disclaimer is not a toy


Jad Fair

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Strange but True (with Yo La Tengo)

Willie's comments: Recorded at various points throughout the 90s, this album weds ubiquitous Half Japanese member Fair with Yo La Tengo in an odd experiment. As Fair recites innocently goofy little poems, presumably based on Weekly World News headlines (I asked YLT's Ira Kaplan about the source of these songs, and he said he wasn’t a big WWN fan so he wasn’t sure: "They can’t all be real, can they?"), Ira, Georgia, and James back him with ditties that range from the robotic to the psychedelic, but are never as much fun as their own work. Still, if you need something to make you smile, who could resist titles like "Helpful Monkey Wallpapers Entire House" or "Retired Woman Starts New Career in Monkey Fashions"? I like monkeys. Grade: B-

READER COMMENTS:

jjfair@charter.net writes: Jad Fair is greatest on stage than on records .... he needs to be seen on tour

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: DANIEL JOHNSTON; THE PASTELS

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The Fall

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The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall

Willie's comments: It's hard to get a handle on the Fall, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, they've released more albums than most bands have songs, and gone through a number of Bowie-esque renovations of their musical style (as well as their personnel, thanks to their tantrum-prone leader, Mark E. Smith), so there's little way to tell whether the album you're listening to is vintage Fall or an aberration without hearing the rest of their catalog. Secondly, their music is weird. It's unquestionably rock, but it's weird rock. The band's shuffling rockabilly rhythms and punk disdain are slightly reminiscent of X, but it's hard to draw a straight line between the Fall and any other band; they seem to exist in their own little sealed-off, misanthropic bunker. On this album, for instance (their sixth studio release, but with a bunch of EP tracks confusingly added to the CD), we get no less than seventy minutes' worth of indie rock racket that's too sloppy to seem artsy and too artsy to seem sloppy. Though most of the musicians trade off instrument duties at some point, the songs' recipes remain the same throughout: a bassline that does the same thing for two or three hundred measures, early '80s keyboards and/or a noisy guitar providing a contrapuntal theme and/or some random noise, a driving drum beat, and Mark dispensing with melody entirely as he speaks unintelligble lyrics as though he has a mouth full of peanut butter. That might not sound like it makes for a particularly pleasant listening experience, and it doesn't- the Fall don't do "pleasant"- but what it does do is result in some of the best songs ever to combine musical patterns with utter musical chaos. "Lay of the Land," for example, jerks back and forth between the galloping verse and the infectious "shave-and-a-haircut" rhythm of the chorus to amazing effect, while "Slang King" and "C.R.E.E.P." present the sounds of pop melting before your ears. There's way too much filler here to make for a completely satisfying listen- "Bug Day" is a seemingly improvised waste of time, and some of the other songs ("Craigness," "Pat-Trip Dispenser") are just redundant- but it nevertheless makes an interesting entryway into the aptly described musical universe of the album's title. Grade: B

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458489 A-Sides

Willie's comments: It's widely known that Barbara Manning and Pavement wouldn't be the paragons of quality music that they are without the influence of Mr. Smith, and it's easy to see why on this singles compilation (which evidently portrays The Fall at its most accessible). Smith's dazed, slurred British speaksing is as dignified as it is hilarious, and tunes like "Oh! Brother" and "Couldn't Get Ahead" are engaging far longer than you'd expect from a single riff being repeated ad nauseum. "L.A." is a nifty, sequencer-driven diversion, but the rest of the album is bouncy, straight-up, old-school indie rock. It gets kinda one-note toward the end, but it's still better than, say, Eagle-Eye Cherry. Grade: B

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Extricate

Willie's comments: This album was recorded soon after Mark's wife Brix left the band and him, and everyone always makes a big deal of how Brix apparently got to take the band's pop instincts with her as part of the divorce settlement, but that's nonsense. If anything, this album is even more conventionally catchy than The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall (more streamlined, at any rate), and most of the songs are a more manageable length as well. "I'm Frank," for example, is a fine, buzzy three-minute rock song that purports to be a tribute to Frank Zappa but actually sounds closer to Donovan's "Sunshine Superman," with a great beat and some nice flute punctuation as well. Beats play an important role throughout the album, actually, presumably because Smith felt somewhat threatened by the popularization of house music in the late '80s, and wanted to get in on some of that dance action. This minor shift in the Fall's direction on some tracks makes a kind of logical sense- the stubborn repetition on which the band built their reputation is a hallmark of house as well- but the two styles aren't quite a perfect fit. The funky "Telephone Thing" is charmingly skewed, but the title track goes a little too far with the stripped-down simplicity. Luckily, the majority of the album is just typically strange Fall rockers like "And Therein..." and "Hilary." "Black Monk Theme Part I" (a rewrite of the Monks' "I Hate You") finds Smith spouting vitriol in a hilarious, "My Generation"-esque stutter, and it's probably the finest moment on this album stuffed with memorable moments. Even more than 458589 A-Sides, Extricate showcases how bloody infectious the Fall can be if they want to. Grade: A-

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Middle Class Revolt

Willie's comments: Middle Class Revolt's opening track, "15 Ways," is as bouncy and ludicrous as a Superball falling down a flight of stairs. As his band churns their way through a glossy pop hook, Smith mumbles a series of allusions to Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" that's all the more giggle-inducing for being utterly nonsensical. ("There must be ten ways to leave your man... but don't be broken-hearted, there must be eight ways to keep your man.") From that point on, though, the album is only as moderately successful as the rebels of its title. The Fall seems a little lost here, downshifting from emotional, searching jangle-rock like "The Reckoning" to significantly less impressive conveyor-belt tunes like "Hey! Student" and "The $500 Bottle of Wine." (There's also a pointless couple minutes of radio crosstalk entitled "Symbol of Mordgan.") I wish the bass were played up a bit more, too, as songs like "M5#1" really need more of an anchor than the swirling guitars and keyboards can provide. That's not to say the stuff that follows "15 Ways" is without its high points: "Junk Man" is a bloozy cover that's redeemed by a duck call wheezing out the main melody, "You're Not Up to Much" is head-boppingly fun, and as I mentioned, "The Reckoning" has an ambivalent guitar line that's pretty enough to recall a certain R.E.M. album. The record still kinda gave me a headache, though. I can't say that Middle Class Revolt would be a good foyer through which to enter into your Fall investigation, but once you sort of get a handle on the band (and develop a tolerance for their shape-shifting indulgences), this record does contain a couple treats that just make it worth your money. Grade: B-

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Levitate

Willie's comments: For a band who has released nearly as many compilations as they have proper albums, it seems odd that they'd go out of their way to record an album that sounds exactly like a plate full of the sort of random barrel scrapings that usually make up such leftover collections. From what I understand, this was Smith's first solo production effort, and the laziness he brings to his drunken vocal stylings unfortunately spills over onto the mixing board as well. Not only does this result in engineering incompetence ("Ol' Gang," which begins as a genially mad instrumental, is thrown off the tracks by the fact that the instruments all get inexplicably quieter when Mark's vocals come in), but with no one to tell him "no," Smith doesn't bother to separate inspired rock experimentation from sludgy, dawdling chaos. The album teeters toward the latter end of the seesaw, as well. Case in point: the Arab Strap-esque instrumental "Jap Kid" shows an uncharacteristically subtle side of the Fall by repeating a sad, basic piano line to a minimal drum machine backing... but that revelation is tainted by the later inclusion of "I Come and Stand At Your Door," which is essentially the same song, only with some unforgivably off-key muttering from Smith. Sure, you get the apparent Jazz Butcher tribute "I'm a Mummy" and the hilarious "4 1/2 Inch," which features a typically catchy riff and some interesting electronica elements that are all drowned out by overlapping tracks of Smith shouting (it's like trying to watch a movie with two wasted idiots fighting in the row in front of you- but in a good way). However, you also get interminable amounts of distant noise ("Tragic Days"), Pop Rocks-in-your-ear up-close noise ("Hurricane Edward"), and gallons of plain ol' dross ("Ten Houses of Eve," "The Quartet of Doc Shanley," others). The Fall faithful seem to love this album, but it sounds to me like a cynical joke on them. Don't be suckered. Grade: C-

READER COMMENTS:

Muggwort writes: 458489 asides is a fine collection of songs I agree with the B+ but the thing is the fall have made many better album 458489 asides contains a lot of half-assed pop songs near the end (no pun intended) because that is when MES's and brix's marriage began to fall apart (no pun intended). (my God i have alot of non-intended puns!!!)

Adrian Denning writes: Sure, this album [Levitate] has moments of half arsed experimentation that doesn't quite work - but it also posesses a fair few ( probably non-intended ) moments of usual Fall genius. One of such moment is 'The Quartet Of Doc Shanley' - very funny mutterings from MES and one fine bass groove. '4 1/2 Inch' is simply astonishing. A wall of electronic noise and squeals sitting atop an alternative rock song. It quickens my pulse, it makes me shine! Ah, whatever :)

dark.arkive@gmail.com writes: Will, Will, Will.

There are some artists no one should review, due to a wonderful and frightening combination of eccentricity, cult presence, and a murderous relationship to accessibility. And you've gone and done them all--the Boredoms, Aphex Twin, and above all, the bleedin' Fall.

After years of bludgeoning my ears carelessly, the Fall may be the only band I'm still afraid of. There have been other artists who have managed to completely separate themselves from prevalent trends and give themselves up to their isolated muse. Of course, those are the ones tagged as 'pretentious' (Pink Floyd, Trent Reznor, Radiohead), because their isolated muse is arty and likes stroking its multi-layered goatee. Mark Smith's is drunk, sharp-edged, and made of crumbling cement.

...I had more, but that basically sums it up, yeah.

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: GIMME INDIE ROCK, VOL. 1

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Fastball

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All the Pain Money Can Buy

Willie's comments: With its Latin-tinged verses and irresistable chorus telling an optimistic tale of loved ones gone missing, Fastball's "The Way" is one of the finest singles in recent memory. It's a shame that none of the rest of this album is as clever, hooky, or entertaining, but rather, consists of a melange of meaningless lyrics and cheap Elvis Costello impressions (and not even old, good Elvis! These guys seem to be channeling recent, tuneless Brutal Youth Elvis!). If you really want "The Way," wait for the inevitable Rock of the 90s compilation albums to come out, and you can also get Better Than Ezra's "Good" and Veruca Salt's "Seether" on the same disc! Grade: C-

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: KINKS TRIBUTE ALBUM

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The Feelies

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Crazy Rhythms

Willie's comments: This is a nifty li’l album. The Feelies are a band from New Jersey who build simple, energetic, new-wave guitar songs atop very pronounced and odd rhythm constructions (hence the album’s title). While Beatles covers are a creatively empty tool used for filler, no matter who is doing it (and this cover of "Everybody’s Got Something to Hide [Except Me and My Monkey]" is no exception) and it gets really irritating that virtually every song opens with a minute of near-silence, the charming Yo La Tengo drone of "Forces at Work" and the deadpan hooks of "Original Love" are great. Grade: B+

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The Good Earth

Willie's comments: For this sophomore effort, the Feelies recruited R.E.M.’s Pete Buck to coproduce, which means there’s lots of chimey, jangly guitars and folksy arrangements here in place of Crazy Rhythms’ oddball new-wave mechanics. However, Glenn Mercer’s dead vocals aren’t really suited to this sort of Southern twangery (compared to Michael Stipe’s masterful wailing, or even Peter Holsapple’s smart-alecky snarl), which leaves a gaping hole in the middle of most songs. The spacious tunes easily lend themselves to accompanying a cross-country trek in your car, but they’re not much use as anything but incidental music. One interesting side note: Blues Traveler apparently lifted the guitar part for “Runaround” wholesale from this album’s “The High Road.” Grade: C+

READER COMMENTS:

zophael979@yahoo.com writes: I dig the Beatles cover. Lots of energy. If anything is the missing link between 70s punk (the more arty bands like the Modern Lovers and Television) and 80s alternative, it's this. In fact, I'd probably cite these guys as an influence on The Pixies (compare "Fa-Ce-La" to "Ed Is Dead" or "Nimrod's Son").

Not a bad song on Crazy Rhythms. One of my favorite records by far. The rest is good to eh. The last two albums were a bit samey sounding to me, but The Good Earth is a pretty good record in it's own right.

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: GIMME INDIE ROCK, VOL. 1

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: R.E.M.; GOLDEN PALOMINOS

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Fiery Furnaces

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Gallowsbird's Bark

Willie's comments: The Fiery Furnaces (siblings Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger) became instant hipster and critical darlings with this debut album, to the point of even earning a plug in the liner notes of David Cross's stand-up album It's Not Funny. But unlike indie-rock spazzes The Unicorns, to whom they're often compared, the Furnaces actually live up to the hype, because although the bands share a certain affinity for loosely-structured arrangements and restless melodic twists, the band under review never resorts to the confounding practice of stapling 20 underbaked ideas together and calling it a song. Instead, the Fiery Furnaces more closely resemble a laid-back version of The Fall, presenting their vibrant, nomadic lyrics (rife with great images like "In the Cracker Barrel Dumpster I found a bag/Red-white striped/I opened it/Gag") alongside repeated piano riffs and clever musical chaos. Which is to say, their tunes may bounce all over the place, but never to a degree that makes it impossible to connect one section of the song to any other. The endearingly clumsy guitar skronk, for instance, is never enough to detract from Eleanor's full-throated, memorable melodies, instead just adding a layer of kick-ass tension on infectious songs like "Two Fat Feet" and the telescoping opener "The South is Only a Home." To pigeonhole it, Gallowsbird's Bark is essentially an indie-rock fusion of rockabilly and the jug-band sunniness of something like Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime." (I personally loathe "In the Summertime" and you should too, but the songs here that most closely resemble it- "Bow Wow" and "Up in the North"- take that style and make it not just palatable, but exciting.) It takes a few listens to make sense, but the Friedbergers' multi-instrumental talents and playful sense of humor make this a spunky gem. Grade: A-

READER COMMENTS:

Trevor e.y. writes: yes, that is a good review. And so true, i found the Unicorns to be overrated and these guys to be the real thing. Hell, this album is stil growing on me, i'd probably give it an A and Blueberry Boat an A-, but they are both great. Hopefully they will stay around for a while. Later man!

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Finn Brothers

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Everyone is Here

Willie's comments: In the mid-'90s, Tim and Neil Finn recorded their first album together since Crowded House's Woodface. Entitled Finn Brothers in the United States and just Finn elsewhere (I think), it kicked off with one great song, "Only Talking Sense," and was pretty spotty thereafter. Well, their second effort as the Finn Brothers, Everyone is Here, is consistent to a fault, perhaps as a result of a collision of too many talented collaborators. The album was reportedly originally recorded with big famous producer guy Tony Visconti (David Bowie, Sparks, T. Rex), but then scrapped except for the song "Disembodied Voices," and re-recorded with Neil's longtime producer Mitchell Froom (Los Lobos, Richard Thompson) and Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Eels, Aimee Mann), and then the whole shebang was mixed by the notoriously slick Bob Clearmountain (Shawn Colvin, Bryan Adams, Paul McCartney). The result is your basic adult lite rock, distinguishing itself only by the Finns' typically smooth melodies and anthemic choruses. Lots of acoustic guitars, and too few surprises like the lively anti-Bush churner "All God's Children" or the rhythmically unusual "Anything Can Happen." However, the Finns are still no slouches in the songwriting department. Granted, "Gentle Hum," a song that is positively knee-shaking in concert with an entire audience humming its refrain, is done a huge disservice by the flat production which buries its grandeur beneath a nondescript piano arrangement, but there's no denying its melodic punch. Even when their enthusiasm for big McHooks takes them perilously close to Elton John territory ("Luckiest Man Alive"), their music is so life-affirming and smartly constructed that even a thorough declawing can't wreck it. Intellectually, you may feel like Everyone is Here is music for your parents, but it's hard not to feel young and free while it's on. Grade: B

SEE ALSO: SPLIT ENZ

SEE ALSO: CROWDED HOUSE

SEE ALSO: NEIL FINN

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Neil Finn

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Try Whistling This

Willie's comments: Crowded House really was criminally underrated, but the debut solo album from their frontman Neil Finn will, if anything, make you wish they broke up sooner! The Aussie, indie-Beatles pop he trafficks in is that good. Songs like "Sinner" and "Astro" string you along for one catchy phrase and then jerk you back in the other direction, resulting in a sort of backward catchiness that's gratifyingly challenging and incredible. Grade: A-

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One Nil

Willie's comments: This album isn't much of a departure from Try Whistling This, and it probably won't win Neil any new fans, but it finds him doing what he does best: writing unique, expansive pop songs with typically imaginative production (E-Bows abound!) courtesy of Neil and Tchad Blake. My brother prepared me for One Nil by comparing it to the layered inscrutability of Radiohead's Kid A, but only the twisted "Elastic Heart" is in any way inaccessible. True, the songs aren't as immediately gripping as his previous work, and there really isn't anything as inspired as "Sinner" (Neil has written a few of these songs before), but note-perfect songs like the melancholy waltz "Last to Know" and the speedy "Hole in the Ice" shouldn't turn off anyone looking for intelligent, low-key folk-rock. (NOTE: This album was released in the US, with a slightly different tracklist, as One All.) Grade: B+

READER COMMENTS:

Tim Williams writes: After the 1996 breakup of his band, Finn wanted to break some of his own barriers and create an album unlike any that he had put out with Crowded House. He succeeded, but kept two things constant from his previous efforts: Wonderful songwriting and catchy songs. "She Will Have Her Way" is as Beatles-esque as they come and "Sinner" is an instant classic. Apart from the Crowded House song "Don't Dream It's Over," which reached #2, Finn has nver had a great deal of success in the U.S. He has, however, amassed a fair number of famous fans such as Sheryl Crow, Eddie Vedder, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Shawn Colvin, and Dave Mustaine due to his excellent albums. This record is well worth the money, as it has some of the greatest songs you'll ever hear. Grade: A

vanvliet@hccnet.nl writes: Neil Finn also recorded an album together with brother Tim, named "Finn". No points for originality in the name, but the music is very good and original. They played all the instruments, including some original ones (pebbles, one string bass)

SEE ALSO: CROWDED HOUSE

SEE ALSO: SPLIT ENZ

SEE ALSO: FINN BROTHERS

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: SOUL COUGHING; RADIOHEAD

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The Flaming Lips

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Hear It Is

Willie's comments: Most people joined the Flaming Lips' trippy universe around the time of their big novelty hit "She Don't Use Jelly" (no arguments about that term, please- it's indisputably a novelty tune, but that doesn't mean it's not brilliant), and, to their own stupid detriment, abandoned the band soon afterward, resulting in at least three copies of Transmissions From the Satellite Heart gathering dust in every used CD store in America. What these philistines don't realize is that these psychedelica-enamored Oklahomans have had a long, hyperactively creative career both before and after their big hit song, and it all started here, with their debut LP. (Well, actually, it started with their fine self-titled EP that came out before this one, and featured genuine acid casualty Mark Coyne on vocals. However, Mark was quickly dismissed from the band and his guitarist brother Wayne took over vocal duties thereafter. I don't feel like covering the EP now because it's currently available only on the 3-disc retrospective Finally the Punk Rockers are Taking Acid, so I'll talk about it when I get to that one, maybe. I should also mention that Wayne claims to have only taken acid a half-dozen times or so in his life, and never really enjoyed it, so for all the "acid-drenched" descriptions the band gets, it's mostly hallucinatory on a strictly intellectual level.)

The Lips basically made a name for themselves playing hippie-influenced garage rock amid the same burgeoning hardcore scene that wound up spawning the Butthole Surfers and the Meat Puppets. Although you couldn't call this music punk in any way (bassist Michael Ivins fights for attention with Coyne's Ginsu-sharp guitar in aggressively tuneful ways, but their style has more in common with darkly psychedelic racketeers like the Litter than, say, Black Flag), the bleak outlook of the '80s is evident in tunes like "Jesus Shootin' Heroin" (an overlong but pretty moper) and "Charlie Manson Blues" (on which Coyne does a killer Jim Morrison impression, with backing vocals that shift unsteadily between high-pitched "la la las" and chanted oompah-loompah noises). Hear It Is isn't as ambitiously weird as the band's best work, but they still strike a pleasing balance between straightforward songcraft and primitive attempts at mind-expanding freakouts; the result occasionally sounds like the Replacements if their drug of choice was LSD instead of alcohol. The simple, sad "Godzilla Flick" is the only song here that I'd call a "classic" on par with their '90s output, but this album is hardly lacking in fun or listenability. Grade: B+

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Oh My Gawd!!!... The Flaming Lips

Willie's comments: With the benefit of hindsight, Oh My Gawd sounds like a rather bare affair, by Flaming Lips standards. Whereas their later works sound like they were recorded on some sort of specially-designed infinity-track machine, where billions of instruments can have parties together, the early Lips actually sounded like the three-piece they were. Save for the occasional overdub, these songs do what they can within a basic guitar-drums-bass-vocals setup, but it doesn't always turn out especially entertaining. I still hear a lot of the Replacements in this primitive sound, but it's as though the band had a tremolo pedal hooked up to their ability to be interesting: the quality of songwriting here cuts in and out a lot. "Can't Stop the Spring" is a fun rip-off of the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun," and the psychedelic epic "One Million Billionth of a Millisecond on a Sunday Morning" and simple, piano-based "Love Yer Brain" are evidence of inspirational overtime being put in by whatever muse helps these guys out... however. There's also the irritatingly sloppy "Maximum Dream for Evil Knievel" (funny though its Yes and Beatles allusions are), the dull "Can't Exist," and a couple "Odes to C.C." that don't really go anywhere. Not especially tuneful, not especially trippy, not especially anything, Oh My Gawd never falls below a certain level of listenability, but it's not an essential purchase for anyone. Grade: C+

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In a Priest Driven Ambulance

Willie's comments: The first half of this album is incredible- packed with psychedelic guitar squeals woven into a catchy, otherworldly whole and Wayne Coyne's barely on-key vocal whines providing an inviting grounding point. The stomping "Shine On Sweet Jesus" and the pensive "Five Stop Mother Superior Rain" in particular are classics. The second half of the album is a mess, though. Jonathan Donahue doesn't seem to know what to do with his guitar on "God Walks Among Us Now," and "Mountain Side," "Lucifer Rising," and "Let Me Be It" are irritating beyond belief (and I am not easily irritated, as you may have gathered) (Music-wise, I mean). The cover of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" is something of a saving grace, however. Grade: B-

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Hit to Death in the Future Head

Willie's comments: The sounds here, on the Lips' major-label debut, are the slightest bit tidier than on Ambulance, but the songwriting is ineffably wonderful. It would take a pretty great song to justify a title like "Talkin' 'Bout the Smilin' Deathporn Immortality Blues (Everyone Wants to Live Forever)," but these plucky Oklahomans pull it off! "Frogs" is as infectious as you could wish for in a song, and "Autopsy on the Devil's Brain (You Have to Be Joking)" is really quite beautiful. The weird guitar noises are still intact and as gorgeously gratuitous as ever, but you'll find yourself singing along to things you never thought you would. I defy anyone to listen to the final track all the way through, however. Grade: A

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Transmissions from the Satellite Heart

Willie's comments: A guy named Ronald took over the second guitar seat from Donahue (who left to form the slightly less magnificent Mercury Rev), and Ron seems content to stick with the song's basic flow as opposed to going buck on his guitar like Jon did. This results in a much more accessible album, as evidenced by the popularity of "She Don't Use Jelly," which is actually a lot more intelligent than you might think, when you put it in the context of the Lips' canon. There are some great, twisted hooks on The Satellite Heart, on "Pilot Can at the Queer of God" and "When Yer Twenty Two," but you also get a few basic power pop songs that just sound the slightest bit more wastee than, say, a Sean Lennon song. "Turn It On" and "Be My Head" are especially catchy, but the album's finale, "Slow Nerve Action" actually pulls the ol' heartstrings a bit. Say hello to the new mature Lips. Grade: B+

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Clouds Taste Metallic

Willie's comments: Fulfilling their potential beyond anything we could've imagined, Coyne & Co. plow their way through some piano-driven ballads, pure pop for now people, a few noisy rockers, and some songs that are just plain weird. If song titles like "Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus with Needles," "The Guy who Got a Headache and Accidentally Saves the World," and "This Here Giraffe" sound a bit too twee for your tastes, the songs themselves will grab you by the shoulders and swing you around for an hour. You'll be totally disoriented, enthralled, and singing along at the same time. If there were any justice, the achingly beautiful "They Punctured My Yolk" would be our national anthem. Grade: A+

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Zaireeka

Willie's comments: I've only been able to listen to this whole album once because it's so dreadfully inconvenient to play, but it's incredibly cool. This is a four-CD set in which all four CDs are meant to be played simultaneously, with different parts of each song on different CDs, resulting in an impossibly strange SenSurround effect when you play it in your living room. "Okay I'll Admit That Maybe I Don't Really Understand" is the most straightforward of the bunch, and it's still really weird. There are plenty of eardrum-piercing moments throughout, and Zaireeka will probably be a bit of a disappointment to those hoping for the cheerfully poppy weirdness of Clouds Taste Metallic, but there are enough rewarding moments throughout to justify buying it. Make sure you listen all the way to the end of "The Big Ol' Bug is the New Baby Now" with your eyes closed. So friggin' cool! Grade: A+ for concept, B for relistening value

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The Soft Bulletin

Ginny's comments: The Flaming Lips certainly have what it takes to make a permanent dent in not just indie music, but on the entire rock scene. Unique, creative, catchy and evolving music that makes them seem less of a band and more like a group of chemists, trying a lil' of this and a lil' of that just to see what happens and purely for the purpose of the advancing music and to have FUN- a rarity in an ever-increasingly greedy industry. The Soft Bulletin seems like the perfect and predictable follow up to 96's Clouds Taste Metallic and Zaireeka, blending the rich plushness of Zaireeka with the quirkiness and cleverness of Metallic. "Waiting for Superman" is an extraordinary track- by far my favorite Flaming Lips song to date. If you're contemplating this album, I compel you to at least visit Napster to download "Superman" immediately! And if you're STILL curious, find the music video somewhere and watch it immediately! If you're not almost brought to tears, then you need to get in touch with your inner child. By the way, while your visiting your inner child, you may also want to get rid of any deep-seated fear of insects, for this album makes numerous references to them, either in lyrics or entire songs, specifically "Buggin'" and "The Spiderbite Song" (a very sweet song despite the beguiling title). "The Observer" sounds like a forerunner for the next X-Files soundtrack. Though this album is a tad strangely mixed, it's awesome- even for the squeamish. GRADE: A+

P.S. Frontman Wayne Coyne has aged amazingly- he's hotter now than he ever was. Gotta love that grey streak!

Willie's comments: Taking a cue from Mercury Rev’s 1998 album Deserter’s Songs, the Lips’ ninth album is an introspective, gorgeous opus that sounds like it came from the most talented cocktail band on Venus rather than the "She Don’t Use Jelly" boys. The difference between Mercury Rev’s album and The Soft Bulletin is that the latter is full of songs that are both catchy and breathtakingly beautiful, as opposed to one or the other. Wayne Coyne croons lyrics about love that are as sweet as they are twisted ("And I was glad it didn’t destroy you/ How sad that would be/ ‘Cause if it destroyed you, it would destroy me"), and songs like "The Spark That Bled" and "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate" shimmer like the summer winding down. If you get a chance, search out the uncensored version of the video for "Waitin' for a Superman." It's just as gorgeous and affecting as the song itself. Grade: A+

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Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

Willie's comments: I recently read a news story that really made me happy: these scientists in Australia or somewhere designed some robots to fight one another. Apparently, the robots would do battle everyday, and the hope was they would get smarter and smarter from each battle (through some sort of AI or something, I guess, like the WOPR in WarGames), until they became unbeatable warrior machines. Well, after many days of this, one robot got so smart that he decided that he didn't like fighting everyday and he escaped the laboratory. Isn't that cool? I think that robot wound up getting run over in the lab's parking lot, but if he'd survived and decided to form a new civilization with the disillusioned computers of Grandaddy's album The Sophtware Slump and Chris Ware's Rocket Sam comics, the Flaming Lips' wonderful new record Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots could be his life story. Reteaming with producer Dave Fridmann, the Lips have come up with a record of melodies as hummable and easily-digested as any from the singer-songwriter movement of the '70s, but they're set to strange electronic rhythms and effects that basically remove the band's organic presence. In the exuberant "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pt. 1," for example, what should logically be a simple acoustic guitar strum is chopped up and programmed to sound like a futuristic approximation of an acoustic guitar strum; it's just a little too strange to sound human. (The cartoony Japanese yelps that pop up in the song's background also assist the song's ability to bring a smile to your face.) Throughout the album, Michael Ivins's bass and Steven Drozd's drums are given the same take-it-apart-and-electronically-reassemble-it treatment, and the effect of the music's inherent emotion struggling against these cold-sounding production techniques is (intentionally, I think) rather sad, in some indescribable way.

Coyne's lyrics further expound upon that chasm between one's emotional intent in life and the ultimate result, which rarely bears any relation to what we want. "One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21" explicitly describes the robots' confused forays into love, while "Fight Test" and "Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell" are more universally applicable. The former is a catchy hippie-rocker that cautions against confusing passivity with pacifism in relationships, and the latter is a new wave-influenced heartbreaker about remembering to look for love everywhere ("I was wanting you to love me, but your love, it never came/All the other love around me was just wasting all away"). The middle part of the album is homogenously low-key, but in a particularly pretty way that nullifies the fact that a few of these songs are Soft Bulletin retreads ("It's Summertime," for example, is a rewrite of "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate"). Less forgivable are Yoshimi's two instrumentals: "Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopia Planitia)," which is simply redundant, and "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pt. 2," which is a squishy pseudo-techno throwaway. Ultimately, though, hairline fractures such as these seem unimportant in the face of an album as inimitably kind-hearted, poppy, and beautiful as this one. Grade: A-

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Fight Test EP

Willie's comments: A worthwhile collection of oddities that have been recorded since Yoshimi, Fight Test is a scenic little detour for fans. In addition to the poppy contrition of the title track- which only gets more affecting the more spins you give it- the Lips' contemplative brilliance is exhibited on a brand new track, the organ-dotted "The Strange Design of Conscience." (There's also a playful new country song called "Thank You Jack White [for the Fiber-Optic Jesus That You Gave Me]," and while I can't wholeheartedly recommend any song that contributes to the myth that the White Stripes are in any way talented/important/useful/etc., the song does immortalize the Detroit show at which I saw the Lips play with Beck, so it's okay.) There's also a decent house remix of "Do You Realize??" but the best part of this EP is the way it showcases the Lips as a stellar cover band, with three terrific runs at other bands' tunes. Kylie Minogue's "Can't Get You Out of My Head" is transformed into a grand, Soft Bulletin-esque theatrical piece, there's a version of Beck's "The Golden Age" that's fairly true to the original (and therefore good), and best of all, Radiohead's "Knives Out" is vastly improved by reworking it as a moody piano ballad. It's like they've crossed "Knives Out"'s melody with "Pyramid Song"'s haunting arrangement, and that song is the best argument for you to check this affordable little mini-record out. Will it patch up the holes in your soul the way Yoshimi and The Soft Bulletin did? No, probably not. But if you've fallen under those records' humane spell, Fight Test makes for a fine faux finish on top of the spackle. Grade: B+

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Ego Tripping At the Gates of Hell EP

Willie's comments: Meh. After the Fight Test EP and the two-disc re-release of Yoshimi (yes, one year after its initial release- thanks, Flips), these guys could be accused of gilding the lily somewhat by releasing yet another EP from that album. Especially since the most enjoyable bits of this EP are the two dinky-electronic remixes of the title track and the Postal Service's remix of "Do You Realize??" Then there are four unreleased studio tracks, all of which play like filler: one useless instrumental ("I'm a Fly in a Sunbeam") and three more of Wayne's meditations on love and death. While Wayne's message is nice, as always, the tunes themselves are repetitive and underdeveloped. You really don't need this. Grade: C

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Late Night Tales

Willie's comments: The Lips' entry in the Late Night Tales series (mix albums compiled by bands to represent their ideal collection of songs they themselves would put on their stereo in the wee hours) is remarkably underwhelming for a band whose career has encompassed so many styles and influences. It's not clear whether the entire band was even involved in this project: although Wayne offers some amusing liner notes in which he discusses how one of his old mixtapes had mightily impressed Mr. Drozd when the latter first joined the band, I suspect that the entire compilation was selected and assembled by Steven, who comments briefly on each song. As a result, this disc has none of the freewheeling spontaneity evinced by the mixtape in Wayne's anecdote (which ranged from Roberta Flack to Captain Eyeball to Led Zeppelin to The Jesus and Mary Chain), instead sticking mostly to pleasantly mellow tracks by bands far too iconic to be interesting in this context. The quality of the songs is uniformly high (save for some dull moping by Chris Bell and an unimpressive instrumental by Love and Rockets), but what Flaming Lips fan has yet to discover Bjork, Radiohead, Nick Drake, Aphex Twin, or Brian Eno? I don't mean to impugn Drozd's taste- particularly since I don't know for certain whether he alone is responsible for this package- but it's difficult to understand why he'd include so many songs about which his audience has likely already formed opinions, especially when he could've dropped in more wonderful obscurities like "Up the Down Escalator" by the Chameleons, a note-perfect simulation of everything that made the Psychedelic Furs (who also appear here) great, or Alfie's "People," a no-frills indie-rock gem. Sadly, those are two of only three songs by bands that a hardcore Lips fan is unlikely to be aware of. (The other one? Mice Parade.) The rest is just more great-but-familiar stuff like Miles Davis, Sebadoh, Roxy Music, Chemical Brothers... it's awfully expensive for a mix CD you could assemble yourself. Grade: C

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At War with the Mystics

Willie's comments: Whereas Clouds Taste Metallic and Zaireeka sounded like exactly the albums the Lips had always wanted to make and now had the resources to put together, At War with the Mystics sounds like the album they felt obligated to make to head off complaints about their recent Grammy-garnering accessibility. Working at the twin purposes of emphasizing their complex songwriting maturity and proving they haven't lost their indie spunk, it's a rare album indeed in that it manages to be both maddeningly sloppy and distractingly overproduced. Beneath the wreckage lie Wayne's typically cleansing hippie sentiments (heard to best effect on the tear-jerking ballad "My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion"), but the strained, eclectic piles of electronic noise sink the melodies too. With its intentionally unlistenable falsetto solo, "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" shoots right on past "fun party stylings" and lands squarely in the realm of "obnoxiousness wrecking an otherwise catchy song." "Free Radicals" is a pseudo-slinky take on Prince that could not be more embarrassing if you were actually watching your dad do karaoke to "P Control." By the second time the band launches into a gratuitous, dull coda to end a song that pointedly does not require one ("It Overtakes Me," following "The Sound of Failure" four tracks earlier), you'll be ready to give up. Which is too bad, because apart from the early highlight "My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion," the quality doesn't pick up until the final three tracks ("The W.A.N.D.," "Pompeii AM Gotterdammerung," and "Goin' On"), which cram every song the band heard in the '70s into a meat grinder and produce a sausage stuffed with several genres of pomp and yumminess. Goofy in the wrong places, mawkish in the wrong places, and not even consistently wrong in the right places, the way previous weirdo manifestoes like "The Gash" and "Pilot Can At the Queer of God" were, Mystics just tries way too hard and misplaces the Lips' sense of fun in the process. Grade: C

READER COMMENTS:

LoadesC writes: I can't see why the Soft Bulletin is rated so highly. It has only 1 great song-Waiting for Superman.Here are my ratings:
Here it Is. B
Oh My Gawd! B-
In a Priest driven Ambulance. A-
Hit to Death in the Future Head. B+
Transmissions from the Satellite Heart. B+
Clouds taste Metallic. A-
The Soft Bulletin. B
Yoshimi battles the Pink Robots. B+

SEE ALSO: MERCURY REV

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: SUBURBIA SOUNDTRACK ALBUM; GIMME INDIE ROCK, VOL. 1; THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE SOUNDTRACK

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: MOUNTAIN GOATS; THE POSTAL SERVICE

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT THE FLAMING LIPS


The Folk Implosion

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One Part Lullaby

Willie's comments: The Folk Implosion is one of Lou Barlow's 10,000 bands, and probably the most consistently enjoyable (though they've never turned out a masterpiece of the magnitude of Sebadoh's Bakesale). From their surprise hit "Natural One" to this album, the Folk Implosion weds Barlow's downer lyrics and twisted melodic sense with trip-hop rhythms and hypnotic basslines. The result? For this album, at least, a tremendously rewarding brew of wispy, ominous technopop that suggests the love child of R.E.M. and Massive Attack. "Mechanical Man" and "Kingdom of Lies" are both awesomely catchy, while "E.Z.L.A." incorporates the weird Cher vocal machine to tremendously creepy effect. It's inauspicious, but nonetheless terrific. Grade: A-

SEE ALSO: SEBADOH

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: A LIFE LESS ORDINARY SOUNDTRACK; SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK ROCKS!

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Fountains of Wayne

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Fountains of Wayne

Willie's comments: There's no question that Fountains of Wayne's first album is full of well-written, fuzzbox-lovin' power-pop tunes. "Radiation Vibe" is as catchy and summery as you could ask for, while "Leave the Biker" (as in, "Baby please/ Leave the biker/ Leave the biker/ Break his heart") is hilariously moving. However, compared with the greatness of Utopia Parkway, FoW's self-titled release too often uses Ramones-esque buzzsaw rock as a crutch. "Please Don't Rock Me Tonight," "Survival Car," and "I've Got a Flair" aren't without their charms, but the album could use a bit more musical expansiveness. Grade: B

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Utopia Parkway

Ginny's comments: I wonder if it's at all possible for a song to be TOO catchy? And I'm not talking annoying songs, like when you get the chorus to "Walking on Sunshine" or "Genie in a Bottle" stuck in your head, I'm talking flat-out well-written, good songs that are so infectious they haunt your dreams. I loved this album and listened to it almost non-stop for a week when I first got, errr... stole it (from Willie). It was then I learned to listen to Parkway in moderation- all of my dreams were accompanied with "Red Dragon Tatoo," probably the most infectious of all the songs on this album. I DARE you to hear this album and not hum it ONCE afterwards. I know they could use this album for some sort of psychological warfare or something. Wayne can do everything from pop-catchy ("Denise") to silly-catchy ("Prom Song") to downright cry-and-you-have-no-idea-why-catchy ("A Fine Day for a Parade"). If you love catchy, but not MAINSTREAM catchy, Fountains of Wayne is The Man. Grade: A

Willie's comments: "Denise," the first single from FoW’s sophomore album, is a wonderful, robotic, post-punk athem of unrequited love ("She works at Liberty Travel/ She’s got a heart made of gravel") that owes as much to DEVO as it does to Weezer. However, the song’s tightly-wound melody and scraggly edges don’t really represent the rest of this album of songs about suburban life. None of the other power pop songs on Utopia Parkway conveys the sense of pent-up frustration that "Denise" does; rather, songs like "Red Dragon Tattoo" and "The Valley of Malls" are all laid-back, catchy pop nuggets. And when songwriters Adam Schlesinger (who also wrote "That Thing You Do") and Chris Collingwood get mellow enough to eliminate the crunchy guitars, the results are utterly gorgeous: the title track sounds more like Ben Folds Five than Ben Folds Five did on Reinhold Messner, and "A Fine Day for a Parade" is as exquisite as anything Simon & Garfunkel ever did. Fountains of Wayne make great songwriting look easy. Grade: A+

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Welcome Interstate Managers

Willie's comments: In the four years since Utopia Parkway, FoW got dumped from their label and spent a substantial amount of time doing things unrelated to recording an album (producing They Might Be Giants, guesting on Tahiti 80's first record, recording the infectious theme song for Crank Yankers, etc.). Though the nearly universal acclaim for Utopia was enough to land them a new deal with S-Curve Records, their new record, Welcome Interstate Managers, nearly falls apart beneath the audible strain to make their album sales as consistently impressive as their reviews. It starts strongly, with a quartet of songs that will make you wonder all over again why these guys are seen as a "cult" band: straightforward power-pop tunes "Mexican Wine" and "Bright Future in Sales" surge with a can-you-top-this? determination to create the Perfect Hook, "Stacy's Mom" is another fuzzy new-wave singalong that's so superb it makes you forget that Weezer came up with the idea of ripping off the Cars ten years ago, and "Hackensack" is an effortless, low-key bit of yearning for a grade school crush that's both funny and genuine. (It takes a very specific touch to make a line like "I saw you talkin' to Christopher Walken on my TV screen" sound sweet.)

That song's effortlessness, though, demonstrates what's lacking from much of the album thereafter. As a follow-up to Utopia, Interstate Managers is full of great, observant lyrics that find the previous album's group of suburban slackers and stoners all grown up, having mostly become alcoholic office monkeys, but a lot of the music suffers from the same ennui as the characters. For every bit of spontaneity, like the bouncy acoustic rock of "Hey Julie" or the gruff-yet-summery "Little Red Light," there's a bit of calculated, boring tunefulness like "No Better Place" or the interminable "All Kinds of Time" (a failed attempt to recapture the regretful charm of "Prom Theme" by looking at the world through the eyes of a high school quarterback during a big game). And while seven or eight of the first ten songs are worthwhile-to-outstanding, Interstate Managers plummets like a sandbag at the end, starting with the unnecesssary country ballad "Hung Up on You" (though, honestly, "Ever since you hung up on me, I'm hung up on you" is a pretty funny joke-country refrain) and never recovering. Though Utopia Parkway is such a masterpiece that it's almost unfair to measure any other records by its standards, and this record proves Collingwood and Schlesinger can still smelt songwriting gold when they want to, they really should've been able to come up with a disc that connects more than half the time. Grade: B-

READER COMMENTS:

Thomas McKeown writes: I'm not sure why you seem to think that Utopia Parkway is that great. Compared to either their first album or Welcome Interstate Managers, it seems extremely patchy. 'Trying Times' is a horribly over-produced ballad, I find 'Denise' just plain annoying and 'Go Hippie' sounds like an extremely poor Oasis track. I'll admit their are plenty of very good songs on the album (Red Dragon Tatoo, Fine Day For A Parade, Amity Gardens) but the other two albums seem to me, at any rate, as being far more consistent.

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: KINKS TRIBUTE ALBUM

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS; LINCOLN; RON SEXSMITH; TAHITI 80

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE


Forest for the Trees

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Forest for the Trees

Willie's comments: Former Beck collaborator and mentally unstable multi-instrumentalist Karl Stephenson draws upon many different cultures and sounds for his debut album. Sometimes this global inbreeding works, and sometimes it doesn’t. “Planet Unknown,” for example, is a transcendentally funky slice of dance music that’s peppered with Latin melodies, and the single “Dream” would give Beck a run for his genre-hopping money, seamlessly melding bagpipes, hip-hop, Mr. Microphone vocals, and sounds of sprinklers and alarm clocks. However, the Middle-Eastern drone of “Ohm” is pretty draggy, and many of the other songs veer off their own paths too often to ever really grab you. Bonus points for musical adventurousness, though. Grade: B-

READER COMMENTS:

SoulCrusher77 writes: This album would have seemed more groundbreaking had it been released when it normally would have (Stephenson had actually been working on the thing when Beck was still a little-known silly noisy anti-folker, and it probably would have come out just a little after Mellow Gold did if he didn't have a nervous breakdown about the recording process). As it stands it comes off as an Odelay with Olivia Tremor Control aspirations. Sometimes it works brilliantly ("Dream", "Planet Unknown", "Stream", "Wet Paint" even though it's basically "Dream Part II"), sometimes it's just an awkward mess, but it's always at least interesting. What's cool about the soundbites is that I read he actually took this high tech quadrophonic recording equipment and brought it around with him and used those recordings in the album; for instance the intro to "Green Light Street" actually is him and his friends going out for a drive, and elsewhere in the record you actually hear him and a female friend riding a roller coaster. Heck if you listen closely there's a snippet of him informing a passerby "I'm recording frogs", which leads me to believe that even all those animal noises, alarm clocks, sprinklers and the like were done this way when samples or stock sound effects would have sufficed. Wow. Anyway, as I implied it's kind of more "interesting" than "good", but I still recommend picking it up, especially if you find it in the 3 dollar bin like I did.

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: BECK; P.J. OLSSON

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT FOREST FOR THE TREES


For Squirrels

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Example

Willie's comments: If you're able to divorce yourself from the creepiness of hearing a singer who died in a car crash (along with one other band member and their manager, just before this album's release) singing lines like "Take me off to the morgue/ I'm ready to be buried," Example offers up a portrait of a truly promising band. Avoiding genericism by coating their R.E.M.-esque melodies with thick, Sugar-esque guitars, For Squirrels lionize Kurt Cobain ("Mighty K.C."), salute the proletariat ("Orangeworker"), and produce a song about who knows what ("Under Smithville") that's so perfectly singable and loveable that it gives me goosebumps everytime I hear it. There are a few irritating, bombastic Pixies rip-offs, but as debut albums go, this one is less creaky than most. Sad, though, because I've a feeling their next album would've been some kind of classic. Grade: B

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT FOR SQUIRRELS


Friends soundtrack album

Willie's comments: As of this writing, Friends is one of the most consistently funny shows on television, along with South Park and That ‘70s Show. Like those two shows, however, Friends spawned a soundtrack album that’s pretty embarassing. How embarassing, you ask? Well, consider, for starters, that it includes three versions of the Rembrandts’ grating “I’ll be There for You”- the TV version, the briefly ubiquitous single version, and a bafflingly useless karaoke version. It also includes a boring Hootie & the Blowfish song (as if there were any other kind) and similarly dull numbers by k.d. lang, Barenaked Ladies, Paul Westerberg (twice!) and the overrated Pretenders. Toad the Wet Sprocket and R.E.M. contribute songs that, while terrific, are readily available on their own, superior releases (In Light Syrup and The Automatic Box, respectively). That leaves three great songs: Lou Reed’s uncharacteristically happy “You’ll Know You Were Loved,” a funky remix of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” and Grant Lee Buffalo’s muscular cover of the Beach Boys’ “In My Room.” Whether they’re enough reason to purchase this album is extremely debatable, however. Grade: C

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT FRIENDS


The Frogs

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Racially Yours

Willie's comments: Yes, you are seeing what you think you're seeing in that picture. A white guy in sloppy blackface, with idiotic, Kato Kaelin-esque surfer hair. Why? We'll get to that. Now, take a gander at some of the titles in the album's tracklist: "Whitefully Dead." "2 Blacks Don't Make a White." "Massa." "The Purification of the Race." Kinda ugly, isn't it? Well, it's the Frogs. Two brothers (Jimmy and Dennis Flemion) who write mostly mellow, sparsely-arranged alt-folk songs about topics- and from viewpoints- that would instantly reduce cities like Ann Arbor or Berkeley to flaming rubbish-heaps of righteous indignation. Why? Hold your horses- I'll get to it! In the past, the duo raised red flags for themselves posing as gay (and possibly incestuous) lovers on 1989's It's Only Right and Natural, but this album raised the social no-no ante so highly that no label would obligingly touch it between its recording in 1993 and its eventual release on 4 Alarm Records in 2000. As you might have guessed, it's a record full of 25 songs about racial issues: prejudice, tension, war, guilt, and our nation's sordid history. However, the brothers take on the roles of people who fall on every imaginable side of the spectrum (from both political and ethnic standpoints), played utterly straight- with no nudging, Ween-esque winks to defuse the discomfort.

But why? That's the joke: there is no why. There's no message behind it whatsoever; the songs play out as simple, declarative snapshots of the characters' mindsets, without ever offering the sort of approval or condemnation that would be expected from a concept album on such a volatile topic. Just eye-poppingly provocative lyrics like, "I killed 'em white guy 'cause he played too rough" and "The White House is filled with monkeys," delivered in the same plain singing voice that seesaws between obsequious and affectless. I'm not suggesting that the Frogs are racist, of course- no true racist would give both blacks and whites equal time on an album like this- and frankly, I don't think they can really be bothered to care that much about racism. The brilliance of the album comes from the fact that they seemingly did it just because they could. The Frogs nonchalantly breeze through this record as if race was a perfectly valid topic for pop music that springs as easily to mind as love (or, if you're the Beach Boys, modes of transportation). It's not even a clear-cut exercise in shock value, really, because tracks like "The Flag" and the fragile "I Had a Dream" fall on the side of thoughtfulness. Furthermore, the music is fantastic (if a little samey, on first listen). It's all pretty cheaply recorded, but the brothers spin any number of wow-inducing melodies, mostly using an acoustic guitar, some bargain-bin keyboards, and assorted effects pedals ("Truth," "Now You Know You're Black," "The Blue-Eyed Devil & the Brown-Eyed Angel," and "400 Years," to name just a handful of the great songs here). Truthfully, you could throw Racially Yours on your stereo as fun music to study to... if you were sure no one was going to walk in on you. The why behind Racially Yours may never adequately be explained by anyone, but it's a gutsy non-sequitur worth your time pondering. Grade: A-

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT THE FROGS


Mitchell Froom

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Dopamine

Willie's comments: Record producer wunderkind Froom plays backup band to a gaggle of diverse vocalists on this album of lo-fi alt-jazz: everyone from Sheryl Crow to Soul Coughing's M. Doughty to former ALF writer Jerry Stahl takes the mike, singing over Froom's keyboard-based backing tracks. Some songs merely float by as little more than great noirish mood music, but others, like Doughty's hilariously deadpan "The Bunny" and Ron Sexsmith's impossibly sad "Overcast," are astronomical. Grade: B+

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: ELVIS COSTELLO; CROWDED HOUSE; SOUL COUGHING; RICHARD THOMPSON; RON SEXSMITH

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT MITCHELL FROOM


Edith Frost

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Calling Over Time

Willie's comments: Edith Frost should really be a more widely recognized artist than she is. Her songs- as gentle and haunting as her voice itself- occupy the same vaguely spooky underbelly of production-free American indie-folk as Will Oldham and 16 Horsepower, but with the spacey contemplation of Cat Power or Barbara Manning standing in for Oldham's antisocial eccentricities and 16 Horsepower's doomsaying. That said, her debut doesn't provide as effective a showcase for her talent as her later albums. Mind you, Jim O'Rourke's laissez-faire production does no favors for Frost or the listener, but the real moments of unsteadiness come from Frost herself still trying to find her niche, with detours into Chicago blues ("Pony Song"), twee country ("Give Up Your Love"), and "House of the Rising Sun"-style psych-folk ("Wash of Water" and "Denied," which come complete with piercing keyboards) paying no particular dividends. She's at her best when she follows her own muse, letting the acoustic guitar and bass patiently follow her singing, which drips with equal portions of downbeat confidence whether she's murmuring a breathy come-on ("Follow") or reeling with heartbroken sorrow ("Temporary Loan"). There are enough Frosty pleasures here to satisfy fans, but newcomers are advised to work their way back to Calling Over Time lest its smoky highlights be overshadowed by the instances of muddled overreaching. Grade: B-

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Telescopic

Willie's comments: On her second album, Telescopic, Frost surrounds herself with acoustic guitars, shuffly drums, and carefully employed strings, for a more confident effect than Calling Over Time's meandering, but she's not averse to occasionally hiding blazing indie-rock guitars in the mix or programming a percussion loop that sounds like a bunch of elves quietly working in a sweatshop. With sincere and deliberate attention to detail, Frost's songs don't have a lot of propulsion; they just glide along in a hushed, dreamlike haze, swooning and cascading as necessary. Though despite the tiptoeing hesitancy of songs like "Through the Trees," Frost's worldview is ultimately pretty sweet: "You Belong to No One" is a pep-talk for the lonely, insisting that the odds are against them remaining that way forever, and the waltzing album highlight "Tender Kiss" is a sad song of yearning for an old flame, etc. She does travel to the same well of minor-key, seemingly Gypsy-inspired melodies perhaps a few times too often on this brief album, but the misty atmosphere of the music- not to mention her beautiful, dead-sounding harmonies- makes it hard to mind too much. Everything about this disc feels like you've uncovered a dusty old gem in the attic. Grade: A-

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Wonder Wonder

Willie's comments: More confident and spry than Telescopic, Wonder Wonder increases the tempos and actually gets poppy at some points, without losing Edith's intimate country-folk individuality. There are still plenty of laid-back cowboy waltzes ("Honey Please") and solemn folk ballads ("True," "Who"), but it turns out Frost is equally adept at performing Aimee Mann-style deadpan rock ("Cars and Parties") and even Camper Van Beethoven-style pseudo-ethnic trippiness ("The Fear"). (Quick sidebar: the line "It's always so cold 'round here/There's too many cars 'round here" was much more amusing to me when I thought she was instead lamenting an overabundance of cows.) The mood is still a hushed one, and even though the title track is an adorable, bouncy delight that's powered by an old-timey keyboard and some woodwinds, it's performed with the same personal precision as the rhythmless, smoky lullaby "Dreamers." In a way, Wonder Wonder is such a subtle album, so perfect in its very tininess, that it's easy to let it slip through the cracks of your consciousness, but if you get down really close to it the way it deserves, you'll totally fall in love. Beautiful. Grade: A

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Demos

Willie's comments: Available for free download through Comfort Stand Records (http://www.comfortstand.com), Demos is a humble little collection of pre-studio four-track versions of songs from her first three albums, along with a few that are new to us. What's most interesting about this collection is how gently Edith treats her songs in their state of gestation; while they're mostly all set to the same spare, loping acoustic-guitar-and-multitracked-vocal arrangement that leaves plenty of room for potential studio embellishment (not to mention emphasizes her beautiful whispered harmonies), there's an intimacy to the tracks that suggests that these home recordings- presumably not recorded with the intent of release- are very special to her. Old-timey country song "Look What Thoughts Will Do" features a great saloon-style piano, and Telescopic's "Walk on the Fire" plays out over a tape of kids setting off fireworks, which are nice, personal touches that one doesn't ordinarily expect from demo takes. It's all very slow and delicate in a way that recalls Cat Power even more than usual, and even the peppy Wonder Wonder title track and that album's marching pop song "Cars and Parties" are sketched as hushed lullabies. These songs are already great in their previously released versions, but here, they do take on a different, more comforting tone that will be extremely worthwhile for fans. Personally, I don't think it's the most representative introduction to Edith, because her stuff isn't usually this blatantly cowgirl-ish or sleepy, but if you keep that in mind, Demos will reward the time you take to download it even if you have an old, creaky dial-up connection. Grade: B+

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: SONIC YOUTH

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT EDITH FROST


Fuck

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Cupid's Cactus

Willie's comments: The name of the band itself is not intrinsically funny. What's hilarious about Fuck's chosen moniker is that they willingly ensured that they will never get any airplay anywhere in the United States, and that the casual record buyer will most likely pass them over, thinking that their albums contain unlistenable, confrontational hardcore (a la Empire of Shit) if he happens to see one of their albums somewhere, just because they wanted to name themselves after their favorite expletive. Fuck is actually a somewhat minimalist indie-rock band whose songs are smart, methodical, slow, short, and lyrically inoffensive, but only the truly adventurous will ever discover them or their albums simply because they're named Fuck! In a way, I suppose it's absurd that anyone would pass up a band simply because they have a profane name (because the whole notion of profanity strikes me as rather arbitrary- what makes shit any different than poo or crap?), but these guys surely knew what they were getting into... At any rate, you're getting both a record and a conversation piece when you pick up Cupid's Cactus.

As far as the "record" aspect goes, it's a minor triumph. The best songs are so slow you can almost hear each note being pulled farther and farther until, just before it snaps like a piece of taffy, another one comes in to replace it. "Someday Aisle" and "Dandelion Ditch" are in this mold, with the bass and drums coaxing the tunes along like lonely towtrucks- so much so it's easy to miss subtle little touches like the pleading backing vocals at the end of the latter. There's also a gentle Tex/Mex influence that becomes evident in songs like the instrumental "San Jacinto" and the twangy guitars that appear throughout the album- it's never enough to weigh Fuck's wispy music down; rather, it just flavors it nicely. This stuff can't be categorized as slowcore, lest you get the wrong impression. It's just terrific, laid-back, after-hours rock 'n' roll, for after the drunks have left the bar and the band can turn down their amps a little and really get into creating a perfect musical afterglow. Grade: B+

READER COMMENTS:

Blairndrum@aol.com writes: Fuck had the drummer from Sonic Youth (Steve Shelly) in it!

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Future Bible Heroes

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Memories of Love

Willie's comments: Even at his most serious (a mode he saves mostly for his Magnetic Fields albums), Stephin Merritt's compositions are always marked by a deceptive disposability, with Oscar Wilde wordplay and ABBA-informed melodies taking the sting out of his deadpan romantic cynicism. It's a formula that's hard to argue with- literary Kit-Kats, basically- but with his side project the Future Bible Heroes, Merritt, along with musician Christopher Ewan and singer Claudia Gonson (who is also the Fields' drummer and Merritt's manager), successfully tweaks that balance for maximum twee, disposable, fun with a minimum of wallowing. The first FBH album, Memories of Love, is a swandive into early-'80s-style synth-pop, but unlike, say, The Postal Service, who would later update that style for the age of glitchy electronica, Ewan's keyboard-only arrangements are wholly faithful to the dinky new-wave aesthetic of bands like the Psychedelic Furs, Missing Persons, and the Thompson Twins. Unapologetically bouncy, slick, and cheap, Memories of Love is nevertheless as addictive and infectious as only unapologetically bouncy, slick, and cheap songs can be, whether its mood is as upbeat as "Real Summer" or as pensive as the Asian-flavored "You Steal the Scene." Occasionally, as on "Hopeless," the arrangements shrink down to a point where it sounds like Merritt and Gonson (who alternate vocal duties throughout the album) are doing karaoke to a MIDI background, but that's where Merritt's melodic and lyrical gifts swoop in to save the day. "She-Devils of the Deep," "Blond Adonis," and "Death Opened a Boutique" coast on their character-based silliness, and it's wonderful to hear Gonson gently delivering flippant lines like "There's nobody to fall in love with, so I don't" (on the dreamy opener "Lonely Days") and "All our dreams are dying of overdoses/All our plans are lying in ten-car road wrecks." Even the sincerely sad songs ("You Pretend to be the Moon," "But You're So Beautiful") don't dwell on pain, but just give it a respectful tip of the hat in a way that recalls XTC's Andy Partridge more than Merritt's usual barbed sentimentality. The determined gooeyness might be a bit much for those who are looking for something a bit deeper, but if nothing else, Memories of Love proves that if it's got brainpower behind it, even the chintziest musical genres can be timeless. Grade: B+

READER COMMENTS:

Damien Browning writes: I really like the first album by the Future Bible Heroes, however stay away from their next one they released, it is really really bad.It is like really gay, and the only reason i call it that, is cuz frankly i don't know what other word to describe it as.And i like all the other albums steve merritt has been involved in. But not that one! The lyrics are pretty good, on memories of love. although half the songs are sung by claudia gonson, who's voice I am not that crazy about. all the best songs are sung by steven merritt though.

SEE ALSO: MAGNETIC FIELDS

SEE ALSO: 6THS

SEE ALSO: STEPHIN MERRITT

SEE ALSO: GOTHIC ARCHIES

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