairs/ Ricky Nelson’s in the kitchen, but nobody cares"), and "Moron" is the most mature song the band would write until Soul Rotation, so if you’re a die-hard fan, you probably won’t be entirely disappointed. Grade: C

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Bucky Fellini

Willie's comments: Here’s where the going gets going. 16 infectious songs, encompassing genres as disparate as indie pop (a wonderful cover of Daniel Johnston’s "Rocketship"), surf rock (fan favorite "Surfin’ Cow"), and a clever parody of stupid 80s dance music ("Instant Club Hit [You’ll Dance to Anything]"). Rodney’s lyrics are becoming more consistently funny, and when they fail, the band is more than capable of picking up his slack. Despite a handful of clinkers, Bucky Fellini is good lightweight fun. Grade: B+

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Instant Club Hit (You'll Dance to Anything) EP

Willie's comments: Don’t bother with this CD single. Three versions of the title track and two previously-released instrumentals dilute all of the entertainment value provided by the one unreleased composition, "Ask Me to Dance" (a twisted unrequited love tale about a girl with one leg, played amusingly by Joe Jack). The title track is amazing, but just buy Bucky Fellini instead. Grade: D

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Beelzebubba

Willie's comments: The Milkmen’s opus. Beelzebubba picks up where Bucky Fellini left off, upping the production values and the maturity level, while leaving intact their sophomoric sense of humor, multifaceted songwriting skills, and simple melodic values. Thus, "Brat in the Frat" is a hooky Greek folk song in which Rodney lambasts fraternity life (clever), "RC’s Mom" is a horn-imbued funk tune in which Rodney adopts a James Brown yelp to imply that The Hardest Working Man in Music is a wife-beater (it really is clever), and "Born to Love Volcanoes" rather perversely blames PBS for our nation’s ills, but it’s clever, too. All this, and you get Joe Jack’s "Punk Rock Girl," which is every bit as catchy as, say, Natalie Imbruglia’s "Torn" and loads more fun! Grade: A+

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Smokin' Banana Peels EP

Willie's comments: The Dead Milkmen are not a band whose songs need to be remixed. Not even "Instant Club Hit," which is a dance song to begin with, but certainly not the perfectly overproduced psychedelic headache that is "Smokin’ Banana Peels" (the wonderful original version is on Beelzebubba). Alas, Was (Not Was) stick us with FOUR remixes of the title track on this EP, and not one of them is listenable. Then there are five previously unreleased Milkmen tunes, and none of them are particularly good, except "The Puking Song." I always like the songs Joe Jack sings. Grade: D

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Metaphysical Graffiti

Willie's comments: This album jettisons most of the fun genre-bending of the previous two albums and returns to the Milkmen’s roots in punk. As such, things get kind of draggy and monotonous when the songs are stripped down to guitar, bass, drums, and Rodney ("Part 3," "In Praise of Sha Na Na," "Now Everybody’s Me," et al). However, the Italian-flavored "Epic Tales of Adventure" and trippy ballad "Dollar Signs in Her Eyes" provide a welcome respite from the kiddie punk, and the schoolchildren singalong that opens "Beige Sunshine" is nice and twisted. Grade: B

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Soul Rotation

Willie's comments: After Metaphysical Graffiti, the Milkmen’s record label went belly-up, so they signed with Disney’s Hollywood Records for an ill-fated two-album stint that resulted in the most creativity the Milkmen had ever displayed, but it also resulted in the Milkmen losing ownership of all songs produced in said stint. Anyhoo, Soul Rotation is a subtle, keyboard-drenched album that brings Joe to the vocal forefront and downplays the band’s more juvenile impulses. There are still some laughs, in the bad neighbor rant of "Here Comes Mr. X" and Rodney’s funk workout "How It’s Gonna Be," but there’s also the thoughtful pop song "The Secret of Life," the theological pondering of "Belafonte’s Inferno" and "God’s Kid Brother," and the heartbreaking separation song "Silly Dreams." Musically, it’s not as in-your-face as their previous outings, but the quick punk of "The Conspiracy Song" and the unorthodox, syncopated guitar grind of "If I Had a Gun" (it’s more motorik than ska) keep things spinning. Grade: A+

Not Richard, But Dick

Willie's comments: Less a Dead Milkmen album than a tribute album to the many popular styles of independent college rock, Not Richard, But Dick plows through lo-fi Sebadoh rock ("Nobody Falls Like"), King Missile spoken-word experimentation ("I Dream of Jesus"), They Might Be Giants didacticism ("The Infant of Prague Customized My Van"), Ween tape manipulation ("Let’s Get the Baby High"), and many more on this 28-minute album. Joe cheerfully asserts that he’s "Not Crazy" even as he sings about considering cooking his cat, bitterly withdraws from a former flame on "I Started to Hate You," and tells a short teen slasher story on "Jason’s Head," while Rodney appears, disarmingly sincere and unguarded, to tell the tale of "The Woman Who Was Also a Mongoose," on which he also performs a gorgeous tin-whistle solo. Inconsequential to be sure, but lots of fun, too. Grade: A

Now We Are Ten

Willie's comments: In an effort to earn some extra scratch after their Hollywood Records debacle, the Milkmen released this album of (mostly) pre-Big Lizard recordings which largely consist of songs that would eventually appear on Big Lizard. The sound quality is horrible, ranging from staticky and unlistenable to piercingly tinny, while the unreleased songs are basically useless and the Big Lizard retreads are redundant. The album closes with a nice cover of the Yardbirds’ "Shapes of Things," but that’s nowhere near enough to justify purchasing it. Grade: F

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Chaos Rules: Live at the Trocadero

Willie's comments: Again, sound quality is a major obstacle on this collection of songs from the Soul Rotation and Not Richard, But Dick tours (which feature no songs from those albums- except an unlisted "If I Had a Gun," ha ha- because of Hollywood Records). The sound is about as good as an audience bootleg, which makes the album pale in comparison to such well-produced live albums as, say, DEVO’s Now It Can Be Told or Phish’s A Live One. As for the performances, they sound like audience bootlegs, too. There’s not a lot of energy in the Milkmen, and Rodney actually resorts to Dan Quayle jokes toward the end. Skip it. Grade: D

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Stoney's Extra Stout (Pig)

Willie's comments: The Milkmen’s final studio album is a fitting farewell. Most of the band’s punk inclinations are now, if not totally gone, at least seen through a pop prism, which makes this a relatively easy listen. Rodney is at his cleverest on "The Blues Song" (take, for example, the oft-quoted line "The blues is a way for white kids to think they understand the problems of black people without ever actually having to meet any"), and he doesn’t disappoint on "Peter Bazooka" or "Chaos Theory," either, but it’s Joe’s album. "I’m Flying Away" and "Like to Be Alone" are actual love songs, illuminating the earnest direction Joe would subsequently take with Touch Me Zoo and Butterfly Joe. Dean contributes a funk song, too! It’s a perfect album. Grade: A+

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Death Rides a Pale Cow: The Ultimate Collection

Willie's comments: This posthumous "greatest hits" compilation would serve as a useful primer to Milkmen newbies (save for the inexplicable absence of "Takin’ Retards to the Zoo"); it includes a little something from every album except the Hollywood Records ones and Chaos Rules, and, for fans, it’s fascinating to hear just how far the band progressed from Big Lizard to Stoney’s. Grade: A

SEE ALSO: TOUCH ME ZOO

SEE ALSO: BURN WITCH BURN

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT THE DEAD MILKMEN


Death Cab for Cutie

Something About Airplanes

Willie's comments: As ostentatiously clever as Brainy Smurf and as ingratiating as... Friendly Smurf, if there was one, Washington's Death Cab for Cutie started off as the quietest emo band in the world on Something About Airplanes. Obviously influenced by Sunny Day Real Estate, but with a more endearingly vulnerable voice than Jeremy Enigk's, guitarist/songwriter Benjamin Gibbard pens songs that are pretty, wordy, and the slightest bit underripe. The infectious, keyboard-powered "President of What?" contains the album's most easily identifiable hook, and the terrific "Line of Best Fit" and "Bend to Squares" get along fine without traditional rock riffs, but the paper-thin "Pictures in an Exhibition" and "Amputations" circle and circle without ever properly touching down. (It doesn't help matters that the production, by guitarist Chris Walla, inexplicably hides the guitars and bass behind Nathan Good's drums.) "President of What?" is luckily a strong enough number to carry the whole album, but you may find yourself wishing that Gibbard would've tapped that well of catchiness more during some of Something About Airplanes's draggier moments. Grade: B

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We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes

Willie's comments: The second album from Death Cab for Cutie is a breath of fresh air. Not so much from a musical perspective- the band now cranks out high-quality indie rock from the same territory inhabited by Pavement and Sunny Day Real Estate, where guitars don't propel the songs so much as run alongside them. What's truly enthralling about this album is Gibbard's lyrics (after a lineup change, he's playing drums on this album). Like a young Michael Stipe, or Soul Coughing's M. Doughty, Gibbard writes lyrics that evoke specific images while remaining completely vague about their underlying meaning ("I can't spit it out when the date's been set/ The white routine to be ingested inaccurately"). It's great to be able to sink one's teeth into the lyrics this way, puzzling over what's beneath them, and it's been a long time since I've picked up an album whose lyrics were so rife with possibilities (the last one I can remember is Radiohead's OK Computer, and that came out in 1997). The songs themselves tend to jerk back and forth merrily; the music is tuneful but not really catchy, and "Scientist Studies" and "For What Reason" are very memorable. What's best is, Death Cab for Cutie know when to leave well enough alone. Whereas most bands would take these songs and melodies and insist that they swan-dive into a pool of over-the-top distortion, the songs on We Have the Facts crescendo and fall without ever succumbing to musical bombast. I wish "No Joy in Mudville" wouldn't plod along so slowly, but that's made up for by the fact that Gibbard takes the opportunity to sing in that song, "If the tempo was lousy it was lost on all but you." That made me feel a lot better. Grade: A

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The Photo Album

Willie's comments: For their third album, Death Cab has finally found an inventive drummer (Michael Schorr), thus allowing Gibbard to get back to guitar duties and allowing the band to release their most musically creative work yet. Not only are the melodies more pointed and pronounced in an early R.E.M. vein (check out "I Was a Kaleidoscope" and "Information Travels Faster" for the best songwriting since "President of What?"), but the arrangements have been augmented by Walla's newly hyperactive production. Whereas the songs on We Have the Facts basically stuck to the jangle-rock trio formula, The Photo Album glazes the songs with treated drums, subtle piano work, and invigorating touches of noisy guitar. As for Gibbard, he's still got his gift for observant head-scratchers ("The shop fronts on Holly are dirty words/Asterisks in for the vowels"), but he also proves that he can pull off intelligible commentary without forsaking his bag of language tricks. "Why You'd Want to Live Here" is a hilarious diatribe against L.A. ("I drank from the faucet and kept my receipt for when they weigh me on the way out/Here nothing is free"), and "Styrofoam Plates" is a heart-wrenchingly bitter eulogy for an absent father that I would love to quote from, but I don't want to spoil it. Suffice to say that it could be published as a poem and be a billion times as effective as Angela's Ashes; the fact that it comes accompanied by an unimpeachable melody is, like the rest of The Photo Album, pure gravy. Grade: A

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You Can Play These Songs with Chords (+ 10)

Willie's comments: In 1997, the first Death Cab EP, You Can Play These Songs with Chords, was released as a cassette, and after The Photo Album, it received a belated CD release, with the addition of ten non-album songs the band recorded up through We Have the Facts. It's a good buy, provided you're a fan. Five of the eight songs on the original EP would later appear on Something Without Airplanes, but since Gibbard played all the instruments on the EP, these songs don't suffer from the muddy production that sullied them on Airplanes; Gibbard's fine one-man-band performances bring out the intimate, lonely qualities of "Pictures in an Exhibition" and "Amputations," while the three songs that didn't make it off the EP are fine, tiny emo numbers. Gibbard hadn't yet perfected his singing voice- sometimes employing a Billie Joe Armstrong whine that he mercifully shelved- and the arrangements are pretty standard home-recording stuff, but his melodies are strong enough to carry the day. After the EP ends, the remaining songs are hidden gems and unserious one-offs, in equal measure. There's a Smiths cover ("This Charming Man") that proves that Death Cab could've become The Strokes if their style had taken a slightly more upbeat turn, a whimsical tape-loop experiment ("Flustered/Hey Tomcat!"), and an embarrassing Walla vocal performance ("New Candles"), but "State Street Residential," "Song for Kelly Huckaby," and "Army Corps of Engineers" are all pensive, mid-tempo jangle rock of the sort that made us fall in love with them to begin with. Also, the package comes with funny, self-effacing liner notes by the band. It's worthwhile if you're already into them, because it's not often Death Cab lets its playful side out of the closet for some fresh air, but don't come expecting a treat on the level of The Photo AlbumGrade: B+

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Transatlanticism

Willie's comments: If the Jazz Butcher hadn't already claimed the album title Sex and Travel, it could've served fairly well as this album's moniker, because nearly every song touches on one or both of those concepts. Gibbard's lyrics continue to become more and more specific as he laments an ill-considered fling on a vacation (the shockingly raw-nerved "Tiny Vessels"), waxes nostalgic about driving at night with a friend ("Passenger Seat"), bemoans the physical distance between lovers both in a relationship together (the title track) and not any longer ("A Lack of Color"), and looks back ambivalently on awkward teenage make-out sessions in cars ("We Looked Like Giants"). The entire album is drenched in regret, and coming on the heels of the frequently poppy Photo Album- not to mention Give Up, the bubbly debut from Gibbard's new wave side project The Postal Service- the loping tempos and hazy melodies here might seem underwritten for the first few listens. Delicate piano lines and simple, jangly guitar chords carry entire tracks much farther than you'd expect. The only immediately gripping songs are the two that the entire band co-wrote: the roiling anthem "The New Year" and the galloping "We Looked Like Giants," but once it hits you why most of these tunes are so shambling- because Gibbard himself sounds so utterly broken that more muscular arrangements would threaten to crush him to bits- some of the most exquisitely sad tunes in recent memory reveal themselves. Whether it's the heart-stopping "ooh-wa-ho" refrain of "Lightness," the repetitive crescendo of "Transatlanticism," or the self-loathing way Gibbard spits, "You are beautiful, but you don't mean a thing to me" on "Tiny Vessels," there's plenty here to kill you as gently as possible. Not every song is a keeper, mind you: "Title and Registration" draws out a forced metaphor about glove compartments until it snaps, and "Passenger Seat" really does meander. However, at its best, Transatlanticism is a truly stunning and poignant document of loneliness and disconnection. Grade: B+

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Plans

Willie's comments: Even after signing a Big Deal major-label contract with Atlantic and being flogged constantly on TV's 9021O.C., there was scant reason for concern that Death Cab would slowly transform into one of those defanged my-guitar-makes-only-sensitive-sounds bands like Straylight Run or Keane that the teen girl squad loves so much. Gibbard is far too big a bookworm to succumb to Chris Martin lyrical blandness or gut-spilling Conor Obsert histrionics, Walla too fussy a producer to allow even the most traditional of indie-pop arrangements to sound sterile (for example, the straightforward "Your Heart is an Empty Room" is still continually, lovingly tweaked as it plays out), and the rhythm section of Nick Harmer and Jason McGerr too creatively restless to merely tick-tock along without flourish. If Plans does betray Atlantic's influence by working hard to be accessible- the soaring chorus of "Crooked Teeth" and the precisely arranged layers of "Soul Meets Body" replace the band's characteristic humility with the bracing confidence of early R.E.M.- Gibbard's songwriting nonetheless sacrifices no substance to make room for more single-minded hooks and murmurings on fleeting temporal pleasure than The Photo Album or Transatlanticism, respectively, contained. It's a beautiful, mature record in which loved ones haven't just died, but "each descending peak on the LCD took you a little farther away from me," and the uncertainty of the afterlife is addressed in calm conjectures in which "Heaven and Hell decide that they both are satisfied and illuminate the NOs on their 'VACANCY' signs." Also, it's nice to hear the band open their palette up again, letting a tiny acoustic strummer ("I Will Follow You Into the Dark") and a stinging, ominous waltz ("Someday You Will Be Loved") share the stage with their typical expansive indie-friendliness. A couple eye-roll-inducing piano dirges aside ("Different Names for the Same Thing" and "What Sarah Said," both tedious enough to threaten this listener's goodwill on the first couple listens), Plans is a remarkable success simply by virtue of the fact that Death Cab for Cutie knows a hell of a lot of ways to make bittersweet guitar plucking and vulnerable singing rib-stickingly memorable. May this talent make them all millionaires; they've earned it. Grade: A-

SEE ALSO: THE POSTAL SERVICE

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: THE PROM; ANDREA MAXAND; CARISSA'S WIERD; DECEMBERISTS

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE


Decemberists

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Castaways and Cutouts

Willie's comments: Colin Meloy and his bandmates have taken a surprising bit of flak for naming their band after a failed Russian political movement, but the name fits perfectly with the themes of failure, oppression, and misery throughout history that permeate their lyrics (not to mention the glimmers of odd, black humor that show up here and there). As the title of their masterful debut album suggests, the Decemberists effortlessly churn out catchy, sad odes to folks whose lives can't be considered "successful" by any normal measure: a woman who prostitutes herself to pirates in order to feed her kids, a girl evicted from her house whose lover promises her "a home built of packaging foam," the ghost of a stillborn baby who's in love with a long-dead chimney sweep, and so on. Rather than being as dour as that sounds, though, Meloy manages to be amazingly affectionate toward his characters, even as his tone maintains a Hemingway-esque distance from them (e.g., "And I say your uncle was a crooked French Canadian, and he was gutshot running gin/And how his guts were all suspended in his fingers and how he held 'em/How he held 'em/Held 'em in"). Better still, the music never succumbs to dreariness either, instead maintaining a thoughtful, folksy thrust that can take the form of accordion-based sea chanties ("A Cautionary Song"), plaintive jangle-rock ("Leslie Anne Levine"), or multi-part rock masterpieces ("Odalisque"). They've gotten quite a few comparisons to Neutral Milk Hotel, but the band's playing is much tighter and more accessible than that; I'd say Meloy's songwriting smarts are closer to an indie-rock Neil Finn or a quirkier R.E.M.- not to mention the fact that his voice sounds kind of like Rufus Wainwright. At the end of the album, when the glorious "California One" morphs into the outcast anthem "Youth and Beauty Brigade," entreating underachievers everywhere to unite, it's a moment so full of hope that it feels like the souls of the downtrodden everywhere can finally rest. Grade: A

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Her Majesty

Willie's comments: Her Majesty is a much more difficult album to get to know than Castaways and Cutouts, with only three songs (the Sgt. Pepper's-esque "Billy Liar," the anthemic "Song for Myla Goldberg," and the wonderful, stomping "The Chimbley Sweep") giving the listener much to hang onto as far as instant pop gratification is concerned. Be patient, though, and with repeated spins, the meandering tempos, spaghetti-Western flourishes, and quirkier melodies will seep into your brain. Her Majesty finds Meloy more interested in crescendoes- and the way a seemingly ordinary song can become magnificent with one unexpected turn- than in being homogeneously dazzling, and songs like "The Gymnast, High Above the Ground" and "Shanty for the Arethusa" are all the smarter for it. (That's on top of his already wonderful lyrics, which make a few concessions to contemporary times- like the aforementioned ode to the author of Bee Season- but are still a Scrabble player's dream, with lots of great words like bombazine, funiculi, and cardamom sprinkled around in Meloy's tales of ne'er-do-wells through the years.) The band's interplay has become more fluid as well, able to lurch from taut jangle-pop to lugubrious atmospheric washes and sea chanties and back again while contributing countless individual moments so perfect they'll give you goosebumps. Granted, there are times when this album really is just flat-out aimless, as on the seven-minute nothingness of "I Was Meant for the Stage" and the too-cute "Red Right Ankle," but it's still well worth the time it takes to get into. Grade: B+

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Picaresque

Willie's comments: Here, Meloy hones his hapless character sketches and his bandmates focus their varied musical skills to create a surprisingly uptempo- which is not to say largely upbeat- album that may well wind up being their finest. By far the most voracious attention-seeker of the bunch is "The Mariner's Revenge Song," a sinister, epic sea chanty that employs balalaika folk textures better than any band since Camper Van Beethoven and that spins a more thorough vengeance yarn- conflating The Count of Monte Cristo with the story of Jonah- than you'd think possible in the rock arena. The remainder of Picaresque is no less spectacular for being less show-offy, though: Meloy still bites off his every polysyllabic word with relish, and the sympathetic-but-strict production (by Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla) keeps at bay the Decemberists' occasional tendency to start playing and wait for a song to materialize. "Eli, the Barrow Boy" is mostly left to Meloy and his acoustic guitar, emphasizing the haunting melody, but the regime-change anthem "The Infanta" gallops powerfully along, with a coup threatening to explode at any moment like a Pyrex dish on a hot stove, and "16 Military Wives" confidently brandishes its upbeat Chicago/Lovin' Spoonful-style pop arrangement. I like looking for things to gripe about, so I have, at no small personal expense, developed some quibbles with Picaresque ("The Bagman's Gambit" is twice as long as it should be, "On the Bus Mall" is all but unnoticeable amid flashier songs), but they're admittedly petty when the whole project is so delicious and nourishing in its indie-folk intelligence. Grade: A

READER COMMENTS:

Joe Friesen writes: Re: Her Majesty: Huh. The Gymnast High Above the Ground is good, and I Was Meant for the Stage is flat-out aimless nothingness.

Hmm. I like you Willie, but I don't pretend to understand you. =]

I dunno, I've always thought that if there's a weak or boring track on this album, then it's gotta be The Gymnast..., but I Was Meant for the Stage is an absolute masterpiece. Maybe since I was once an aspiring actor that song just gets me more than it gets others? Like you said, they definitely are exploiting that GYBE! crescendo-rock style, but to my ears, I hear a slow steady build driven by Colin's finest hour as a vocalist and simple but heart-wrenching lyrics that explodes in a mess of noise by the end on ...the Stage, and four minutes of acoustic meandering and an awkward transition into the more rockin' portion on The Gymnast.

I've also gotta mention As I Rise; it's a silly little ditty stuck on the end to pretty much ruin what could've been a fantastic album conclusion in the end of ...The Stage, but it's so pretty and fun! I love it... it's pasty white boys from Portland pretending to be those famous pasty white boys from London, who spent most of their career pretending to be black gospel singers from Georgia. Seriously, you put Mick on vocals and this could very easily be mistaken for an outtake from Exile on Main Street. Coming from such a huge fan of that album, I figure that's pretty high praise.

Anyway, I just gotta wrap up by saying that this is easily the best album of our young decade, and in my lowly opinion, the Decemberists are the best, most exciting and original rock band to come along in a long time. Cannot WAIT for March 22nd and Picaresque.

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE

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Delgados

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The Great Eastern

Willie's comments: It's strange how there can be such a fine line between stomach-churning genericism and comforting familiarity. For the past month or so, I have failed each time I've attempted to listen to that blasted OK Go album straight through, simply because the songwriting is so brown-paper-bag bland and unoriginal that it makes my brain want to ooze out my ears in an attempt to block the sound. However, when that album makes me start to hate music, I throw on this Delgados album for consolation... even though the melodies here are probably more basic than OK Go's. So what's the difference? Well, personality has something to do with it, definitely. Even though you'll be able to hum along to this Scottish band's songs from the instant they start (check out the sing-songy "Accused of Stealing" or the cleansing "No Danger" to see what I mean), it's not as though they've resorted to simplistic melodies out of a dearth of creativity. Rather, like their countrymen the Hector Collectors, the Delgados are sensible about the fact that a tune need not be entirely new to be memorable and effective, and they surround their humble vocal parts with sophisticated, complex indie-rock arrangements that mix together varied time signatures and innumerable instruments. (Dave Fridmann is unsurprisingly on-hand as producer, and his resourcefulness is well-matched to this band's desire to frame their songs properly. And if you're one of those misguided souls who grumbled about the fakey string sections on the Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin, you'll be pleased to know that actual violins and cellos and stuff are used here.) With intelligent, puzzling lyrics, three vocalists- Emma Pollock being my favorite because I go all weak-kneed for indie-girl singers- and tunes that range from the supple, cozy hot chocolate of "American Trilogy" to the sparking guitar attack of "Thirteen Gliding Principles," The Great Eastern could easily have become top-heavy with its own eclectic multitasking, which is why the uncomplicated melodies are so important. To put it another way, by basing their beautiful, variegated journeys around recognizable bits of singing, you'll be able to go with it all longer than you otherwise might; it's more ambitious than you'll realize upon first listen, and that's what will keep you coming back. When you get to a point in your life where it seems like all your real friends are in jewel cases on shelves in your bedroom (and you will), the Delgados will be one of the few you can confide in even when you're at your lowest. Grade: A

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Hate

Willie's comments: To take my metaphor from above one step further, let's say you fall out of touch with your best friend for a year or two. Not for any real reason; you've just each developed assorted obligations that took you away from one another. And when you meet again, imagine that your friend, formerly so upbeat and carefree and optimistic, is basically a bombed-out shell of a human being who has seen hell and can't ever be the same because of it. Even though you can still see glimmers of the person you care about and love, his entire outlook on life has been shattered, his hands are shaking, and he's visibly trying just to hold it together enough that you won't burst into tears at what's happened to him. That's basically the effect the Delgados' follow-up to The Great Eastern, spookily titled Hate, had on me. But we'll get to that. The first thing you need to know is that Hate is stunningly beautiful. Again working with Fridmann, the Delgados have stuffed nearly all these songs with full string sections, occasional brass sections, and in at least one instance (the hauntingly sad "Woke from Dreaming"), a children's choir that might seem overwrought if it weren't there to support Pollock's deadpan disillusionment. Paul Savage's determined drumming and the band's rockier edges make sure the songs still have teeth- not to mention vocal hooks galore- but the sweeping spectacle provided by the arrangements increases the emotional impact tenfold.

And that emotional impact, which I mentioned earlier, is tantamount to being slowly crushed in a trash compactor. Pollock and guitarist Alun Woodward alternate lead vocal duties throughout the album, but each has written some of the most wrenchingly descriptive lyrics about failure, heartbreak, and futility ever sung. Woodward's "The Drowning Years" describes the appalling helplessness of watching a loved one succumb to mental illness ("Days of release when she almost felt better gradually faded and words couldn't get her"), Pollock's "The Light Before We Land" eloquently expresses the sadness when it becomes clear a relationship has become unsalvageable as "when things that once were beautiful were bland," and it goes on and on, pounding you with its sophisticated, minor-key prettiness until you'll be curled up into a tiny little ball, wondering how much longer it'll be till the human race finally collapses entirely. Even the snarky "All You Need is Hate," Woodward's semi-cheerful subversion of rock 'n' roll love cliches ("Hate is in the air/Come on people, feel it like you just don't care/Everlasting hate!"), sounds horrifyingly sincere when he sings, "You ask me what I've seen... Hate is all I've seen." Not that he is in any way advocating that point of view, or saying that hatred is a good thing; just that it's inescapable and all-encompassing, because that's what the world has come to. That's all that's left. And by the end of this record- so sweet and kindhearted, so utterly inconsolable and hopeless, so amazingly catchy and memorable and perfect- hate is all you'll see, too. Grade: A+

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: MERCURY REV; DAVID BYRNE

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Deltron 3030

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Deltron 3030

Willie's comments: This is the best hip-hop album I've ever heard. Deltron 3030 is another of producer Dan the Automator's smartass brainchildren, along with Gorillaz, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Lovage, etc. and it's a hip-hop sci-fi concept album, fronted by rapper Del tha Funkee Homosapien and featuring Kid Koala's always playful record scratching on top of Automator's sweeping, detail-oriented production. The story, such as it is, is about Del entering an "intergalactic rap battle" in the postapocalyptic world of the year 3030... and there are some Mad Max (or, if you prefer, The Running Man) derived subplots about underground rebels and whatnot, but it really doesn't matter in the end, because each track is a self-contained masterpiece. Even the goofy little spoken interludes like "New Coke" and the hilarious "Meet Cleofis Randolph the Patriarch" (a quick little rap by underappreciated Jewish novelty rapper MC Paul Barman) are great in their own right. Of course, the meat of the album comes in the form of the gigantic songs, in which Del's articulate, light-speed rhyming is goaded on by hooks stolen from what sound like Nuggets-era psych-pop songs ("Madness" and "Things You Can Do"), ominous, bass-heavy thumpery ("3030," "Turbulence"), and samples from old monster movies ("Virus"). Even at its most aggressive, like the breathless "Positive Contact" and the tense "Battlesong," Deltron 3030's execution is never obnoxious, balancing its memorable rhythm tracks and smart political satire with shamelessly silly humor, Futurama-style characters, and melodic contributions from Sean Lennon ("Memory Loss") and Blur's Damon Albarn ("Time Keeps on Slipping"). Nothing less than brilliant from start to finish, Deltron 3030 has more imagination crammed into every second of its playing time than you'd think would be possible. Even if you're not really a hip-hop person, you'll like this. (Incidentally, there's an instrumental version of this album available, but I can't imagine that it would be a necessary purchase for anyone. So just make sure you know which one you're picking up; you want the orangey one pictured above, not the blue one. Yep.) Grade: A+

READER COMMENTS:

Joe Friesen writes: "This is the best hip-hop album I've ever heard."

Since this is coming from the guy who's hip-hop reviews consist entirely of Ol' Dirty Bastard's Nigga Please, that's saying something! (of course I'm just kidding, I've got a total of MAYBE 35 hip-hop albums.)

I really don't have anything much to add to what you said. This is just a riot all the way through. Dan the Automator is a seriously creative motherfucker.

Now that you've more or less popped your hip-hop cherry, any chance I can interest you in The Chronic or Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers? =]

SEE ALSO: KID KOALA

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: BLUR, SEAN LENNON

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Delusional

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Delusional

Willie's comments: Delusional, a gauzy headrush of a band from Toronto, makes music that's like listening to an optical illusion: what you're hearing doesn't quite make sense, and you know that there's some trickery involved that you can't quite put your finger on... and that's what makes it so cool! With two guitars and a keyboard that are often compressed into a dreampop blur, Delusional's sound is appealingly warm- an asset that works in their favor whether they're biding their time around a simple, ethereal whirlpool of a song ("Burn Up") or launching into more upbeat, bouncy numbers ("It's True," which has a terrifically weird, stumbling melody). It's not your typical My Bloody Valentine, wall-of-fuzz style of dreampop, though, which is what's so interesting here. Delusional owes as much to acid-rock like the Flaming Lips' early work or the Stone Roses as the shoegazer movement, since all the instruments really are playing individual parts, and creatively dented parts at that! Something about the way all the noises work together just makes it seem like a big melting pot, though. Rounding it all out are some melancholy melodies (especially on "Weight of the World," "Love & a 45," and "Never Change") that aren't exactly "catchy," but they do wander into strangely beautiful places. When you get right down to it, Delusional's debut is more concerned with its own clever atmosphere than the songs' individual development- don't buy it expecting a plateful of radio-ready hooks- but that's not really a criticism when they're able to conjure such an exquisitely trippy mood. Grade: A-

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Denali

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Denali

Willie's comments: Like a more emotionally centered version of Portishead's Beth Gibbons (or a more emotionally weighty version of the Sneaker Pimps' Kelli Dayton, for that matter) Denali vocalist Maura Davis has a beguiling singing style that spirals melodies around in a manner as effortlessly beautiful and ominous as a single curl of smoke. It would've been incredibly easy, therefore, to shove her in front of an average trip-hop programmer/turntable artist/808 machine and come up with a decent Portishead clone, but to Denali's credit, they've got a ton more creativity than that. Though there are plenty of synths and programmed bits on the band's debut, these elements are used as decorative flourishes amid the sea of dreampop guitar lines that rumble around Davis like thunder that's too distant to be startling but too close to be comforting. The result, on awesome songs like "You File" or the smoldering "Time Away," hits an enchanted middle ground between trip-hop and (er...) post-rock that recalls- but doesn't ape- similar feats of stylistic fusion by Bjork and Radiohead. It was a stroke of genius on someone's part to recruit Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous to produce this record, too, because he obviously knows a thing or two about coaxing a uniquely grotty atmosphere from organ drones and ringing guitars. But Davis is still the main drawing point of the band's sound. However cool the climbing guitar figure and noir rhythm of "Lose Me" might be, for instance, the part that's going to give you goosebumps is the wounded, searching way Davis coos the titular refrain, and that's an event that recurs over and over throughout this spectacularly moody record. If I may return to the weather metaphor, it's like staring up into a rainstorm, being hypnotized by the beauty of the clouds even as the rain stings your eyes. Grade: A

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: SPARKLEHORSE

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DEVO

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Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are DEVO!

Willie's comments: I guess this could be considered DEVO's statement of purpose, although this album works in a much more generic, jerky new wave vein (think Talking Heads' More Songs About Buildings and Food, which was not coincidentally produced by Brian Eno, just like this album was) than their later, greater works. The basic elements are in place: Mark Mothersbaugh's spooked vocal yelps; odd keyboard noises; simple, mechanical, and endlessly repeated hooks; etc. "Mongoloid" is so creepy and unstoppably catchy that Bruce Connor built a short film around it, and "Shrivel-Up" and "Too Much Paranoias" are similarly squirm-inducing (in a good, interesting way). However, a few too many of the songs are just basic synth-rock songs, such as "Come Back Jonee" and "Praying Hands," and those are borderline boring. If you're a fan, however, it's a worthwhile trip. Grade: B

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Duty Now for the Future

Willie's comments: If there's one thing DEVO is great at, it's taking the concepts of romance and sex and making them seem unappealing and ugly by running them through the mechanized de-evolution wringer. That's basically what this entire album describes- sex used as a weapon or just as something to do, and the closest thing to an emotion that's described is the elliptical "oops baby" tale of "The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprise." Duty Now sounds horrible and disgusting on paper, but in execution, it's amazingly effective in its portrayal of our increasingly selfish society. The hooks are appropriately more robotic than Are We Not Men?, and the songs more fatalistic. The frantic chanting of "Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA" is arguably DEVO's finest moment. Grade: B+

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Freedom of Choice

Willie's comments: You like the "Whip It," eh? Well, you're in for a treat, then, because "Whip It," clever though it is, is the weakest song on this thoroughly superlative collection of synth-pop. The melodies are surprisingly sunny and singable for DEVO, particularly the dinky new wave of "Mr. B's Ballroom" and the yearning "Gates of Steel." Mothersbaugh and Casale's pessimistic view of the world hasn't waned a bit, but they've begun integrating it more wryly into accessible tunes like "Girl U Want" and "Planet Earth." All this and you get "Snowball," which is actually a genuine love song! Grade: A+

DEV-O Live

Willie's comments: As far as I know, this 6-song live EP is available only tacked onto an import pressing of Are We Not Men? but, even if you're a DEVO completist, don't bother. It's the laziest piece of crap I can imagine from this band (presumably released to capitalize on "Whip It"'s success). The band sounds enervated and exhausted, plowing carelessly through five songs from Freedom of Choice as well as the obscure single "Be Stiff" (which appears in superior form on Greatest Misses). You're not missing anything. Grade: F

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New Traditionalists

Willie's comments: Basically, this is more of Freedom of Choice, only the slightest bit less engaging. "Through Being Cool" is hilarious and catchy, "Going Under" is satisfyingly creepy, and "Beautiful World" makes perfect use of deadpan sarcasm (that becomes apparent in the sidesplitting video). By this point, it's hard to pick out anything that sounds remotely like a guitar from DEVO- it's all keyboards and drums, and that's a good thing, but there are a couple throwaways toward the end ("Enough Said," "The Super Thing"). Oh well- you simply must stick around for the deconstructive cover of "Working In a Coal Mine." Grade: A-

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Oh No! It's DEVO

Willie's comments: More of the same, only with a renewed sense of energy (courtesy of Cars producer Roy Thomas Baker). This album is a treasure trove of great melodies and hooks, though the lyrics sometimes suffer. "Patterns," "Deep Sleep," and "Big Mess" are particularly wonderful (the latter is the basis for "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Dare to be Stupid"). Grade: A

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Shout

Willie's comments: This one seems like the end of the line for DEVO (and, indeed, it was for quite awhile). While previous albums somehow managed to avoid dull homogeneousness while still producing uniformly wonderful tunes, Shout is depressingly one-note. "The Satisfied Mind" is as catchy as anything they've ever done, and "Here to Go" and "Puppet Boy" are interesting enough, but the rest of it is forgettable. 100 points off for the discordant cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?" Grade: C+

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E-Z Listening Disc

Willie's comments: True to its title, this is a sort-of Eno-esque album of previously released DEVO songs rearranged as elevator music. It works a lot better than you'd think- "Shout" is made listenable- and actually pretty- while "Gates of Steel" and "Mongoloid" are ambient music of the highest caliber. Some of the earlier songs were kind of ugly to begin with, however- playing "Jocko Homo" or "Swelling Itching Brain" slower and quieter (and without vocals) doesn't help much, but for the most part, this is certainly the catchiest music you'll ever fall asleep to. Grade: B

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Total DEVO

Willie's comments: After a hiatus of several years, DEVO returns with a new drummer (Dave Kendrick), a new appreciation for the timbre of the electric guitar, and a truckload of bitter cliches where insightful lyrics used to be. "Plain Truth" is singable, and "Some Things Never Change" is absorbing (if overlong), but just about everything else is disheartening. "I'd Cry If You Died," "Sexi Luv," and "The Shadow" are all generically listenable, but the Ween-esque voice distortions of "Blow Up" and the stupid, posturing cover of "Don't Be Cruel" (yes, that one) are unforgivable. Grade: C-

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Now It Can Be Told: DEVO Live at the Palace

Willie's comments: Just when I was about to give up hope, DEVO reemerges with the live album that they were always capable of. One unforseen bonus of hearing the spuds live is that their songs, which sound so emotionless and sterile when recorded in a studio, are lent a human touch, as in the suck-uppy banter of "Working in a Coal Mine" (Jerry Casale: "I am so fuckin' DEVO!") and the jazzy "Goin' Under." There are a few clinkers (I don't think any of us ever need to hear "Whip It" again, and "Jocko Homo" evolves into an acoustic rock number, which it shouldn't do), but they're redeemed by killer versions of "Gates of Steel" and "Jerkin' Back and Forth," and the energized, complex, eleven-minute encore suite "Somewhere With DEVO" is worth the purchase price and then some. Grade: B+

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Greatest Hits

Willie's comments: An excellent place to start. Even better than Freedom of Choice, I'd say, because it encompasses all of DEVO's pre-E-Z Listening Disc work, and you really should be exposed to "Big Mess" and "Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA" at the same time you hear "Whip It." This is a thoroughly great collection. "Mongoloid" isn't on this volume, though, for some reason, so you'll have to buy Greatest Misses, too. Or Q: Are We Not Men?, which you might as well do anyway. Grade: A+

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Greatest Misses

Willie's comments: This volume of less accessible songs from DEVO's early years is marred by a few painful inclusions ("Swelling Itching Brain" and clangy demo versions of "Satisfaction" and "Jocko Homo"), and, apart from "Speed Racer" and a few rarities like "Be Stiff" and the wonderfully creepy "Mechanical Man," all of the songs are from the first two albums! Unless you're a truly hardcore fan of DEVO and really want to hear "Mechanical Man," you could just go on and buy Q: Are We Not Men? and Duty Now for the Future. I don't know... it's kind of nice to have a boiled-down version of those albums on one CD, but if you already have the first two, don't bother with this. Grade: B-

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Smoothnoodlemaps

Willie's comments: This new studio album finds the band back for one last gasp of greatness in the form of technologically staggering keyboard noises and hooks galore! DEVO seems to have abandoned the pseudo-ideology that they devoted their early years to trumpeting, and have finally gotten down to the business of rocking. Smoothnoodlemaps is worth a listen just for the amazing production- Pink Floyd would be jealous- but it's worth listening to many more times due to great, catchy numbers like "Pink Jazz Trancers" and "Dawghaus." And the cover of The Grateful Dead's "Morning Dew" is a chilling triumph, even as it incorporates elements from the Phantom of the Opera. Grade: A

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DEVO Live: The Mongoloid Years

Willie's comments: [NOTE: This review was written back in 1999, before this album clicked with me. I leave the review here only because it provoked some much better reviews of the album that can be seen in the comments section below. Although it's definitely more interesting than it is listenable- and it's not always even interesting- I've come to realize that The Mongoloid Years is a valuable if inessential artifact for the DEVO fan. Anyway, here's the crap review:] Why why why? This is a collection of live tape recordings from before DEVO had a record deal, and it's not even the least bit interesting or listenable. The sound is tinny, the subsequently unreleased songs were unreleased for a reason (particularly the sophomoric "I Need a Chick"), and the only amusing bit comes from an enraged fan screaming, "Get these assholes off the stage!" after about nine minutes of "Jocko Homo" and the band tormenting him until he leaves the building. Sadly, though, if you've listened to all of The Mongoloid Years up to that point, you might find yourself agreeing with the fan. Grade: F

READER COMMENTS:

Tish Cortez writes: You gotta be KIDDING!!!! The Mongoloid years, as well as Hardcore 1 & 2, and last year's Recombo DNA are the absolute BEST that DEVO has to offer in my opinion. Uncompromising, funny, and absolutely real!! Put yourself in the band's shoes for just a minute and you'll get the idea. After so many bands perform rock music to try to seduce, placate, and generally spoon-feed the audience as if it were the end-all be-all God of All Importance, DEVO turns it totally upside down by presenting something that is entertaining IN SPITE OF who may or may not be listening...and at first, that was their point. DEVO plays with the audience's sensibilities by forcing them to question what a rock show should be about...is it about sex, drugs, mindlessness, and excess? Or is it maybe more than that, is there a bigger idea involved; can the rock arena be used to awaken and shock in other ways? Rebellion against the normal "accepted" rock format of 'oooo baby I love you and now I'm gonna go get wasted' rock presented with anger, wit, intelligence, & humor, while at the same time presenting a new idea, a fabulously twisted idea of what the possibilites COULD be if we only opened our eyes. I for one would have LOVED to be in that band when they were pissing the crap out of audience members by pummelling out irritatingly relentless renditions of JOCKO HOMO. Sorry to ramble....can't believe I just wrote that.

Gavin DeCuir writes: Willie, You and I know Devo didn't start out as the slick hitmakers most know them as. But an F?!?!? Devo Live: The Mongoloid Years is not pretty and is certainly not for everyone. The sounds are raw and grating. The lyrics are crude. This is the rawest and the most agitating Devo available. If you couldn't stand it, then Devo did their job. I'm a Devo fan and I still can't listen to this thing all the way through. Hurrah! As far as sound quality, this is the real thing. This isn't some record company's highly-polished spud. It's a documentary of the start of a great band, complete with microphone drop-outs, tape hiss, and distorted sound. I wouldn't recommended it to fans of the kinder, gentler Devo. I WOULD recommend it to someone who wants a sonic challenge comprable to early Suicide.

Rod Steele writes: F? F??? Are you insane? Bah, I'm too lazy to try to write a real review.

Look, you cannot satisfy an Uncontrollable Urge in a sound studio. Fine, Mechanical Man is perfect for a roomful of computers and electronic gear, but Mongoloid? Jocko Homo? You need an audience because you have an important message that the Chinaman gave you!  Every man, woman, and mutant on this planet must be told the truth of de-evolution -- whether they like it or not!

Ok, I'm not actually nuts, but I seriously think you are missing the point. Devo is performance art, and a studio recording just doesn't capture all of it. They weren't just making clever inside jokes or engaging in obscure symbolism; they were performing examples of their subject material. You know, "We are Devo!" I mean, look at Booji Boy...performing in a crib, wearing a full-head baby mask and a yellow plastic suit? It's not exactly a comfortable gimmick, and it sucks for getting chicks.

That last set is Devo on the attack, deliberately tormenting a hostile, dimwitted audience with their homemade synthesizers, lobotomized guitars, and most retarded songs. Another band would have just cursed and stormed off the stage in a fit of narcissism. I don't listen to it every day or anything, but it *is* a nice antidote after seeing some media-hyped, manufactured boy band or lip-synching teen with fake tits.

Neil Young gets it. ( http://youtube.com/watch?v=qIMttc0ciKU ) We're smart, we're cynical, we're angry, and we mean it!

"The audience will devolve now in the uncontrollable urge!"

SEE ALSO: MARK MOTHERSBAUGH

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: CHEF AID: THE SOUTH PARK SOUNDTRACK ALBUM

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: DAVID BYRNE; BRIAN ENO

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DGC Rarities, vol. 1

Willie's comments: What a happy, simple little surprise this album is! Just a bunch of previously unreleased tracks from bands on the DGC label, cobbled together to make a casually great record! Sloan contributes a pair of neat Eric’s Trip covers, Counting Crows contribute perhaps the least dismal recording they’ve ever done (“Einstein On the Beach [for an Eggman]”), and there are other fun leftovers from Sonic Youth, Beck, Weezer, The Posies, and even that dog. And, to my ear, this acoustic version of Murray Attaway’s “Allegory” is much better than the version on In Thrall, but you be the judge. Grade: B

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Dirty Fan Male

Willie's comments: First off, the fact that I know about this album at all is entirely due to Mark Prindle, who talked me into purchasing it. I don't expect that any existing human reads my site who doesn't read his (though if you don't, you should), and I'm not trying to take credit for discovering the brilliance of Dirty Fan Male, but even though it's clearly a Mark discovery, I fear that he may never review it due to his methodically random reviewing methods, and you need to know about it. The subtitle on the album's cover reads, "A unique, hilarious & disturbing collection of letters written to Page 3 girls and porn stars," but that doesn't begin to describe the genius of the conceit: some dude in the UK came across a cache of such letters, and recorded some other dude reading them verbatim in a variety of voices, retaining every spelling error ("I really admire your figer"), every grammatical idiosyncrasy ("the reason I want a big cock for so you can suck my big penis"), and every synaptic misfire ("In '96 I have a dream that I am to get my soulmate. Then I hear a name: Donna Ewin. I have never heard that name before. I find out she's a model. It leads me to The Sport and when I see her... I LOOK EXACTLY LIKE HER!") contained therein. Hearing the concept, I'm sure you'll expect sexual fantasies, and you'll get those in spades- particularly from some guy named Lionel who keeps writing about his "big rising willie"- but this album is far weirder than that. Reader Duncan Wisbey adopts a James Mason accent for letters from Martin, who believes that "Lady Samantha" is on his side in some conspiracy, an Indian accent for a man obsessed with "women feets," and some regional accent with which I'm unfamiliar as a guy asks a model to send him a video of himself completely nude "by a Thursday." Believe me, as nuts as that sounds, I'm only scratching the surface. Not only is this one of the funniest albums I've ever heard, but the most horrifying look into the male psyche I've ever heard. You seriously need to purchase this as fast as you can PLEASE! Grade: A+

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Jeff Dixon & Broken Asunder

Courtland is My Hero

Willie's comments: Broken Asunder is a loosely defined band that seems to consist (at various times) of four middle-schoolers, chief among whom is Jeff Dixon, who I'm guessing is the one singing and playing guitar on a lot of the tracks. Basically, Courtland is My Hero is less an album than a collection of every second of output that Jeff and his friends have put to tape, and I love nearly all of it. I don't know how much this stuff would resonate with someone who didn't spend hours and hours fiddling with a tape recorder in eighth grade, but I found it to be an awesome document of adolescent whimsy. Dixon and his friends experiment with tape loops ("Hey Pablo [Take Your Hands Out Your Pants]"), swap inside jokes ("Hey Josh"), try to embarrass each other ("Brad's Song" and "Pat's Song"), make fun of hated teachers ("Pillars"), show off their rudimentary knowledge of foreign languages ("Ibis Viseu" and "Spanish Pillars"), make so much noise it red-lines their equipment ("Mortal Ko!"), tell dumb sex stories ("Dirty"), run through intentionally obnoxious covers of hits both old and new ("My Boyfriend's Back," "Bootylicious," and others), sample every piece of music they can get their hands on (including "La Bamba," A-Ha's "Take On Me," and the score to Super Mario Bros.), and occasionally get down to the business of writing actual songs.

And those songs are actually pretty great- and catchy- in their own right! Broken Asunder has a surprisingly vast knowledge of rock 'n' roll (what other middle school band would be savvy enough to jokingly dedicate a song "to the refugees"?), and their "real" compositions reflect that. "Summerfruits" resembles Chicago, "Brad's Song" sounds a lot like Weezer's "Butterfly," "Mr. T-Bone" is a charming slice of pseudo-arena rock, "Sheila" is a timelessly perfect pop tune, and "Song for a Girl" tops them all. It's a solo acoustic number in which Dixon professes his love for some chick, and the melody is so simple and sweet that it actually made me nostalgiac for that point in my life (which is doubly impressive considering that middle school was, without a doubt, the most miserable, lonely seventh of my life thus far). Just an amazing song. Still, I'm clueless as to why Broken Asunder would attempt to emulate the worthless "pop/punk" of Sum 41 (or some such band) on "Magic Words" when they're obviously too smart for that, and I'm afraid their ironic cover of Britney Spears's "Baby One More Time" can't hold a candle to Travis's version, but I really dig Courtland. I cannot, in good conscience, give this album a higher grade (I'm already grading it higher than More Songs About Buildings and Food by the Talking Heads, for which I should have my critic's license revoked), but I nevertheless feel very privileged to own it. Grade: B

Lindsay is Stupid

Willie's comments: "School has started/Things have changed/You look bad in the cheap flourescent light," sings Dixon, kicking off a collection of ten songs that are labeled as outtakes from Broken Asunder's second album. Things have changed indeed. Forsaking the anarchic indulgences that made Courtland such a kick, this brilliantly titled sophomore effort finds the friends focusing their energies on songs of teen love and heartbreak that are markedly more mature than those of their debut. It's a bold move for a few reasons: not only does the band's decision to "grow up" negate any possibility of their new work coasting on precocious charm alone (thus putting increased pressure on their songwriting), but Dixon's unashamedly sentimental lyrics now stand naked, unbuffered by silliness. Even if things get a touch sappy here and there and everywhere, you've gotta give the guy credit for his gutsy honesty- this is a teenager who is unself-conscious enough to sincerely write a song called "When Angels Cry," for Pete's sake!

As I'm sure these guys have heard at countless school assemblies, however, with maturity comes heightened expectations, and most of Lindsay is Stupid is too sloppy to reach the artistic stratosphere that Broken Asunder audibly strives for. Sometimes the problem is as simple as a lack of practice ("Can't Move On From This" would be an awesome rocker if the drummer didn't keep losing the beat while attempting various fills), and sometimes the songs are simply underwritten, relying too heavily on simplistic chord progressions and plain-Jane production. "Rainy Night" boasts a playful keyboard-and-drum machine arrangement that emphasizes the band's cleverness- a cleverness that is too often underused here. The fact that Broken Asunder labeled these songs as an outtakes CD suggests that they're already aware of some of these problems- they sound more like promising demos than finished products. Since the album runs only 19 minutes, though, I wish they would've spent more time honing these scraps into the gems they're capable of being as opposed to just giving up and releasing them as undistinguished geodes. Grade: C+

From the Mixed-Up Files of Senor Gomez

Willie's comments: Though this record is credited to "Jeff Dixon and Broken Asunder," Jeff himself seems to be the only one who contributed to this album (except for an impossibly annoying, sore-thumb collaboration with some guy named Andy on "Metrolina")- he handles all the drumming, singing, guitaring, bassing, and keyboarding. The arrangements this time around are more muscular than on Lindsay is Stupid, mostly favoring a Pixies-scented garage rock attack that contains a better quality-riffs-per-million ratio (QFPM) than probably any other high school act in existence. The raw "Please" and "Proud" showcase Jeff's ability to come up with novel guitar parts and memorable melodies from extremely basic elements, and in an ideal world, they'd probably have a chance at real airplay if the performances were a little less shaky. (Confused drumming remains a distraction in the world of Broken Asunder, but this time around, the tunes themselves are mostly so strong that it hardly matters.) Dixon also further proves his sophistication with the vulnerable, Guided by Voices-esque "Brother, Brother" and the utterly brilliant "One Man Parade," a cousin to Pavement's piano instrumental "5 - 4 = Unity" that actually is in 5/4 time and features Dixon's most accomplished harmonies to date. The record is a little frontloaded with good songs- things start to deteriorate around "Ellen and the Tim Guys" and never quite regain the head of steam Jeff had going- and in the end, Senor Gomez is still somewhat too creaky to fully deliver on the potential of the material. However, it marks the arrival of Dixon as a prodigious, pro-level indie-rock songwriter, even if his musical chops still have a little way to go. At this point, I would love nothing more than for Jeff to find himself a tight backing band, and eventually see Broken Asunder getting the sort of attention that the White Stripes are currently getting, because Jeff deserves it. I suggest you contact him to get ahold of this one. Grade: B

READER COMMENTS:

Jeff Dixon writes: "magic words" is supposed to be mariah carey/destiny's child parody, not sum41. toothpaste is the greatest song ever recorded. otherwise, i agree.

ADDED 10/24/01: "when angels cry" is a joke, i swear! it's a cover of a song i heard in church with slight modifications! i'm not gonna argue any of the rest though.

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DJ Deep

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Respect is Burning Presents Respect to DJ Deep

Willie's comments: DJs who specialize in house music really don't have it easy or get enough credit. Whereas the appeal of big beat DJs like Fatboy Slim is in the way they show off their skills- conflating seemingly incongruous records and creating entirely new, superfueled dance compositions- house DJs have the less ostentatious task of simply keeping the grooves coming at a steady pace, while varying things enough to keep things from becoming tedious. For the first four songs of DJ Deep's new mix CD (which is "presented" by a somewhat mysterious collective known as Respect is Burning), he is shown at the top of the house music game, segueing seamlessly from KCYC's energetic R&B to Logic's jazzy keyboard work to Osunlade's infectious Afro-Latin funk, to the Sun Orchestra's trancey "Driftin'." From that point on, however, the album does a cannonball into generic R&B and Miami Sound Machine-esque rhythms and never quite recovers. The beats and grooves are there, sure, but the entire exercise is hamstrung by the attempt to cram the complicated R&B melodies into the simple, repetitive cadences of house. (This results in intolerably annoying moments like the mechanical, Bee Gees-esque shrieking in Blaze's "How Deep is Your Love".) Mix albums can, of course, only capture one moment in a DJ's career, and their choice of songs makes or breaks them. DJ Deep seems to be a perfectly talented house DJ, but this particular cycle is worth skipping. Grade: C

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DJ Shadow

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Endtroducing...

Willie's comments: I’d say this is one of the best albums of the 90s, hands down. A triumph of the art of sampling, Endtroducing... doesn’t contain one sound that Shadow himself made. Rather, he mixes and matches basslines, movie dialogue, and odd noises from old blaxploitation soundtracks as well as from recordings by Nirvana and Bjork. All these appropriated bits form an entirely cohesive and original trip-hop whole that’s absorbing, hypnotic, and as innovative- from a sampling standpoint- as the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. And it certainly blows the doors off any 80s rip-off Puff Daddy has ever crapped out. Grade: A+

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The Private Press

Willie's comments: When your debut is an undisputed genre masterpiece and you then go silent for six years (apart from, y'know, a couple high-profile tours and the UNKLE project), you set up quite the little Technodrome of expectations for yourself. Not only is there the ever-present hurdle of the "sophomore slump," but taking such a long hiatus from recording means people are counting on you to justify the wait. Happily, DJ Shadow acquits himself nicely on his long-delayed second album, maintaining Endtroducing's high standards of assembled symphonies, but drawing from a more diverse pool of sampled material, achieving a fuller- and, in places, fully weird- sound. "Mongrel Meets His Maker" sounds the closest to his previous work, spinning a minor-key guitar line, breakbeats, and assorted pianos and nebulous sounds into an eerie trip-hop painting, but things are rarely that simple on The Private Press. Moments of unspeakable sorrow ("Six Days," a drone-rock tune that has been hollowed out and rebuilt as an exotic slice of ennui) comingle with disjunctive jokes ("Mashin' on the Motorway," a ditty that consists largely of an oblivious narrator driving down the street as angry motorists swear at him in the background) and Fatboy Slim-esque dance fodder ("GDMFSOB," which is little more than a bunch of beats layered atop each other with some funky guitar and Kraftwerkian synths beneath it all). Elements of rock, hip-hop, anonymous home recordings, funk, '80s metal, and unclassifiable musical goo are pureed together in a delectable electronica milkshake that, while not seamless, is unimpeachably fascinating and is a must-hear if you like any of the above musical styles. Grade: A

SEE ALSO: UNKLE

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Dntel

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Life is Full of Possibilities

Willie's comments: Jimmy Tamborello is best known as the half of The Postal Service who's responsible for the retro musical upholstery of that band's fantastic glitchy new-wave, but when left to his own devices, he records under the moniker Dntel, fashioning placid, tuneful ambient-glitch electronica out of friendly recording errors, digital stuttering, and the game contributions of guest vocalists on about half the tracks. Though Postal Service fans may pick this album up for Ben Gibbard's vocals on "(This is) The Dream of Evan and Chan"- and won't be disappointed there, as it's another of Gibbard's melodic stunners- this is a far moodier experience. Tamborello's favorite technique is to thicken the atmosphere of his pieces by stuffing the background full of melodic, hollow, heavily-processed noises that lend the entire album a misty, runny vibe, like a tear-stained watercolor painting. Some songs almost sound like they were recorded in an opera house's boiler room, with Tamborello fussing with his gentle percussive clicks and clacks as an orchestra sweeps sadly about upstairs. Though it's never annoying, and never overtakes the carefully snipped beats and instrumental themes, these distant sounds unify all the tracks on Possibilities. It's nice to have that running thread, too, because it'd otherwise be difficult for Tamborello's style to logically encompass pretty, data-corrupted pop songs like "Suddenly is Sooner Than You Think" (which blossoms into a Mum-esque series of false-start keyboard and accordion sounds that are programmed into something resembling a malfunctioning pachinko machine in an otherwise empty arcade) as well as abstract bits like "Pillowcase" (the echoey sounds of a switchboard coming to grips with its mortality). It takes a few listens to understand why some of these tracks even exist, so low below the radar do they fly, but if you wait until it's a rainy day and you should happen to hear the beginning of "Umbrella," in which The Tyde's Chris Gunst sings, "You can turn the city upside down if you want to, but it won't keep you dry," Possibilities will click for you. And pop. And do all the wonderful, short-circuiting things glitchy artists like Tamborello do. And it'll do them well. Grade: A-

SEE ALSO: THE POSTAL SERVICE

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Mike Doughty

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Skittish

Willie's comments: Adding an I-K-E to his first name and setting aside most of the beatnik lunacy of his work as frontman of Soul Coughing, the endearingly nasal Mr. Doughty recorded this album with just an acoustic guitar, a couple keyboards and cellos, and Kramer's "production" (which, honestly, is nowhere to be found on this spare CD). Skittish is Doughty's heartfelt, bittersweet valentine to the urban culture in which he lives, whether he's strumming out his strange blend of blues/funk/rock on his guitar, gangadanking his way through a Mary J. Blige song ("Real Love," which gets seamlessly sewn to the Feelies' "It's Only Life"), thanking the Almighty for sending him the F train, or just playing songs so perfectly lonely sounding that they seem to have floated up directly through the subway grates in a New York City sidewalk. Opening with "The Only Answer," a sturdy boxcar of a song on which he regretfully contemplates a lost love ("My name to you is just another word"), Doughty spends twelve songs skillfully and gently forging an identity separate from the goofy rock star posturing he usually indulges in; this is Mike Doughty the human. Not the artist, not the poet, not the rock star. Emotions had their place on Soul Coughing albums, sure- in the abandonment of "True Dreams of Wichita" or the sweet silliness of "Janine"- but Skittish introduces Doughty as another in that small group of singer/songwriters who can take total control of your heart just by touching his pick to a string. It's stunning. Grade: A+

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Smofe & Smang: Live in Mpls.

Willie's comments: Intimate is a word that's really overused in rock criticism. I use it way too often myself, because I don't know nearly as many words as I like to pretend that I know, but just in general, the word is often thrown at any song or record that features (a) extremely basic, usually acoustic arrangements a la Neil Young's After the Gold Rush or the Velvet Underground's self-titled record, (b) a hushed, calming tone a la Yo La Tengo's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, or (c) rhythm-eschewing songs with personal-sounding lyrics as exemplified by any number of Tori Amos ballads. That's not to say that everything I've just mentioned isn't intimate in its own way, but we've all unfortunately become kind of habituated to that word. So when I say that this recording of a live show Doughty performed in Minneapolis in early 2002 is the most intimate live snapshot I've ever heard, that description is not going to have the kind of effect I'd hoped for, no matter how much I might italicize, underline, or bold that assertion. So I'll just do my best to convince you to buy this album another way. First off, I should mention that this set encapsulates songs from Skittish, many new tracks, some Soul Coughing songs, and a cover of a Drink Me song ("Train to Chicago"), along with plenty of hysterical stage banter. That should be reason enough for anyone to buy it, really, but for you stubborn dunderheads out there, I'll continue my pitch:

Now, we've all seen amateur coffeehouse performers strumming an acoustic guitar and singing boho lyrics, I think- or we've at least seen said performers parodied on sketch comedy shows, so we know what they're about. Though it's not at all a good summation of what's going on here, that's the easiest reference point for the experience of seeing (or in this case, hearing) Mike Doughty live, but the dude is so naturally smart, affable, poetic, and hilarious that his live set sidesteps all the stereotypical pitfalls that preclude the audience's enjoyment of most such acts. His lyrics, for example, are evocative and personal enough to hit you in the gut every now and then (the way he mutters "I'm fucking starved for love" in the middle of "His Truth is Marching On," for instance), but they're leavened with smirky humor and a studied sense of phonetic rhythm, so things never get treacly. That sense of rhythm also keeps the songs from wandering: though the Soul Coughing numbers are often dramatically re-invented for this unplugged format (and it's eye-opening to hear "Lazybones" and "St. Louise is Listening" dimmed to a narrator-and-guitar setup), he never forgets his old band's reliance on innate funkiness to drive the tunes along. New songs like the spectacular "Busting Up a Starbux" continue along these lines, forgoing any sort of Dave Matthews-esque guitar showboating in favor of basic chords that act as thrust.

What makes Smofe & Smang truly special among live albums, though, is how much the audience's mere presence is an audible part of the show. Not just in the priceless portions of the show where Doughty rambles to the crowd ("Do you know what's wrong with your generation? In my day, people from Road Rules did NOT make out with people on The Real World!"), or when he tosses jokes in the middle of songs just to be a goof (the refrain of "Circles" momentarily becomes "I don't need to walk around with Urkel"), but in every second of every song. The way Doughty knows how to play to the space and mood of the room is remarkable and indescribable; every song is given a depth that couldn't be replicated in a sterile studio environment. To give an example, I'd be hard-pressed to say exactly what is different about the live version of "Rising Sign" as opposed to Skittish's version except the former's ability to cause me to spontaneously burst into tears. There's a connection between listener and musician there- and, by extention, between everyone in the crowd- that's satisfying beyond words, and it simply strengthens the songs' already considerable wallop. This overwrought analysis doesn't do justice to the overriding sense of fun that also sets this album apart, but basically, I want you to buy it in the hope that it will mean as much to you as it does to me. And if you've already bought it and are just reading this review to get another opinion, I congratulate you. You can buy 1212 by Barbara Manning instead. Grade: A+

Rockity Roll EP

Willie's comments: The more he releases, the more convinced I become that Mike Doughty has wrung the most greatness from the smallest amount of songwriting diversity of any artist since the Ramones. When his songs are stripped down to their essence, as on Smofe + Smang, it becomes clear that they all follow a pretty similar template, if not the same rhythm. However, what keeps him from seeming repetitive is not just his peerlessly compelling lyrics, but the fact that he's a canny enough musician to understand that a different arrangement can dress up a similar riff as two different songs entirely, in much the same way that Homer Simpson, with different hair and face coloring, becomes Krusty the Clown. And with this between-albums EP, Doughty recasts his "small rock" in yet another guise, following his stripped-down Skittish acousticisms and Soul Coughing's triumphant cut-and-paste. This time, Mike and his guitar are joined by a friendly, unintrusive drum machine and a number of warm, semi-cheesy keyboard tones that fall somewhere between New Order and the Magnetic Fields, amplifying his songwriting's funky, rhythmic aspects without sacrificing the personal aspect of things. Personally, I think Rockity Roll is at its best on the two songs where the synths get to take over: "Cash Cow"'s sweeps and beeps suggest the shy little brother of Deniece Williams's "Let's Hear It for the Boy" (that's a wonderful thing, by the way), while the yearning "Down on the River by the Sugar Plant" has a prodding insistence that's positively haunting. Frankly, I wish the other songs had been dunked in the same full-on new wave glaze (particularly the one truly redundant track, "40 Grand in the Hole," which is a rerun of Skittish's "No Peace Los Angeles"), because I'm predisposed to that style, but even with a subtler and more familiar approach on "27 Jennifers," "Ossining," and "Ways and Means," the mood feels nice and new. And shiny! Grade: B+

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Skittish/Rockity Roll

Willie's comments: In late 2003, ATO Records repackaged Skittish and Rockity Roll as a splendid two-discs-for-the-price-of-one set, finally making the man's music available commercially (i.e., not just through Doughty's website). The Rockity Roll disc appends five bonus tracks. Two of them are live cuts from Doughty's performance at the 2004 Bonnaroo festival, "The Only Answer" and "Move On" (a great anti-Bush song- not that there's really any other kind- whose studio version is available on MoveOn.org's satisfying but futile compilation Future Soundtrack of America), and they're nice even if they lack Smofe + Smang's intimacy. Then there are two brief outtakes from the Skittish sessions, one of which ("I Failed to Use It") would later be scrapped for parts on Soul Coughing's "I Miss the Girl" and the other of which ("Laundrytown") is so beautiful it's impossible to understand why it was omitted in the first place. Finally, there's an unremarkable, Rockity Roll-esque song Mike contributed to the soundtrack of the underappreciated cop film Evenhand. For fans who already own the two releases, I'll say that the extra songs probably aren't enough to justify another purchase, but for newcomers, you may think of this package as an indispensable album made even more essential by an extra disc of goodies. Grade: A+

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Haughty Melodic

Willie's comments: Doughty's first solo release conceived for mass consumption- and his first release with backing musicians since the Soul Coughing days- is the most conventionally "normal" set of tunes he's ever presented. In collaboration with producer Dan Wilson (formerly of Semisonic, but his solo album Free Life is pretty enough to make up for previous associations), the intention was apparently to release a bunch of uplifting folk-pop songs on a disc that's playful enough to be titled with an anagram of the musician's name. (Incidentally, playing around with the letters on my nameplate at my previous job, I discovered that "CHRIS A. WILLIAMS" can be rearranged to state "I SWILL CHARISMA." Just thought you should know.) And Haughty Melodic is unquestionably sunny, bouncy, and good-hearted, but longtime fans might be underwhelmed by the overall lack of originality in the arrangements, not to mention the fact that a lot of these songs appeared previously on the now out-of-print Smofe + Smang. It's the latter that really gets to me, because those songs simply sound better in the solo-acoustic setting than they do here, being given what my friend described as a "jam band" treatment. While it's nice to hear the simple riff of "Busting Up a Starbucks" holding down a cacophony of bizarre noise that ranges from trancey samples to some sort of unidentified squealing instrument (in his typically witty liner notes, Doughty admits that he doesn't know what's making that sound), the springy lust of "Sunken-Eyed Girl" is lost to the impersonal, breathless tempo, and the lurching rhythmic breakdowns during "Madeline and Nine" lack the grandeur they're reaching for. Furthermore, while the production never lapses into simple guitar-bass-drums blandness, the smooth recording lacks Mike's usual eccentric tension, and thus lays bare the unfortunate similarity of many of his melodies; it's hard not to feel as though you've accidentally left the CD on "repeat" by the time you hit the too-simplistic "I Hear the Bells." Still, there's nothing wrong with semi-consciously tailoring your sound for The O.C. fans if you're still cranking out songs as affecting as "Unsingable Name" and lyrics as clever as "You snooze you lose/Well, I have snost and lost." Hell, even Dave Matthews's vocal cameo on "Tremendous Brunettes" seems like a good idea in the sweet, swaying context of the song! It'd be churlish if not downright cynical to suggest that Doughty has turned his back on his existing fans in the hopes of creating lots of new ones with the easy-to-swallow Haughty Melodic- it's so cheerfully unambitious that you'll feel like a party pooper every time a song doesn't connect for you- but despite his proclamation "I can be the friend you want/I can be your confidant" on "Your Misfortune," this album is like the upbeat-but-shallow friend you'd hang out with for a breezy good time; not the true best friend you'd feel comfortable revealing yourself to in times of trouble, the way Skittish was. Grade: B

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Golden Delicious

Willie's comments: I've decided it's unfair to compare Doughty's solo work to the bottled-lightning sublimity of Soul Coughing; Skittish, Smofe + Smang, and Rockity Roll proved his unsurpassable talent as a solo songwriter, and it's unrealistic to expect any other backing band to keep up with him the way Steinberg, Gabay, and Degliantoni did. However, the full-band treatment does not flatter his songs in his current jam-band incarnation, where everyone unquestioningly follows his lead. When it's just Mike and a guitar, the songs are peerlessly personal; when his bandmates draw and quarter his songs by each trying to top each other in the arrangement, it's thrilling. But when an entire group falls in line behind his simplistic folksiness, as on Golden Delicious (again unimaginatively produced by Wilson), it's a runaway train without an engineer to throw the brake. Too much energy behind songs that are barely there (or that we've heard before: "27 Jennifers" is poorly reprised here and "Put It Down" is an unmemorable rewrite of "Ways and Means"), too many non-lyrics that were chosen more for their chantable phonemes than their meaning. Apart from the strong opener, "Fort Hood," which eloquently denounces the Iraq war by cribbing the titular hook from "Let the Sunshine In," the best bits are mere interludes: "I Got the Drop On You" is a dark solo number, and "More Bacon Than the Pan Can Handle" is a freeform funk goof that recalls Mono Puff. The remaining songs sound plenty content in their communal power, but between the sympathetic rhythm section and John Kirby's sycophantic keyboards, there's nothing to react to. It may be my fault for not liking it, but I consider myself a huge Doughty fan and I really don't. Grade: C-

SEE ALSO: SOUL COUGHING

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS, BT, DAVE MATTHEWS BAND, MITCHELL FROOM.

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Doves

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Lost Souls

Willie's comments: Listening to the music of the Doves is sort of like watching Christian Slater act. Neither the band nor the actor really has any notion of their own style; they just tend to borrow, with varying degrees of success, from their idols (eminent Britpop and dreampop bands in the case of the former, Jack Nicholson in the case of the latter). Though there are plenty of engaging moments on Lost Souls, none of them actually seem to belong to the band. The moody, spacey opener "Fioresuite" sounds like Flying Saucer Attack; the catchy rocker "Melody Calls" is nothing if not a rip-off of Oasis (not that Oasis are terribly original to begin with...); the pretty folk number "A House" is basically a sidelong run at John Lennon's "Working Class Hero," etc. Though the album is ultimately satisfying in its ability to evoke the blissed-out mood of a planetarium, the Doves are far from being top-notch songwriters yet. Instead, they try to mask their rudimentary melodic skills with mounds of guitar effects and vocal treatments, and that's the sort of thing that is easily overdone. The "bonus track" (an anachronism in this age of CDs) "Valley" is first-tier post-Radiohead rock, however, and might portend better things in the Doves' future. Grade: B

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Nick Drake

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Pink Moon

Ginny's comments: Okay, I'll admit it up front. I started listening to Nick Drake because of that one Volkswagen commercial. And yes, I'm well aware how tragic it is that in a culture like ours, someone as talented and amazing as Nick Drake gets lots in the shuffle until some monolithic corporation reaches down, seemingly randomly, and uses a song of theirs to sell a product, even long after the person is dead. Nick Drake left a short and tragic life, but Pink Moon has to be the most amazing thing he recorded in that time. It was recorded in the period of one day-- making the feat all the more incredible. Nick Drake is the DEFINITION of music to slit your wrists too, as his quiet folk songs are sad sad sad. Like Drake's personal life, there are HINTS of sunshine that peek through every so often, but even those are underlined by the incredible sadness. To warn you in advance, "Pink Moon" is the happiest, most upbeat song on this album.

But it's ALL AMAZING. Whoever says that depressing can't be beautiful is WAY off. "Things Behind the Sun," for instance, will have you weeping in minutes-- even if you can't understand his accent. Nick Drake is almost an artist in his ability to "paint" his melodies. They are the musical equivalent of say, Picasso's Blue Period. Or a gently painted Van Gogh. So if you ever have a very painful day, and need someone to share your pain (Nick had a lot of it, trust me. He died of an overdose of anti-depressants when he was only 26), curl up with this album, a warm blanket, a cup of hot cocoa, and cry your eyes out as Nick Drake sings his sad lullabies to you. Grade: A+

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Way to Blue

Ginny's comments: This is an excellent starter to Nick Drake, as it compiles some of the best songs he'd done in his very short career. I'm scarcely a fan of compilation albums, but if you want a Whitman's Sampler, so to speak, of Nick Drake songs, Way to Blue is the Way to Go! (heh heh) It contains some of his best from "Cello Song," Time of No Reply," "One of These Things First," and "Pink Moon," you can't really go wrong. This stuff is musical gold, people! If you wet your pants the first time you heard Belle and Sebastian or Simon and Garfunkel, then Nick Drake is your new path to incontinence. The only real mistep here is the drippy "Poor Boy," which, for some reason, is backed by an obnoxious choir that has to remind the audience of just how pathetic the song is. (Which, it wouldn't be if the damn choir wasn't there.) But if you want a well-rounded collection of Nick's stuff, pick this one up. Just be sure not to ask the record clerk "for that guy with that one song from the Volkswagen commerical." Grade: A-

READER COMMENTS:

Adrian Denning writes: the feeling i had upon hearing a nick drake song was featuring in an american TV advert was of joy at the wider exposure this would bring his music there. this most english of singer songwriters making it big in america? i was also pleased people were digging his music in a very real and sensitive way. that nick has been attracting the same kind of fans in america as here in england.

you are right about 'things behind the sun' - it is absolutely gorgeous. 'poor boy' is too long! good reviews all round.

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: RICHARD THOMPSON

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The Dukes of Stratosphear

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Chips from the Chocolate Fireball

Willie's comments: In the middle of their career, XTC thought it would be fun to release some albums as a fictitious psychedelic band whose late '60s/early '70s songs had recently been "rediscovered" by their record label. Both of the Dukes' albums (25 O'Clock and Psonic Psunspot) are compiled on this release, and not only are the songs hilarious, Rutles-esque parodies of the production excess that went into a lot of LSD-chic rock (backwards guitars, manipulated vocals, and all-around pretentiousness abound), but they are more catchy and poppy than anything XTC themselves produced until Skylarking. On the whole, 25 O'Clock is the more memorable of the two, with the giddy "Bike Ride to the Moon," the fluttery "What in the World??..." and the brilliant title track serving as high points. However, Psonic Psunspot is no less nifty for its cheerier songs ("You're a Good Man, Albert Brown" the best among them). Granted, it's not a real psychedelic rock album but just a dazzling re-creation; still, it's more consistent and fun than the Nuggets box, so it's recommended even to people who, for whatever stupid reason, aren't die-hard XTC fans. Grade: A-

SEE ALSO: XTC

SEE ALSO: ANDY PARTRIDGE

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Dumb and Dumber soundtrack

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Willie's comments: If one thing’s for certain, it’s that the Farrelly brothers like their folky power-pop. If that point was driven home by Freedy Johnston’s score for Kingpin and Johnathan Richman’s hilarious musical interludes in There’s Something About Mary, the music they choose to include in their films is most listenable here, on the soundtrack to Dumb and Dumber (by far their funniest movie). Basically, this is a compendium of early 90s alternative songs that are just this side of pop. It’s nice to have infectious, if disposable, songs like Deadeye Dick’s “New Age Girl” and Pete Droge’s “If You Don’t Love Me (I’ll Kill Myself)” without having to buy their albums, and contributions by the Butthole Surfers, The Lupins, Echobelly, and Crash Test Dummies (a truncated cover of XTC’s “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead”) don’t disappoint. I could do without Deee-Lite’s destruction of “You Sexy Thing” and the Proclaimers’ take on “Get Ready (‘Cause Here I Come),” however. Grade: B

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Dump

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Superpowerless

Willie's comments: After James McNew became Yo La Tengo’s first permanent bassist (which is a stupid thing to say, I know- you only need one permanent bassist), he released this one-man solo album of folksy-rocky home recordings which no YLT fan should be without. The real songs here are few and far between, but they’re surrounded by thick layers of mellow instrumentals and lots of far-reaching covers (Mancini’s "Moon River," Sun Ra’s "Outer Spaceways, Inc.") that are entirely irresistable. And when McNew does put together a real pop song, as on "Secret Blood" or the brilliant title track, it’s incredible, anthemic, and, simply put, genius. Grade: A

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I Can Hear Music

Willie's comments: The songs here aren’t quite as memorable as on Superpowerless, but adorable pop songs like "Slow Down" and "Hope, Joe" make it all worthwhile. More great covers (Dylan’s "Wanted Man" is particularly superb), more interesting instrumentals, another terrific album; there's not much more I can say. It originally came with a bonus CD of James performing songs with such indie heroes as Barbara Manning, Bettie Serveert, and Chris Knox, which is worth searching out. Grade: B+

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A Plea for Tenderness

Ginny's comments: Plea is one of those albums you buy on a whim and have no idea what to expect, hoping that maybe it's good because it has a really cute jewel box. Surprisingly, James McNew comes through with his quiet and simply adorable tracks. He adorns his music with fluffy clouds and kittens and bunnies so you can't help but to feel happy while listening to Plea. His version of "Everlasting Love" rivals the Stevie Wonder version. "On the Right Track Now" is a classic. Grade: A+

Willie's comments: This is the cutest music ever recorded. Though I’m sure James would hate for the album to be pigeonholed this way, what do you expect when the cover art features a big white puffalump hugging a pink cartoon bunny? Integrating lots of keyboards into his delicate pop songs, James croons lovesick lyrics like "My head in your hands/ My heart broke in two" that could make you weep, if the music itself wasn’t so comforting. Slow-moving organ drones, repetitive epics (like the wittily titled, 8-minute "So Long"), and low-key covers mark McNew's brilliant album's worth of ear candy. Listening to this album is as therapeutic as crying on a friend’s shoulder, only loads more fun, with songs like "White Worms" and a cover of Ray Knight’s "Everlasting Love" to lighten the mood. You must own this one. Grade: A+

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Women in Rock EP

Willie's comments: A great companion piece to A Plea for Tenderness, Women in Rock has a great title, and about five great, laid-back pop songs that would probably appeal to Mazzy Star fans. "Horrible" is a hilariously abrasive mess, but everything else here is gorgeous and soothing. The highlight is a cover of an obscure love song from a Japanese monster movie: "The Words Get Stuck in My Throat." If YLT should ever call it quits, James could probably do Dump full-time and be just as artistically successful (I much prefer having both bands around, though). Grade: A

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That Skinny Motherfucker with the High Voice?

Willie's comments: The uncharacteristically crude title of this album doesn't refer to McNew, who is built like a minitaur, but rather to His Royal Arrogance himself, Prince. This album (which was originally issued in shorter form as a handmade cassette) consists of twelve bombastic Prince songs which have been recast as unpretentious, charming indie rockers. Like the rest of the Dump catalog, it's a must-hear. For Prince fans, it's a chance to hear his songs reinterpreted by one of the best (and criminally unrecognized) musicians working today. At the other end of the spectrum, That Skinny Mofo makes Prince palatable for those of us who find his otherworldly cockiness appalling ("Batdance," anyone?), no matter how respectable a songwriter he might be.

One of McNew's trademarks is the way in which he takes concepts that we have been conditioned to view ironically (such as the disarmingly cute album cover of A Plea for Tenderness) and runs at them with a refreshing sincerity. Thus, he's covering Prince's songs not because of how funny it is to see a white, suburban indie rocker do DIY versions of Prince's soulful, horny funk, but because he truly loves- and, to a certain extent, relates to- the songs. McNew filters that love through his own kalaidoscopic musical tastes, and the result is an enjoyably diverse Prince tribute album. The fun of "1999" is buoyed by performing it as a drone-rock song with a strangely lopsided drum loop. Conversely, McNew plays up the creepiness of "A Love Bizarre" by whispering the lyrics over an ominous bed of drones and softly tinkling keyboard noises. "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore" is transformed into an old-fashioned pop song that sounds like the Chordettes' "Lollipop," "Erotic City" is shuffling punk rock, and "Raspberry Beret" becomes a gorgeous new-wave number that should be required listening for everyone. Just another example of what you all are missing by not running out right now and buying the entire Dump discography. Grade: A-

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A Grown-Ass Man

Willie's comments: Released nearly simultaneously with Yo La Tengo's Summer Sun, Dump's fifth album should be a beacon of light to those who've lamented that YLT's sound has grown too slow and abstract to fully enjoy. (I'm not among them, but they're out there. Oh yeah.) Putting aside his atmospheric instrumentals and four-track experiments, McNew has compiled here a collection of 13 indie-pop songs that are so immediately hummable that it sounds like he followed up That Skinny Motherfucker by Dump-izing a bunch of classic rock singles, except that they're mostly brand new! "Sisters" is nonchalant, lo-fi synth-pop, "I Wish/You Wish" is an acoustic Beach Boys tribute (i.e., awesome harmonies) that sounds like the shy kid brother of the Flaming Lips' "Fight Test," "Daily Affirmation" is a slow-building work of fuzz-rock genius that sounds like gritted-teeth determination personified... I could go on and on, but suffice it to say there's not a clinker in the bunch. As far as unexpected covers go- half the fun of any Dump project- you've got a sweet duet with Sue Garner on "Once Upon a Time" (originally a Mary Wells song, I think), a genuinely soulful take on Gerald LeVert's R&B ballad "Mr. Too Damn Good," and an anthemic run at Thin Lizzy's "Cowboy Song"! He even finds room for a quick joke at Moby's expense with "Dump on Both Sides." With studio production and a full band, virtually any of these songs could've been huge hits, but because they were audibly recorded in a Brooklyn apartment by one man, they're something much more special than that: the intimate chronicle of a talented musician who's recording great song after great song just because he has to get them out of his system. Hilarious artwork by Archer Prewitt, too! Grade: A

SEE ALSO: YO LA TENGO

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: BARBARA MANNING; HAPPY FLOWERS

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