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I Am Sam soundtrack

Willie's comments: Functioning less as a soundtrack than a shoddy tribute album to the Beatles (or, more specifically, to the songwriting skills of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, since neither Mr. Harrison nor Mr. Starr's endeavours are represented here), the I Am Sam soundtrack was, like the film's title character, somewhat underbaked from conception. It might sound like a great idea on paper- round up a bunch of respectable, creative "alternative" artists that appeal to hip thirtysomethings and get them to run through their favorite Beatles numbers- but there's a fatal error behind this reasoning. That error is made clear by a ridiculously grandiose quote from Andy Gershon's liner notes: "[Thanks to] the artists who interpreted these songs with so much affection and made them their own" (italics mine). Simply put, you cannot make the Beatles' songs your own. They belong to the ages. They belong to all of us. They are as firmly ingrained in our popular consciousness as the Grand Canyon is in the desert soil. Attempting to change that or to hitch yourself to their wagon is folly; that's the way of thinking that has screwed the pooch on a million Beatles covers (most of them by Joe Cocker, but you can count Elton John, the Feelies, and Tori Amos in that category as well). Even if you don't take quite so arrogant an attitude toward things and are just having some fun, the best you can hope for is to create an enjoyable oddity like Barbara Manning's "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," which is charming but nevertheless redundant in rock history.

This is not to say the Beatles have never written a bad song- do you know anyone who'll willingly sit through "Wild Honey Pie"? Nor am I trying to say anything as pretentious as "All Beatles songs are sacred and mustn't be disturbed"- I think Fiona Apple's sleepy cover of "Across the Universe" totally crushes the original version, and I've always felt that someone should rough up "Run for Your Life" a little. I'm just saying that it's a pointless task to undertake, because Fiona aside, even if you succeed at doing justice to the songs, why shouldn't people just pull out their great old Beatles records and listen to them? By covering the Beatles, you can basically run the gamut from passable to disaster (which I Am Sam does, but I'll get to that), but do you really expect to improve things? Please. Cover something by Love or Neil Young or, hell, Jandek. Just don't try to encroach upon territory that has been claimed and successfully defended by the memories and shared musical experiences of the entire Western world for practically the past half a century.

So, yeah, I Am Sam. As I said, the soundtrack has its share of listenable tunes. Ben Folds wisely approaches "Golden Slumbers" with an easygoing reverence, while Ben Harper ("Strawberry Fields Forever") and The Black Crowes ("Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds") hew closely enough to the original recordings to serve as decent stand-ins if you don't have the source albums handy. However, most of the artists are so audibly terrified of desecrating their chosen masterpieces that they err on the side of caution, capsizing the songs by robbing them of energy and tension (e.g., Paul Westerberg's "Nowhere Man," Stereophonics' "Don't Let Me Down," and most of all, the Wallflowers' toothless run at "I'm Looking Through You"). And sometimes the song and artist are a catastrophic mismatch: who, for example, decided to let the determinedly sour Nick Cave take on "Let It Be"? It's not an unendurable album, but I have to give the album the grade it's getting on principle alone. After all, what if some sheltered Sarah McLachlan fan picked up this album because of her "Blackbird" cover, listened to the disc all the way through, and (not unreasonably, from the evidence) concluded that the Beatles were just plain boring? Grade: F

READER COMMENTS:

Michele writes: No version of ANY Beatles song deserves an 'F'! Dude, an 'F' for this album is WAY harsh. (I tend to devolve to the use of California surfer vernacular when I'm pissed off and a bit drunk.)

I didn't see the movie but the soundtrack was pleasant enough to listen to at the dentist's office waiting room. Anyone who loves the Beatles is interested in what others do with/to their songs. That is to say, it doesn't have NO VALUE as you suggest by the grade you give. Sure, I probably wouldn't buy the record, but it made my wait more tolerable than, say, a Dave Matthews Band album would have.

Still, if the point of your review(s) is(are) to ensure that the fan of the album (that is, a beginning to finish recorded lp, cd, etc.) is not wasting money (buying an album for only one or two good songs), then I guess you're absolutely right!

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I Am the World Trade Center

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Out of the Loop

Willie's comments: If you've never before heard of this electropop duo, you're presumably going to want an explanation, so here it is: I Am the World Trade Center consists of Dan Geller and Amy Dykes, who I think are married (they're definitely at least in a long-term relationship). In early 2001, they came up with the name I Am the World Trade Center as a rather sweet symbol of their unity and the strength of their love. A matter of months later, of course, they discovered that they had stumbled upon the most unfortunate musical moniker in the history of rock 'n' roll. Plenty of hate mail ensued, demanding that they change the name under which they record, and they announced that they would do so, because their band now had a connotation that they hadn't planned on (nevermind the fact that it's also a rather grim omen for their relationship). At that point, naturally, they were inundated with even more angry mail, demanding that they not change their name out of respect for the victims of the WTC attacks and so forth. Utterly screwed either way, they just decided to stick with their original name. At the very least, it's an attention-grabber.

Their debut album, Out of the Loop, was released before the attacks (so ignore the coincidence that track 11 is entitled "September"), and it's a fetching collection of cheerful club music. Entirely assembled on their home computer, the songs are charming in their personal quirkiness, but they don't really sound as dinky and underproduced as you'd think; the duo manages to strike a balance between the lo-fi tininess of a band like the Future Bible Heroes and more expansive big-beat acts like Mint Royale. They use all manner of interesting synth noises- tweets, bubbles, videogame beeps, sweeps, and other nifty analog sounds- to carry most of the instrumentation, but ground the songs with credibly bulky breakbeats, loops, and basslines, resulting in some serious dance whimsy. Dykes sings most of the songs, and what her voice lacks in melodic accuracy, it makes up in enthusiasm and sincerity. Alas, most of her vocals are run through a slight delay effect, which effectively masks some mistakes but also becomes a twinge annoying after awhile. A couple filler tracks ("Analogous," a redundant remix of "Metro") also detract from the overall highway of upbeat booty-shaking that the duo paves, but unsurpassably addictive tunes like "Me to Be" and "Look Around You" show that this band is capable of some of the best party music the world has ever known. Grade: A-

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The Tight Connection

Willie's comments: On the sole episode of American Idol that I've seen, some little blond chippy attempted to sing Blondie's "Call Me," and was politely rebuked by one of the panelists, who said, "It takes a really specific type of singer to tackle that song, and you aren't that type." (Probably Paula Abdul. I think Simon Cowell followed that comment by threatening to remove the singer's reproductive organs with a corkscrew so as to prevent her from bringing other people who can't sing into the world.) And while I hate taking chestnuts of wisdom from American Idol, Paula was right: Debbie Harry sang "Call Me," so no one else has to, ever again. Ever. And that includes Amy Dykes, whose spirited-but-misguided run at the tune on IATWTC's sophomore record is likely to be the lightning rod for most people's opinion of the disc, as it sticks out like an off-key thumb among the subtler, nicer songs by which it's surrounded. Shame, too, because The Tight Connection is otherwise an even more confident and tuneful collection of songs than its predecessor. Dykes steps out from behind her protective delay effects on songs like the bubbly "Believe in Me" and the vulnerable "Pretty Baby," bridging the gap between the dispassionate mechanization of electronica and the personal tweeness of indie-pop. Even the ill will that the duo might earn from the "Call Me" cover is redeemed by a version of the Stone Roses' "Shoot You Down" that's as adorable as a puppy playing with a squeaky toy. Geller's squelchy keyboard soundscapes are more playful than before, but also more immediate, spinning about the vocals in supportive ways. Check out the propulsive "Can't Take the Heat," for instance, as an indication of the more muscular approach these guys have taken. True, their aspirations now seem more modestly scaled than on Out of the Loop, but there's no shame in aiming for your bedroom rather than the dance floor. Grade: A-

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: OF MONTREAL

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Idlewild

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100 Broken Windows

Willie's comments: Remember how crestfallen you were when R.E.M.'s Monster came out, and the band's so-called "punk" album turned out to be nothing more than a bunch of sloppy, unformed mid-tempo rock songs with distorted guitars and vocals? Where were the hooks? The energy? The yearning, complex vocal lines that Michael Stipe is known for? It turns out these elements were all hiding out in Scotland for 7 years so that Idlewild could use them on this album. Actually, the R.E.M. comparison that has been foisted upon 100 Broken Windows is a tad exaggerated- musically, only Roddy Woomble's aching voice and bittersweet melodies have anything which directly resembles our Georgian heroes (to my ear, the band actually sounds more like Death Cab for Cutie with power chords). However, there is a dearth of tuneful, learned, enjoyably gruff rock in our current musical scene, and in this respect, Idlewild can certainly be seen as R.E.M.'s talented grandchildren. Songs like "Roseability," "Mistake Pageant," and the admirably aggressive "Little Discourage" come fitted with tunes as solid as anything by Richard Ashcroft or Fran Healy, but they're performed with the raw power of Bob Mould's scorching punk. It's a welcome adrenaline blast for those of us who can respond to the rap/rock/metal movement with disgust and derisive laughter. Grade: A-

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The Remote Part

Willie's comments: First off, it's important to note that, with this style of barre-chord-intensive rock, the line between "anthemic" and "generic" is a fine one indeed, and the distinctions between the two are going to be drawn in different places by different people. That said, Idlewild's follow up to 100 Broken Windows falls on the wrong, timid side of the line a disappointing amount of the time, seemingly aiming for Clear Channel airplay and failing to take the songs to the intense heights of their last record. In fact, for long stretches, The Remote Part could've been released in 1993; it could be the never-recorded follow-up to For Squirrels' Example or something. And I'll admit that I actually quite like those bits in spite of myself, like "A Modern Way of Letting Go" and "Century After Century"- those of you whose adolescence wasn't surrounded by post-Nirvana, R.E.M.-inspired grunge might not be so keen on them- but Idlewild runs into less forgivable trouble on songs like "American English" and "Live in a Hiding Place," which sound like Blink-182's stunted, rich-brat attempts at "introspective" ballad/anthems. I'd be tempted to write off The Remote Part if it weren't for the opening single "You Held the World in Your Arms," which tops anything else on this album and even on the previous one. It's one tightly-flexed bicep of a song, with stampeding guitars, a yearning melody, and a well-used string section all wadded up into a white-hot ball; one of the best songs of 2003. However, the rest of the album plays as if Idlewild is fatigued from the effort they expended on the opening track, and they just kind of want to whip the rest of these songs out and be done. Grade: C+

READER COMMENTS:

eand6922@postoffice.uri.edu writes: First off I'd like to say that I just stumbled upon your reviews page and am now reading through the reviews of every artist I'm familiar with (reading through them *all* full stop would take until... errr... well... hours more). The reviews are great, as is the sense of humor often expressed in them. Kudos! I only have one slight criticism--in your review of Idlewild's "100 Broken Windows", you call the vocalist Rob! His name's actually Roddy. :) (the "-dy" would probably be a moot point but the guitarist is another Roderick; Rod Jones). [WILLIE'S NOTE: I've corrected this. Thanks!]

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The Incredible Moses Leroy

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Electric Pocket Radio

Willie's comments: I recently saw Busta Rhymes on the Area: Two tour, and midway through his set, he launched into the following tirade: "Now I notice that some of you are still sittin' down; you're not on your feet. I can interpret that only two ways: either you don't like hip-hop music, or you just don't care for Busta. Well, either way, I have something to say to y'all. Fuck you! Because the love that I feel right now is gonna conquer all your negative shit!" He's quite the showman, that Busta. Anyway, if you took Busta's assertion of love, stripped away the ironic hostility from it, and transplanted it into pop form, you'd have something pretty close to the unshakably upbeat debut album from the Incredible Moses Leroy (actually a guy named Ron Fountenberry, who hopefully has a similarly positive attitude about the idea of people calling him "Moses" for the rest of his career). Writing songs about how much he loves his lady friend, how thankful he is for his best friend, how much fun he has lazing around on Sundays, and how bloody cheerful he is about everything else, Fountenberry's music might sound infuriating on paper, if you're as predisposed to pessimism as I am. But not to worry: from the moment Electric Pocket Radio begins, with a kicky electro-funk cover of Gruppo Sportivo's obscure '70s song "Beep Beep Love," any glimmers of anger or sadness in the room are banished like flies you've caught and then decided to set free outside because you're feeling charitable. Weilding an impressive array of guitars, synths both retro and futuristic, and samples (along with a revolving cast of backing musicians that includes Beck's drummer Joey Waronker and, on the spectacular night-driving jazz/funk confection "Tomato Soup," trumpeter Ernst Long), his music is a peppy souffle of lounge rock, Fountains of Wayne-esque power pop, and funky electronica influences. Sometimes Fountenberry pulls a Cornelius, placing eclecticism above songcraft, which results in bits of tuneful filler like "Our One Millionth Customer" and "Roscoe," but inspiration rarely fails him here. Whether he's cribbing from the Beach Boys, the Sandpipers, or Rod Stewart's "Young Turks," Mr. Leroy crams his tunes so full of naively sunny hooks that he can often make you smile through sheer force of will. True, the songs are mostly musical cream puffs- delicious, but without much substance inside- but if you're looking for a great party album or just a random feel-good record, Electric Pocket Radio should fit the bill for any such occasion. Grade: A-

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Become the Soft.Lightes

Willie's comments: Like a well-meaning friend who pushes you to cheer up just a little too insistently and relentlessly when you're upset, Fountenberry's second effort goes so overboard with the sunniness that it's a little irritating. Eschewing the energy that made Electric Pocket Radio so infectiously giddy, Become the Soft.Lightes finds Fountenberry playing the role of a Prozac Pollyanna, so stoned on love and happiness that his music becomes a squishy melodic blur. Unobtrusive programmed drums, glossy keyboards, inoffensive guitars, and largely unnoticeable basslines support a host of vocal parts that are so uniform in their twee sincerity that there's no friction to keep the songs interesting; it's all just one big ball of pleasant musical elements doing the same thing without variation. (Imagine a hockey game to which only one team showed up, and just kept firing goal after goal into their opponents' empty net, high-fiving each other after each one. That's how the arrangements sound.) The only song that even approaches heterogeneity is "The Color of Sky," on which Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori presents such a gorgeous melody to go along with Kristian Dunn's comforting bassline that it's a perfect greeting card of sad-eyed yearning. Well, "We Don't Dance" also shakes things up by having the lyrics spoken by an iMac, but that's just another of Fountenberry's cheerful throwaways, which are in frustrating abundance. For every fine powderpuff pop treat like "Everybody's Getting Down" and "Transmission C," there are two undercooked numbers like the cloying "L.O.V.E." or "The Wonder Mic," which is an ode to "The Hokey Pokey." While I'm certainly happy for ol' Ron that he can maintain such a positive outlook on life, as Marv Albert would tell him, love doesn't always have to be so toothless. Grade: B-

READER COMMENTS:

Cole Bozman writes: You're absolutely right. I don't care for the fillerish instrumentals (other than "tomato soup"), but there are some damn near perfect songs on here, most notably "Anthem", "1983" and "Don't Say to Me It's Over". I give it a B+.

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The Insider: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Willie's comments: Soundtrack albums which consist of a film's score generally go unnoticed. Unless the producers tack a big hit single onto the largely instrumental album (a la Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), the soundtracks usually just clutter up record store shelves. And yet, they're cheap enough to produce that almost any film you could name has turned its musical score into a soundtrack, from Fargo to Naked Gun 2 1/2. Thus, any musical score album that stands out from the crowd is actually quite a feat. The score to The Insider has produced such an album. Consisting mostly of songs by Lisa Gerrard (late of Dead Can Dance) and Pieter Bourke, the score contains many evocative, ominous, rhythmic pieces that are very unorthodox in that they're both creepy and memorable. "Meltdown" is particularly great, but the tribal "Tempest," "Faith," and "Sacrifice" are all wonderful. As for the other artists represented here, contributions by Massive Attack, Jan Garbarek, and Gustavo Santaolalla are all serviceable, but the three compositions by Graeme Revell are a bit of a misstep. While they're atmospheric enough, they're far too brief to be effective. However, as a mood piece (and accompaniment to an awesome film), you really can't do much better than The Insider. Grade: A-

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