disclaimer is not a toy

Pan Sonic



Willie's comments: "Vaihtovirta," the first actual song on this album by electronica duo Pan Sonic (following a brief, irrelevant intro), is a fairly good litmus test for determining whether you'll respond to the underwritten, rhythmic mood pieces of this album or not. Basically, it's a fairly ordinary set of beats constructed from sounds that probably weren't initially intended to serve as drums, looped at a lukewarm tempo, with subtle, distant, periodic clicks and clunks... while they evidently sat a guitar on the floor with an E-Bow atop one of the strings and just let it buzz overtop of the song. Like that? You'll like the rest of this stuff, then. Pan Sonic's music isn't bad, really- though I wouldn't recommend listening to it in a social setting unless a lot of smack is involved. It's very dark, minimal stuff that sometimes doesn't even contain an element as melodic as the E-Bow drone, concentrating exclusively on trance-inducingly ominous electro-percussion and low-level feedback instead. It's serviceable as a chilled-out aural depressant, and single, stationary tracks like "Johdin" and "Liuos" work well as mix tape interludes (skip "Arvio," though, which is a Morse Code exercise in really high-pitched sounds that seemingly exists solely to blow up the heads of dogs), but it's hard to escape the feeling that Pan Sonic could've come up with something that was somehow a little more revelatory, with a little effort. Stand this album up against Pole's more consistently enjoyable and interesting CD1, for instance, and Pan Sonic's oscillations and thumps seem a little sparse- and not just in the dour way they intended. If you've ever sat in a dank, barely-lit stockroom, listening to the dying flourescent bulbs humming overhead, and thought, "If only I could paste a ghostly rhythm track onto that sound, I'd strike ambient-goth gold," Aaltopiiri is for you. Grade: B-


Johnny Parry

Songs Without a Purpose

Willie's comments: My sister-in-law recently discovered that a surefire way to get her infant son to calm down and go to sleep is to put Tom Waits's Rain Dogs on the stereo. I expressed some surprise at this, and she said to me, "You don't think Rain Dogs is sort of soothing?" I said sure, in a way, but it just struck me as so wonderfully odd that a baby would intuitively be into Tom Waits, whose music I've always considered a taste that requires a conscious effort to acquire. Count me amazed, then, to realize that a UK gentleman named Johnny Parry has, in fact, released a rather Waitsian album that is not only a stirring, intelligent treat, but is instantly gratifying. Though Parry's voice makes it difficult to shake the Waits comparisons throughout- what other reference point is there for someone who rasps as though he smokes cigarettes that are not only unfiltered but somehow rusty?- the ambitious piano-and-string-based arrangements are absorbing and memorable enough to make such comparisons benign. Songs Without a Purpose sounds like what might have been if Waits had devoted his career to honing his Small Change-era balladry rather than exploring weirder terrain. (Or, if you prefer, somewhat like Antony and the Johnsons without the distracting simpering.) The album closer "A Love Song," for example, might have been nothing more than a carbon copy of such, except it transcends its influences by simply building and building and building to a climax that's truly grand. However nice that is, though, there's more to the album than well-done homage. For example, "Little Prayer No. 5" shows off Parry and his band as particularly adept at navigating whirlpools of musical themes: over ten minutes, the strings stomp and gush, choral voices swoon like theramins, and the melody of the piece ranges from Johnny's literal whispers to sweeping, precisely notated orchestral drama that would bring an opera house to its feet. That's probably the song that's the farthest from any sort of pop/rock touchpoint on Songs Without a Purpose, mind you, but Parry's cinematic instincts serve him well from start to finish. These instincts extend to his (fine) lyrics, which tend toward sentimental noir imagery, but mostly they're on display in the way these songs unfold on an epic scale, regardless of whether Parry is backed by what sounds like an entire orchestra or by minimal, Explosions in the Sky-style ambience ("Hotel Floor"). It's the sort of record you can get lost in, that's rich enough to reward repeat visits with new discoveries, and that's ultimately surprisingly uplifting. Inotherwords, it's what you want out of a Tom Waits album, but put together by a man who is himself a singular talent. Watch him. Grade: A-


Andy Partridge


Through the Hill (with Harold Budd)

Willie's comments: You know that scene at the end of Jerry Maguire where Jerry realizes that Renee Zellweger really does complete him, and he goes running through that big, pipelike tunnel to go see her? Well, the music you hear in the background- the eerie, dreamy, minimalist guitar chiming- is the title track from this collaboration between ambient music hero Harold Budd and XTC genius Andy Partridge. If you like that song, you’ll like the rest of this album. Some of it’s catchy (“Anima Mundi” could be a backing track to a song from XTC’s Nonsuch), some of it’s really super relaxing, and some of it is just weird (“Bronze Coins Showing Genitals,” “Hand 20”), but it’s all great, challenging easy listening. Grade: A-

Hello CD Club EP

Willie's comments: After the release of Nonsuch, XTC and Virgin Records weren't on particularly good terms, and, in an attempt to lighten the mood of the band and perhaps improve relations between them and the record company, Andy Partridge proposed the now-infamous "Bubblegum Album" to Virgin. The gist of his idea was to put out a Dukes of Stratosphear-esque mock compilation album of bubblegum songs that purported to be by obscure bands from the '60s. Virgin rejected the idea, and this led to XTC going on strike for 7 years. This EP, released through John Flansburgh's Hello CD of the Month Club, contains demos for four songs that would have been included on the Bubblegum Album, and from this evidence, Virgin was impossibly stupid not to go along with this idea. The songs are as strangely catchy as only Partridge can write them (though he sings "It's Snowing Angels" in a voice that sounds uncannily like his XTC bandmate Colin Moulding), with "Candymine" and "Prince of Orange" bouncing along in a hilariously giddy fashion. "Some Lovely," on the other hand, is vintage XTC. This is an extremely rare EP that is deservedly sought-after by XTC fans- it's a preview of an album that would almost assuredly have been another masterpiece to add to the XTC canon. Grade: A+





The Pastels


Truckload of Trouble 1986-1993

Willie's comments: The Pastels aren't lazy, per se. They just come across as an extremely relaxed band. Their songs are often bare-bones jangle-pop affairs that contain half of a great idea, which they fix upon and seem content to repeat without ever giving it the extra nudge it needs to turn your head around. This compilation of assorted singles and rarities represents the band pretty well. In a way, these droney songs are charming in their very lack of ambition, but every so often, you get a number like "Crawl Babies" that shimmers with catchy pop genius. Unfortunately, this sometimes makes more routine songs like "Thru' Your Heart" and "Speedway Star" seem a touch duller by comparison. Still, any band whose mandolin-laden cover of Daniel Johnston's "Speeding Motorcycle" can top Yo La Tengo's is worth a look, no? Grade: B



Ginny's comments: Before I say anything else about the Pastels, I have to establish one little detail: lead singer Stephen Pastel of Scotland cannot carry a single note. To hear him sounds, at first, like a joke; someone imitating Baby Huey singing or one of the peasants from Warcraft perhaps. Strangely enough, however, his hacked singing job is, dare I say, endearing, and after a few listens, it's not at all harsh to listen to. Thankfully, he shares the lead singer role with bandmates Aggi and Katrina whose melodic voices rival those of Isabella and Sarah from Belle and Sebastian, another Scottish marvel. The lyrics in Illumination offer a smooth flowing, yet highly flavorful album. "Unfair Kind of Fame" gives us a dark song about a movie director and "Rough Riders" offers a unique song about friendship- a topic turned inside and out and often been given a bad name. The Pastels paint a serene, at times comical world that holds a dark, delightfully mischevious center. Grade: B+

Willie's comments: Some bands (Coldplay, for example) craft songs that are so compact, precise, and on-target that they resemble a perfect spiral thrown by Brett Favre. The Pastels' songs, on the other hand, rattle and wobble about like a pass thrown by whoever is the Detroit Lions' quarterback this week. What's especially neat about their music, though, is the way they manage to keep the songs aloft despite the loping beats, off-key vocals (Jenny's not kidding about Stephen's voice), and guitars that serve more as melodious sound effects than as any sort of propulsive musical element. On Illumination, the band wraps their compositions in a New Zealand-derived mist of moodiness from which gorgeous songs seem to organically appear, only to fade away just as naturally. "Unfair Kind of Fame" is perhaps the most conventionally pretty of the bunch, but Illumination is one of those mood albums whose memorability factor doesn't matter- all that matters is the skewed beauty the Pastels are able to create while the album is spinning. Grade: A-






Slanted and Enchanted

Willie's comments: The amazing thing about Pavement- particularly on this, their first “real” album- is the way their songs manage to still be tuneful and catchy even though they rarely follow traditional verse/chorus structure or contain discernible hooks. Guitars beat around the bush, approaching the songs in ways you wouldn’t expect, and brainy frontmen Stephen Malkmus and Spiral Stairs warble their inside-jokey lyrics with endearing confidence. “Conduit for Sale” is a sparkling example of the band’s ability to reconcile the irritating with the bizarre in a way that’s wholly listenable. Grade: B+


Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain

Willie's comments: Jettisoning much of their lo-fi tomfoolery (along with crazy drummer Gary Young, who would go on to write the magnificent “Plantman”), Malkmus and Stairs get down to the business of rocking in a much more straightforward manner than on Slanted and Enchanted. “Cut Your Hair” was a minor MTV hit, and “Range Life” got some publicity for Malkmus’s bald-faced attacks on the Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots, but they’re not even the best songs on the album. “5 - 4 = Unity” is pure space-age bachelor pad music, while “Stop Breathing” is an infectious admonishment of a controlling lover. The sole song contributed by Stairs is also the very best, however: “Hit the Plane Down” includes flailing guitars and microcassette-recorded vocals with a terrific, Fall-esque bass line. Grade: A


Wowee Zowee

Willie's comments: This is (a lot) more of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, minus a good portion of the tunefulness. While some punky numbers like “Fight This Generation” work, others fall into the “pointless dissonance” territory that Jon Spencer Blues Explosion loves so well. Still, you have to love songs like “Brinx Job” and “Western Homes.” It’s a bit of a backslide, but most bands’ best material should be this intelligent! Grade: B


Brighten the Corners

Willie's comments: Upping the production values once again, Brighten the Corners showcases Malkmus’s newfound ability to craft straightforward songs of the type you might hear on the radio. Apart from the hilarious, schizophrenic opener “Stereo” (which features the classic line “What about the voice of Geddy Lee?/ How did it get so high?/ I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy”), there’s nothing here to remind us of the fearlessly experimental indie rockers who made Slanted and Enchanted, but when the new Pavement writes ditties as great as “Type Slowly” and “Starlings of the Slipstream,” who cares about the avant-garde? Grade: B+


Terror Twilight

Willie's comments: The band recruited producer wunderkind Nigel Godrich for this album, and he deserves no small amount of credit for cleaning up the messiness of Pavement's sound and turning it into something literally gorgeous- a sound that Malkmus and friends have thus far given a wide berth. "Cream of Gold" coasts along on a newly muscular guitar sound, while "Carrot Rope," "Folk Jam," and "Major Leagues" are straightforward, almost folksy numbers with surprisingly countrified tones that could've sprung from Camper Van Beethoven's bag of tricks. However, Malkmus's songwriting is fairly uneven here. "Spit on a Stranger" is a monstrously hooky number in which he manages to make the line "I could spit on a stranger" seem almost sweet, but some of these songs you'll swear you've heard before ("Platform Blues"). And no amount of producer knob-twiddling could fix the train wreck that is "Speak, See, Remember." Terror Twilight is halfway great, and halfway a missed opportunity. Grade: B-


Hunter Walters writes: I was just reading your page, and in one of your sonic youth reviews you called "Slanted and Enchanted" and "Loveless" note-perfect masterpieces. So I check your reviews for those and "Loveless" got an A+ but "S and E" only got a B+. Is that a typo or has it's star dimmed considerably for you with continued listening.

dark.arkive writes: Yeah, same question as the writer above me: what brought Slanted down from "note-perfect" to a B+? I'm especially curious because the actual review doesn't actually say anything negative--although there are certainly albums I would give such a rating and still not have any real flaws to point to. Some unerringly pleasant albums simply don't reach far enough to earn a higher grade--Rubber Soul comes immediately to mind. Slanted seems like the antithesis of such a category, however; either one fits perfectly into its idiosyncratic little world and gives it an A, or they don't get it, make fun of the Fall, and get out with a D. Much like...well, the Fall, in that regard.

I was so pleased to see you love "Hit the Plane Down"! It's a victim of context for most people--probably would've been agreed upon as a highlight amidst Slanted's equally messy pop, but on a record as smooth as Crooked, it stands out, awkwardly for many. Yet I'd rank it with Pink Floyd's "Seamus" as the most wonderfully askew penultimate tracks. "Fillmore Jive" certainly ranks with "Echoes" among the most friggin' epic closers ever conceived.




Pee Shy


Don't Get Too Comfortable

Willie's comments: Like a female They Might Be Giants, Pee Shy writes terrific pop songs that stay in your head for days, but gives them really strange, clever lyrics, and arranges them in such an odd manner as to make you do a double-take. The amazing single “Mr. Whisper,” for example, features a bridge built around a toy piano and lines like “You were holding up the bank of me/ Nothing larger than twenties, please.” “Jad Fair” is a pretty, accordion-based ode to the Half Japanese singer, and “Rope Waltz” is, as the title suggests, a song with lots of rope imagery in 3/4 time. It gets a bit twee at points, but lines like “When live gives you lemons, squeeze them into your eyes” prevent it from ever becoming cutesy. Grade: A-


Pell Mell



Willie's comments: In the liner notes of the Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense CD, David Byrne writes, "Singing is a trick to get people to listen to music for longer than they would ordinarily." Well, in a lot of cases, uh, yeah. That's illustrated by negative example here. Kinda surf-rock, kinda Soft Boys-inspired jangle-pop, kinda post-Pavement indie noodling, Pell Mell's fourth album is a professional ass-kickery of instrumental, guitar-based melodicism, but without lyrics and vocals and such to hold your attention, Interstate has a hard time becoming anything but engaging background music. Inventive guitar lines, basslines, and keyboard hooks abound here- check out the melancholy "Drift" or the uncertain opener "Nothing Lies Still Long," for instance- but never anything more than that. I give Pell Mell a lot of credit for attempting surf-derived rock in the '90s without resorting to predictable Pixies landmarks, and also for conjuring a mood that's choppy, thoughtful, and entirely engaging without the crutch of lyrics. Lots of hooks here. Lots of worthwhile instrumental shadow-boxing. But climaxes are in short supply with Pell Mell. There's not much space between the place a song starts and the place it ends up, which is fine if that's what you're in the mood for! If you see this album for 88 cents like I did, you should glom onto it and not let go, but whether you should check it out otherwise depends on how badly you need cool, semi-loungey music as the soundtrack to your life. I personally need all the help I can get. Grade: B+



Pernice Brothers


Overcome by Happiness

Willie's comments: Awhile back, I reviewed the Pernice Brothers' first two albums and carped about how similar all the songs sound before firing off a B grade and calling it a day. Having accompanied my pernicious brother Tim (see reader comments below) to two Pernice Brothers shows in the past few months, however, I've had to totally re-evaluate my grades. Joe Pernice's songs are all about mood, and if you're not willing to check your stupid, pseudo-intellectual criticisms at the door and just go with his "I hate my life" motif, you probably won't get much out of the music. Once it does click for you, however, you'll wonder how you ever let the beauty of his music escape you. I stand by my desire for the Pernice Brothers to play around with their arrangements a bit more, so maybe more memorable songs would result (check out one of their live shows for that), but their albums are, contrary to what I've previously said, perfectly swell. Herewith, the reviews:

Those who knew Joe Pernice from the Scud Mountain Boys will instantly figure out that the title of this album is meant ironically. It's packed with dour, pretty folk-pop songs that are rewarding but will probably frustrate listeners with short attention spans. It's a difficult task to differentiate one song from another, since they're uniformly downcast and well-crafted, but a few moments do stick out: "Clear Spot" and "Wait to Stop" each have reasonably catchy choruses, and "Chicken Wire" is a chilling tale of a woman's suicide that Pernice sings in his distressingly disaffected voice. Once too often, this album sounds like it's being performed by a Ron Sexsmith clone with a better ear for melodies, but Overcome by Happiness is still well worth the price. Grade: A-


The World Won't End

Willie's comments: After three years and two side-project albums (Chappaquiddick Skyline's self-titled debut and the solo Big Tobacco), Joe Pernice reunites with his guitarist brother Bob for another round of enjoyable, morbid indie-pop. All the motifs from Overcome by Happiness remain: suicide, unrequited love, neatly placed orchestral swelling within the songs, Joe's haunted whisper-singing, etc. And once again, the songs are so uniformly constructed that the difference between the album's best song (the beautiful "Shaken Baby") and the album's worst song (I guess that would be the engagingly chicken-fried "Let That Show") is a matter of only a few utils. For all intents and purposes, this album is identical to the last one, which I suppose is fine, since Joe has a developed a winning formula to begin with. As before, though, I wish there were more distinctive peaks and valleys to enliven things a bit (like the Stereolab harmonies that come out of nowhere to close "7:30"), rather than the endless stretch of highway Joe presents us with. On the other hand, the songwriter is so concerned with the oppressive drudgery of life that any sort of change in the status quo might undermine his message. Hmm. Grade: A


Yours, Mine & Ours

Willie's comments: A special, fan club-only edition of this album was packaged with a cool, autographed booklet containing all the lyrics Joe Pernice has ever written (released, anyway), from the Scud Mountain Boys through this album. Despite a wryly self-deprecating preface by Joe ("It's not meant to be precious, and it certainly is not a book of poems. It is, however, undeniable and sometimes unsettling evidence of where I've been these past seven years."), the booklet's existence is entirely appropriate, as Pernice is a prominent entry on that very short list of lyricists whose words are poetic, witty, and emotional enough to act as stand-alone art. It just so happens that he backs his awesome words with similarly awesome music, and the brief and flawless Yours, Mine & Ours is yet another example of both those things. This record features a new focus on the subtle guitar interplay between the band's three axemen (the titular brothers, as well as inventive lead guitarist Peyton Pinkerton), but the real surprise is the appreciable leap in the number of songs whose melodies and arrangements are as distinguished as they are beautiful- a first for Joe! Though the songs remain melody-based- and what melodies they are- it's a thrill to hear the McCartney-style rocker "The Weakest Shade of Blue" give way to the spaghetti-western influences of "Water Ban" and, two songs later, the goosebump-raising acoustic strummer "Baby in Two." Previous B-side and concert staple "Number Two" is present here as well, and it's nice to see this ballad given a muscular arrangement to match the power of bittersweet breakup lines like, "You were my life-sucking powermonger/Even still, you were mine." Cutting moments like that abound on Yours, Mine & Ours, and my only fear is that, if Pernice's songwriting keeps on getting better and better, I'm going to have to start using letters from On Beyond Zebra by Dr. Seuss to grade his records, because this one is utterly perfect. If you're a fan of melodic indie-pop, I promise you will love this. Grade: A+


Discover a Lovelier You

Willie's comments: You still need to buy this one, even if it's not as ear-blowingly impressive as the previous three records. A few of the dozen songs (and a tiny, redundant mystery track) sound a little too close to previously released material to be excited about, but you still get enough instantly grabby acoustic-pop songs- run through the gauntlet of sci-fi guitar effects introduced by New Order and Johnny Marr and faithfully re-created by Pinkerton- to justify it sitting next, alphabetically, to the Pet Shop Boys albums in your living room. You always have room for straightforward, brainy pop, don't you? The title track is an instrumental so well-thought-out it'll make you gasp, while the masterpiece "There Goes the Sun" is savvy enough to invoke The Beatles in its title, Chet Baker in its lyrics ("Overload on Let's Get Lost/Scratched your farewell couplet in my window frost"), and Joy Division in its sound. The album morbidly drifts from the intentionally greasy "Snow" to the Christmasy (but not annoying) "Sell Your Hair," but although Joe isn't breaking any ground he hasn't broken before ("Dumb It Down" being a particularly puzzling bit of monosyllabic filler), he's still proficient enough in the areas of songwriting and black humor to make this one worth an ear. Grade: B+


Tim Williams writes: The title of this [Overcome by Happiness] could not be more misleading. It would lead one to believe that it's a bright, happy album, but Joe Pernice, the singer/songwriter, deals in topics such as spoiled relationships and suicide. The album is outstanding from start to finish. Pernice's vocals carry you on a wave from song to song, not letting you down until the album is finished. The songs are a lot less country than Pernice's old band, the Scud Mountain Boys. This would be the best album of 1998 if it weren't for an absolute gem by Neil Finn. The only thing bad about this record is that it is only 39 minutes long. Grade: A

Matthew Clothier writes: Yes, if one judged how a record should sound off of the title, then Overcome By Happiness can be a little misleading. Regardless, this album is beautiful, catchy, sad and strangely optimistic (e.g. "I feel better now you're gone"). I do agree that there are two songs which sound quite similar and could almost be considered a song and a reprise, but that is knitpicking. Albums do not have to be happy to be excellent, and this is a perfect example. Brilliant! A+





Joe Pernice


Big Tobacco

Willie's comments: With the release of the solo Big Tobacco, Joe Pernice has become an unlikely competitor with Stephin Merritt and Lou Barlow for the title of "indie-rock prodigy who records under the greatest number of pseudonyms." Recorded at the home of Thom Monahan (not the ultra-Catholic nutball who owns Domino's Pizza and builds aircraft-endangering giant crucifixes, but rather the bassist for the Pernice Brothers and Chappaquiddick Skyline) and featuring most of Joe's usual musical cohorts, Big Tobacco might not initially sound like it's particularly distinct from his other musical projects, but it is a dishearteningly minor entry in his discography. The focus here is on exceedingly leisurely acoustic numbers, propelled by Joe's soothingly breathy voice, that achieve a dreamy peacefulness at their best ("Pipe Bomb") and meander endlessly at worst ("Second Semester Lesbian"). As always, his lyrics are brilliantly trenchant, full of threats ("If you call, I will light the fuse, and if you don't, I will light the fuse") and odes to drugs and suicide that slip by almost subliminally because they're presented in such a gorgeously placid manner; the effect is like the scene in Saving Private Ryan when that German soldier quietly shushes Adam Goldberg as he plunges a knife into his chest. As twisted mood music, it's all fine, but when you come across a song as perfect as "Bum Leg," which chugs along to a bitter guitar riff and Joe's hooky, violent lyrics, it underscores how aimless songs like "I Still Can't Say Her Name" and "I Break Down" are. Check out the Chappaquiddick Skyline album instead. Grade: B-




James R. Petix

You Don't Understand

Willie's comments: This DAM CD (that is, one that contains both MP3s and "normal" tracks for us technophobes) was originally issued as a 6-song EP, but art student James R. Petix added an additional six songs for the current version, to sweeten the deal. It's a thoroughly charming debut, too. I can recommend it solely on the strength of the brilliant "Going Out to Vinnies (That's the Bomb)," in which Petix recorded his friends chattering at a restaurant and arranged it into an infectious hip-hop number. The rest of the album isn't quite as giddily creative as that song, and occasionally the vocals are a bit unbalanced (particulary on the otherwise great title track), but there are nevertheless many shining, witty, melodic moments that recall They Might Be Giants and the eels. The gorgeously Medieval-sounding "EC and Me" is a standout, illustrating how well Petix's folksy songs work with real drums instead of the Beck-ish drum machine. Moments like that on You Don't Understand bode especially well for James's forthcoming full-band album. Grade: B+


Pet Shop Boys



Willie's comments: For years, the Pet Shop Boys have made dance music for those of us who don’t take designer drugs with names that sound like things old women shout while playing mah jongg. It all started inauspiciously enough with Please, which introduced Neil Tennant’s superbly wry lyrics, backed by Chris Lowe’s sullen keyboards. Despite some muddy production and a curiously loping pace on some songs (never a good thing for dance music), Please holds up pretty well, with “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)” and “West End Girls” becoming certified hits, and “I Want a Lover” and “Why Don’t We Live Together?” sounding almost like Madonna, if Madonna was clever or literate. Grade: B



Willie's comments: From the famous cover photo of Neil yawning, it was obvious that this album was going to be a classic, combining homosexual British wit (the most hilariously droll kind!) with energetic sequencers and gorgeous melodies. “One More Chance” is a great, bombastic opener, while “It’s a Sin” is a truly moving song of Catholic guilt (“Father, forgive me/ I tried not to do it/ Turned over a new leaf/ Then tore right through it”). No less scathing are the songs about early ‘80s materialism: “Suburbia” and “Shopping” both set Neil’s acerbic observations to killer melodies. And you’ve probably heard “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” already, haven’t you? An album as catchy, understated, and witty as the Magnetic Fields’ best work. Grade: A



Willie's comments: If patience isn’t your thing, you’ll probably hate this album: Six songs, ranging in length from six to ten minutes. Apparently recorded for the benefit of clubgoers (along with the band’s two interminable Disco remix compilations), Introspective certainly doesn’t lack hooks, but the songs are simply dragged out for far too long, and the mid-song “breakdowns” don’t win any points. With two covers (Elvis’s “Always on My Mind” and Sterling Void’s “It’s Alright”), we don’t get much of Neil’s priceless humor, either, save for “I Want a Dog,” which is kind of funny. “Always on My Mind” and “Domino Dancing” are the best of the bunch, but they appear in superior, truncated versions on Discography, so don’t bother with this one. Grade: C



Willie's comments: Returning to bite-sized pop song form, Neil and Chris produce some of the most affecting songs of their career here. Neil, for his part, manages to up the emotional ante of songs like “The End of the World” and the stunning “Being Boring” without losing his sense of humor, and the music is as beautifully dreary as can be while still being danceable. “How Can You Expect to be Taken Seriously?” is a terrific public rebuke of an unnamed pop star (“You’re an intellectual giant, an authority/ To preach and teach the whole world about ecology,” sings Neil in one hysterical verse), while “Jealousy” is enough to make you cry, even if the songwriting does start to dissolve a bit toward the album’s end. Grade: B+


Discography: The complete singles collection.

Willie's comments: Combining the single versions of the best songs from their previous albums, along with three non-album tracks (the best one is a breakneck-paced medley of “Can’t Keep My Eyes Off of You” and U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name”), many point to this as the one essential PSB album. I say that honor belongs to Very, but this is the best place to start your investigation into their body of work. The single versions of “Suburbia,” “Heart,” and the Introspective tracks are much more concise and well-formed than the album versions, and, while I can’t understand the decision to exclude “How Can You Expect to be Taken Seriously?” in favor of the ineffectual “It’s Alright,” this is still a thrilling compilation. Grade: A



Willie's comments: Very beefs up the Boys’ sound with horns and strings, making their songs sound three-dimensional for the first time, but the emphasis is still on the synthesizers, effectively making this album as grand a techno document as you could ever dream of. “Can You Forgive Her?” uses the horns as exclamation points while Neil tries to convince a sexually confused young man that his girlfriend is perhaps not the one for him, while “The Theatre” is a rousing anthem for “the bums you step over as you leave the theatre” (and it contains the great line “All I wanted was a bit of cash/ From a patron of the arts/ Or at least The Phantom of the Opera”) and “Dreaming of the Queen” beautifully conflates Neil’s hatred of the royal family with the death of love. Other songs are a bit more lighthearted, including an unironic cover of the Village People’s “Go West,” which offers hope to all the estranged gay men in the world. This is one of the best albums of the ‘90s. Grade: A+



Willie's comments: Sure, the Pet Shop Boys had a ton of material that awaited proper release- B-sides and such- but a 2-disc rarities album has worked only once in history, and Alternative is not that time (Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo). There’s an awful lot of dross here, from songs that just never connect (“You Know Where You Went Wrong”) to dreadful ballads (“Your Funny Uncle”) to experimental bollocks (“The Sound of the Atom Splitting”). Chris sings three great songs through a Kraftwerkian vocoder, while “A Man Could Get Arrested,” “In the Night,” and “Bet She’s Not Your Girlfriend” are as good as anything the band has ever done, but this collection could have easily been pared down to one great disc instead of two mediocre ones. Grade: B-



Willie's comments: Returning to the Latin rhythms that punctuated Introspective along with the orchestration that marked Very, Bilingual brings the Pet Shop Boys dangerously close to ABBA territory. Thankfully, even the most egregiously cheesy numbers (“Saturday Night Forever” and “Se a Vida e”) have intelligent- though surprisingly humorless- lyrics, and Neil’s wispy tenor adds a nice counterpoint to the upbeat music. “Up Against It” and “To Step Aside” are among the band’s catchiest, and the dull, housey “Electricity” is the only real misstep. Grade: B+


The Essentials

Willie's comments: Combining a lot of material that was never available in the United States (mostly alternate mixes of songs) with a few B-sides from Alternative, The Essentials makes a generous alternative to Discography for die-hard fans who already have all the studio albums. The remixes are actually pretty good- basically just longer versions of the single mixes, but rarely overlong. And the B-sides are all serviceable, including the classic “Paninaro.” It’s nice. Grade: B+



Willie's comments: The most remarkable thing about this album (the Boys' seventh) is its booklet; it's printed on neat, extra-glossy paper that's really thick and impresses me mightily. If that doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement of the music contained on the CD itself, that's just as it should be. Weighted down with far too many ballads (most notably the painful duet between Neil and Kylie Minogue, "In Denial"), Nightlife is disconcertingly short on decent hooks, too. "Happiness is an Option" and "Vampires" each have great choruses but flaccid verses, and the Village People-esque "New York City Boy" has the opposite problem. "Closer to Heaven" is the only contender for their next greatest hits compilation, really, though "I Don't Know What You Want But I Can't Give It Any More" and "You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk" each have shining moments. Neil's lyrics are, by this point, thoroughly uninteresting, though it is amusing to hear him use the word "hoochie" in "New York City Boy." Nightlife isn't a failure, exactly, but if you stand it up against Very, Actually, or Behavior, it's enough to make you do a double-take and wonder what went wrong here. Grade: C+



Willie's comments: I think I've made this point before, but the more I listen to the Pet Shop Boys, the more I realize that their music really is entirely about the inescapable distance and isolation between us and every other human being (or, in the case of "It's a Sin," deity) in existence. Even if Tennant's protagonists are madly in love with one another, they're always still conscious of the fact that they each have their own motives, and neither person will ever be able to see what's going on inside the other's mind, thus precluding the possibility of some ineffable, mystical fairytale "connection." And, just like in actual relationships, fixating on that uncrossable abyss is a recipe for the endless disappointment, suspicion, and heartbreak in the Boys' music. Though the duo's reliance on majestically sad chord progressions has been aped by Moby and plenty of others by this point, their romantically bleak outlook on things is pretty much inimitable, and that's what keeps me coming back to their records. Now, Release doesn't resemble a quintessential Pet Shop Boys album by any stretch of the imagination- though it doesn't sound nearly as confused and uninspired as Nightlife, the emphasis here is on slow, rainy, "mature" arrangements that all but abandon their trademark synth-pop in favor of more organic instruments (including the Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr on most songs, though he's there mostly for atmosphere). If it weren't for Neil's plaintive, nasal crooning, in fact, most of these songs sound basically anonymous. But you know what? I love at least half of it anyway. I know I griped about their previous record's overreliance on ballads, and this one is basically nothing but ballads, but the difference here is that the emotion is front-and-center in the same way it was on Behavior's better tracks. It helps that they seem to have turned up their missing ability to write memorable, anthemic choruses, too- "I Get Along," "Home and Dry," and "London" are pot-stickers for your brain, and there are plenty of hooky moments throughout that conjure that same smiling-through-tears mood that I so adore.

In fact, the Boys' acceptance of their own maturation is achieved with such grace that it unfortunately means their two attempts at connecting with the youth culture are avert-your-eyes embarrassing. "The Night I Fell in Love" is a smirky fantasy about a tryst with Eminem that might've been somehow "daring" if it didn't happen to be the one billionth suggestion that maybe Marshall Mathers's anti-gay lyrics are some sort of reaction formation (and if it wasn't dreadfully boring to boot). "E-Mail" is even worse, I'm afraid. Not to be ageist, but it seems inappropriate for a 48-year-old man to be singing, "Send me an e-mail that says 'I love you,'" as opposed to, say, "How the hell do I open a file attachment?" Especially when the song in question is based around the same two chords as "West End Girls." Those two songs aside, though, Release remains pretty solid as another in this band's series of odes to that vicious circle of introspection and loneliness that claims everyone in some way or another. Grade: B


Rich Bunnell's comments: Hmm....I really don't see the problem with [Nightlife]. Yes, the album is high on ballads but I never really notice because they're all different kinds of ballads ("You Only Tell Me..." wistful, "The Only One" traditional, "Boy Strange" acoustic and trippy, "Footsteps" psychedelic and stomping, and "In Denial" Broadway), and the dance tracks are much more high-quality and distinguished than some on Very. In my opinion, most of Very's second half, which has tunes like "One In A Million" or "Young Offender" (which, while catchy, fail to distinguish themself), is sort of lax (still a good album, though!). This one's much more high-quality and a breath of fresh air after some of the artsier stuff on Bilingual. The only suckjob is "Happiness Is An Option"-- an ugly song. "New York City Boy" is much more well-written than most disco, and "In Denial"? Kylie Minogue's vocals suck but the melody is top-notch. Sorry but this one gets an A.

In addition I'll give ratings for the other albums: Please (B-), Actually (B), Introspective (C-), Behavior (A), Very (A-), and Bilingual (A-). As you can see I heavily favor their later period, but that's because the songwriting is sort of better and stuff, and Neil finally stopped speaking his lyrics altogether (that "Sooner or later. This happens to everyone." monologue on "Love Comes Quickly" is very distracting from an otherwise beautiful song).


Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers


Greatest Hits

Willie's comments: Petty is cool just because he has the guts to defy his record label and put his new album on the Internet in MP3 form (not to mention his cover of Beck's "Asshole" a few years back), and this compilation of his most popular songs shouldn't disappoint anyone. It's packed with great country-shaded rock tunes like "The Waiting" and "Learning to Fly," and some substantially darker songs such as "You Got Lucky," "Refugee," and "Mary Jane's Last Dance." All of these songs come complete with indelible hooks and refrains that will build a happy little nest in your head. And even if some of his earlier work, like "Here Comes My Girl" and "Listen to Her Heart," is kinda dumb, there's not a single weak spot on the entire second half of the album. Grade: B+


Rich Bunnell writes: This compilation is excellent for one who doesn't wanna venture into Petty's admittedly very similar-sounding albums or for one who just wants the excellent "Don't Come Around Here No More" without having to hear some of the weaker tracks on his "Southern Accents" album. I really disagree with you on the "early songs are kind of dumb" thing, however; "American Girl" has to be one of the best Byrds rip-offs ever writ, and the rest of the early tunes aren't too shabby either [EDITOR'S NOTE: I accidentally typed "American Girl" instead of "Here Comes My Girl" in the original incarnation of this review]. The only complaint I have about the second half is that the "Something In The Air" cover is completely pointless, the sound is a bit too polished (has Jeff Lynne ever even heard of the word "grit"?), and "Free Fallin'" has got to be one of the top ten most overrated songs of all time, no matter how pretty it is. Overall, though, it's a great compilation and I'd give it a definite A+. Petty isn't very adventurous but he knows how to write a great rock song, and that's why I haven't come to despise him like his other contemporary "roots" rockers like Bob Seger or John Mellencamp. Where's "Jammin' Me" though? One of his catchiest repetitive riff-rockers, and a Top 20 hit to boot!

Chris Curley writes: I have this album, and I think it was a preety good idea. I also like the fact that he put a few new songs on and called them greatest hits. I think they will eventualy end up that way.

John Schlegel writes: This has to be one of the most thorough and enjoyable greatest hits collections ever put together. If you're like me, you don't care about all the popular hits featured here ("I Need to Know," "Refugee," "Here Comes My Girl"), but whether you love every song or not, you simply cannot deny that the disc does just a phenomenal job at compiling all of the classics it should. And the album flows together very well as a whole, making for a solidly enjoyable listen with some passable spots and many outstanding moments. It has all my favorite Tom Petty singles ("American Girl," "Listen to Her Heart," "Don't Do Me Like That," "The Waiting," and "Don't Come Around Here No More"), and it probably has all yours too (although I miss "Jammin' Me" myself). And, on top of how well-constructed it is, while many hits packages feature garbage-filler new crap, the major new cut here, "Mary Jane's Last Dance," is outstanding. "Something In the Air" is a little forced and unnecessary, but I think it's still at least a gassed-up cover of a catchy old song. I would have to agree with Rich Bunnell and give this one a big A+.


Liz Phair


Exile in Guyville

Willie's comments: Liz Phair's debut album is, as the title suggests, an offensive, razor-sharp declaration of independence from the macho stupidity that she has had to deal with all her life (a problem which I assume was compounded by the fact that she is an astoundingly pretty woman). It's an utterly brilliant statement. In "Help Me Mary," she decides that, as long as men are going to treat her like a sex object, she may as well use that as a weapon against them. She then turns right around on the hilarious "Flower" and sweetly sings an explicit sexual fantasy ("I'll fuck you and your minons too... I'll fuck you till your dick turns blue"). "Fuck and Run" is a diatribe against one-night stands, "Divorce Song" is a great kiss-off song, and so on.

Honestly, I wish the music were better on Exile. Liz has obviously listened to Barbara Manning's Lately I Keep Scissors more than a few times (and you should do the same, might I add), which results in lots of great indie rockers like "Stratford-on-Guy" and the marvelous "Shatter," but too many songs toward the beginning of the album wander without a discernable hook. Also, Liz sings rather off-key a lot of the time. She has a great singing voice when she sings, but for most of the album, she rejects traditional female vocalizing in favor of a low-pitched snarl. A gutsy move, but not one that suits a lot of her melodies. No matter- musicianship is not what Exile in Guyville is about. It's about fearless artistic expression with no regard for gender expectations or, to a degree, music-biz expectations. You want to actually use "the C word" in your lyrics? Great! You want to put a topless picture of yourself in the CD booklet? Sure! Because Liz Phair can do whatever she pleases. Liz Phair is cool. Grade: A-


Pearce Duncan writes: Did you not realise that Exile In Guyville was conceived as the female response to Exile On Main Street by the Rolling Stones, or did you just want to be the first reviewer that didn't mention the connection?

In any case, Liz's album owes far more to the grungy off-key rock 'n' roll of the Stones' album than it does to any indie-rocker, not just in terms of the overall sound and intent but song for song. Her sloppy instrumentalism and off-key snarl are explained by even a cursory listen to that essential album, which I notice doesn't appear anywhere on your site...



Grant-Lee Phillips



Willie's comments: Grant Lee Buffalo was one of those bands that only got better as time went on, but they still never managed to release an album that you'd worry about getting back if your friend borrowed it. Their final effort, 1998's Jubilee, was packed with enough affably clever rock songs to attract the participation of guest musicians like Michael Stipe and Robyn Hitchcock, but songwriter Grant Lee Phillips still seemed to be having trouble welding his brainy sensibility to the requisite brawn of a rock band. Three years and one nondescript solo album (2000's acoustic Ladies Love Oracle) later, the suddenly hyphenated Grant-Lee has finally found his niche with the casually terrific Mobilize.

Taking a cue from the inexplicably popular David Gray, Phillips surrounds himself with programmed beats and calm waves of synthesizers on this album, downplaying his guitar skills. Surprisingly, his folk-rock melodies sound more at home in the heart of the electronic fog than they ever have before, giving Mobilize the same efficient, personal tone as U2 and R.E.M.'s recent output. "Lazily Drowning," for example, consists of little more than a laid-back drum loop and a repeated trip down the musical scale, but it perfectly compliments Phillips' subtly cynical wordplay (occasionally replacing the refrain "Not a care in the world" with "Not a caring world"). Even better are the songs with more fleshed-out arrangements, such as the giddy, celebratory pop of "Spring Released" or the beautiful, soaring "Sadness Soot." It doesn't quite add up to the classic record Phillips is obviously capable of- the album starts to deflate after the stillborn title track (a ham-fisted replica of Björk's demented orchestral techno). Still, as the Napoleon costume he sports on the album's cover suggests, Mobilize finds him fully confident and in control of his music, which has freed him to create his most satisfying work to date. Grade: A-






Willie's comments: Calling Phish “the next Grateful Dead” is a bit disingenuous; all the two bands really have in common is a penchant for hours-long jams. Instead of focusing on bluegrass, however, Phish trafficks in an odd sort of funk pop that owes more to the Talking Heads than to Jerry Berry. On this, their 2-CD debut, the songs fly by fast and furious even when they’re breaking the ten-minute mark. “You Enjoy Myself” and “The Divided Sky” showcase songwriter Trey Anastasio’s guitar-pickin’ skills, while “Esther” makes for excellent carnival music, and “Fee” is a catchy masterpiece. Still, a little of this goes a long way, and two CDs is one too many in this case... Grade: B+


A Picture of Nectar

Willie's comments: Reining their improvisational instincts in a bit, Phish spits out the catchy numbers like so much mouthwash here. In addition to the fully-formed songs like “Cavern” and “Guelah Papyrus,” there are plenty of goofy little instrumentals such as “Faht” that break up any sameness the album might have otherwise had. Lots of fun, especially the opening track, “Llama”; try singing the following lyrics as fast as you can: “Poke a double-decker on my llama taboot/ Llama taboot taboot.” Grade: A-


A Live One

Willie's comments: Phish has a reputation for being a much better live band than they are in the studio, and this 2-CD live document supports that hypothesis well. Manic versions of “Stash,” “You Enjoy Myself,” and “Chalkdust Torture” beat the fudge out of the previously released versions, while “Gumbo,” “Wilson,” and “Bouncing Around the Room” encourage car-stereo singalong sessions. The half-hour-long version of “Tweezer” is kind of tiring, but it’s in no way unforgivable. Grade: B+


Billy Breathes

Willie's comments: Dropping most of their funk influences for this laconic album, Phish gets down to the work of simply being poppy. Unfortunately, their twisty funk was largely what made them interesting up to this point, and the sparse sound of this album probably lost more fans than it made. For every entertaining song, like “Free,” “Billy Breathes,” or any song written by acerbic bassist Mike Gordon, there’s a floaty, weightless song like “Prince Caspian” that tries your patience. It’s nice to listen to late at night, though. Grade: B-


Slip Stitch and Pass

Willie's comments: Another live album, but not quite as gripping as A Live One, since most of the songs have a laid-back, bluesy feel to them. Their cover of the Talking Heads’ “Cities” is an interesting curiosity for Heads fans, but the loping pace doesn’t make for compelling listening, while the genuine blues cover “Jesus Just Left Chicago” is as generic and tedious as any genuine blues song. The band’s originals are much better, from “Wolfman’s Brother” to Gordon’s strange “Weigh,” but that might not make up for their a capella run at Michigan J. Frog’s “Hello My Baby.” Grade: C+


Hampton Comes Alive

Willie's comments: This 6-CD set documents two days' worth of live shows in November of 1998, and, while not exactly economical, finally gets the aural aspects of the live Phish experience exactly right (their live shows often incorporate bizarre visual elements, which is only hinted at here in sudden, inexlicable cheers from the audience at random moments). This sprawling compendium contains energetic, extended performances of many of the band's best songs, as well as a number of cover songs from sources that are understandable (Beatles, Dylan, Hendrix), unlikely (Ween, Stevie Wonder, Beastie Boys), or meant ironically (Will Smith, Chumbawamba). Any number of minor quibbles can be leveled at Hampton Comes Alive: Keyboardist Page McConnell is woefully underused; the band's practiced chops occasionally go slack on tunes like "Wilson" and "The Mango Song"; the band's tendency to delve into underdeveloped funk is occasionally boring; and there are moments of extreme abrasion, as in Gordon's herky-jerky "Big Black Furry Creature from Mars." However, this set contains the definitive versions of wonderful numbers like "Foam," "Character Zero," "Cavern," "The Divided Sky," "Mike's Song," and "Lawn Boy." The slow, sensual performances of "Wading in the Velvet Sea" and "Farmhouse" are by far the most gorgeous, shimmering moments in Phish's entire canon. Given all that, fighting the less inspired elements of Hampton misses the point entirely- with these recordings, you can finally ride the Phish concert wave in your own home and feel entirely satisfied. Grade: A



Willie's comments: Phish went on an indefinite hiatus soon after the release of this studio album, and in retrospect, it's easy to see that the signs of creative burnout were there. Though Farmhouse is stronger than any of the band's other studio albums (save, perhaps, for A Picture of Nectar), none of the band members except for Anastasio had a hand in the songwriting process, and he reportedly had originally penned these songs for a side project rather than for Phish. Also, the band's celebrated jamming is nowhere in essence here- even on instrumentals "The Inlaw Josie Wales" and "First Tube," the melodies are tightly controlled except for a few tasteful solos eked out by Trey. Even the silliness of the otherwise disciplined Billy Breathes has mostly been excised, popping up only in the nonsensical (and annoying) "Gotta Jibboo" and the rambling about cluster flies in the spectacular title track (arguably the band's catchiest song). So what's left? A newfound gift for memorable melodies, for one thing. The ebullient "Heavy Things," "Bug," and "Twist" carry vocal lines that stick around longer than you'd expect from these traditionally instrument-centric boys. The band's nearly telepathic interplay results in more intuitively perfect performances like "First Tube," "Dirt," and the credibly funky "Sand" than any ol' side project could ever come up with. Hampton Comes Alive is still the best Phish experience on the above-ground market, and A Live One is probably still the best introduction to the band, but Farmhouse is easily their most accessible album, and one that can hold its own against anything else in their oeuvre. Grade: A-


Victor Prose (the guy who has the Phish page over on Prindle's site) writes: Early Phish, like Junta, may be affable and driving at times, but it's not always a) focused, or b) well-written. Junta should be the blueprint for any album in the future that wishes to defy coherence and cohesiveness; while a jam may earn points for its daring, exciting nature, an album shouldn't be this uneven. However, "Fee" is wonderfully catchy, "Fluff's Travels" is one of the band's most energetic performances, and "Divided Sky" is possibly their most beautiful full-band composition. This one gets a B- from me.

The review here for the relentlessly enjoyable Picture of Nectar is spot-on, but still, their could be a bit more craft here, and a little less romp. A B+ album, no doubt, and the best pre-Billy Breathes one. Phish's live albums usually lose points for sonic quality, lack of energy, or lack of quality when I review them. I think Slip Stich and Pass is great, with the group playing a very dynamic and accomplished show--an A record, no doubt. A Live One, compiled from assorted 1994 shows, is not as effective to me--it lacks the personality of a single show (two of which are better represented on the A-worthy Hampton Comes Alive), and the arena setting dampers the sound somewhat (see "Stash", whose guitar solo alone earns the album a higher-than-needed B). The goodness and badness of Phish shows is now well-represented in two recent sets, Live Phish 05 (great, an A) and Live Phish 03 (abysmal, a C-).

Finally, as far as Phish's more meticulously prepared later albums go, the B+-level Billy Breathes sees them writing songs in top form (see the triple-threat of "Free", "Character Zero", and "Waste"), but flailing under misguided amounts of atmosphere (see the last couple of tracks on the record). The transitional, B+-worthy Story of the Ghost found them struggling between craftsmanship and mood and often succeeding, but Farmhouse remains the tome on which they found themselves as effective songwriters, an A+-level collection of 12 stellar tunes, none of which are dampered by needless sonic enhancements. This is an absolute personal favorite of mine, too.

Of course, after they finally hit their stride with that album, they broke up. Life's funny, innit?


Pink Floyd



Willie's comments: Pink Floyd's sixth album may come as a bit of a shock to those who know only their subsequent output (as I did before I heard it just today). Not that it's substantially different from Pink's later work- if anything, the crowd noise that closes "Fearless" lays the seeds for "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2," and Roger Waters's ear for lasting melodies is in evidence throughout. No, what makes Meddle so distinct in the Floyd discography is that it's such an erratic album, with no unifying theme (from a musical or literary standpoint) or mood to make the album hold together as a whole. The album veers from the tremelo-heavy experimentation of "One of These Days" (which sounds like a blueprint for the Butthole Surfers) to the stripped-down acoustic blues of "Seamus" to the oceanic, 23-minute epic "Echoes," which contains wisps of four or five different psychedelic pop songs. All of the songs are great individually- except "Seamus," but the blues always bores me stupid- but it doesn't really seem like a Pink Floyd album without the grand musical statements, electronic noodling, and Waters's endearing pretensions to carry you throughout. It's fine if you can look at "Echoes" as a mini-Floyd album and the other songs as bonus tracks, but Meddle never really coheres the way it should. Grade: B+


Dark Side of the Moon

Willie's comments: Before I say anything about Dark Side of the Moon as an album, I have to tell you that it's worth purchasing if only to use in conjunction with the Wizard of Oz. If you're unfamiliar with this amazing phenomenon, here's the way it works: Put Dark Side in your CD player, and press play but immediately pause the CD. Put the Wizard of Oz in your VCR or DVD player and press play, but turn off the movie's sound. The MGM lion will appear to announce the beginning of the movie and symbolize MGM's corporate might. At the precise moment he begins to roar for the third time, unpause your CD player and turn it up loud. As you watch the movie, Pink Floyd's music will synchronize perfectly with events on-screen. Sometimes specific sounds will sync up. For example, at one point, Dorothy's uncle is speaking to her, and the actual soundtrack from the movie is playing in the background of Dark Side of the Moon. Elsewhere, Dorothy's first step into the colorized land of Oz is accompanied by the cash register "ka-ching" from the opening of "Money." Sometimes Pink Floyd will merely set the mood, like when Dorothy's house spins through the tornado accompanied by the hypnotic moaning of "The Great Gig in the Sky." It's mind-boggling that the band was able to conceive and compose an album that is timed so perfectly to a film, and yet remains a great listening experience in its own right.

And it is a great album. Evidently, it's a concept album about Syd Barrett's lapse into mental illness- an interpretation that is borne out by the lyrics to "Brain Damage" ("The lunatic is in the hall") and "Eclipse" as well as the crazed electronic soundscape of "On the Run." However, Dark Side as an album is remarkable more for its compositions than concept alone. Woozy slide guitars ooze around the songs, synthesized noise battles with sound effects, and the tunes can shift effortlessly from theatrical bombast to classic-rock greasiness and back (shown to best effect on "Time"). To my ear, the album isn't as effective a piece of space-out psychedelica as Wish You Were Here, but it is a trippy masterpiece, to be sure. Grade: A+


Wish You Were Here

Willie's comments: Unlike Dark Side of the Moon, which is basically nothing but singles, Wish You Were Here is an ethereal, hypnotic mood piece that is well-suited to a night of staring blankly at your ceiling and having Insights. On "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" (which appears in nine parts over the course of the album), synths and guitars soar and gurgle like tetherballs around an anchoring, psychedelic hook. "Welcome to the Machine" pulsates ominously as Roger Waters sings about the music industry (an easy target, yes, but perhaps the best "corporate rock sucks" song ever made). The album flows and spirals like a mother, and it's simply indescribable. This is a classic for the sound of the synthesizers alone, but it's a beautiful head trip throughout. Grade: A+



Willie's comments: This album is basically a placeholder in the Floyd oeuvre- something to bridge the gap between Wish You Were Here and The Wall. Waters's misanthropy is raging in full effect as he compares humans to pigs, dogs, and sheep over the course of forty or so minutes. Most of the songs start out with Roger and an acoustic guitar and build to a mind-expanding climax, and most of the tunes were recycled- and improved upon- somewhere within The Wall. That's not to say Animals isn't an engaging listen- "Pigs (Three Different Ones)" and "Sheep" are as absorbing and tuneful as anything Pink Floyd's ever done. However, it falls short of the greatness that marks Dark Side, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall simply because they've done everything here elsewhere and better. Grade: B


The Wall (2-CD set)

Willie's comments: This album will make your jaw drop the first time you hear it, and quite often on subsequent listens. It's the life story of a boy who has a lot of mental problems, springing from his overprotective mother, and his lifelong descent into horror. The power of songs like "Mother" ("Mama's gonna check out all your girlfriends for you/ Mama won't let anyone dirty get through") is enough to make you cry, and that power never diminishes, no matter how many times you listen to The Wall. "Hey You" is a harrowing cry for help, while "One of My Turns" is a heartbreaking acknowledgement of burned-out love. The music is inimitably great throughout, from the catchy rockers like "Another Brick in the Wall part 2" ("We don't need no education") and "Young Lust" to folkier, Radiohead-esque songs like "Comfortably Numb," and even the somewhat atonal likes of "Don't Leave Me Now" are purposefully off-kilter.

After "Comfortably Numb" on disc two, songwriter Roger Waters goes a bit too far off the deep end, turning his young character into a Nazi rock star who joins some sort of paramilitary cult, and I wish Waters wouldn't have done that. The Wall is much more effective at portraying the heartbreak and mental torment of everyday people, rather than making grand statements about society's ills, or creating such outlandish characters. But this is a minor quibble with an album as piercing and affecting as this is. Grade: A

Pink Floyd- The Wall (the movie)

Willie's comments: Three years after the audio release of The Wall, director Alan Parker helmed a literal, theatrical interpretation of Pink's tale. It's really disappointing. The most wonderful thing about the album was that your imagination could come up with any number of situations which might have prompted "Mother," "Young Lust," or "Don't Leave Me Now," and you could imagine the main character as whoever or whatever you pleased. In the film, though, you get only one image of Pink, and it's Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats. His job is to look blank while the album plays on the soundtrack, and each song is given a very specific narrative antecedent, which eliminates the need for the viewer/listener to fill in the blanks of Pink's life. Thus, we really don't care as much for or about him. There are plenty of interesting images that pop up throughout: "Goodbye Blue Sky" is set to a horrifically, terrifically twisted animation by Gerald Scarfe, and "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)" contains a chilling shot of mongoloid-masked children walking, one after another, into a meat grinder. However, those isolated moments of trippy inspiration only serve to make the rest of the movie more boring. And, as on the album, when Pink joins that guerrilla group, things get too heady for their own good. Maybe if Roger Waters had let Devo take a run at filming The Wall, it would have been a more engaging exercise, but since we live in reality, you are advised to steer clear of this film. Grade: D+


Matthew Clothier writes: I enjoyed your comments on Pink Floyd, those are three top notch albums any way you spin them around. Something about me just has to play that little part with the kid saying "Look mummy, there's an airplane up in the sky" over and over again. It's cute, yet horrific because you can almost see the bombs falling out of the "airplane" that the boy is so fascinated with. That is the beauty of the wall, you find yourself belting these songs out in the car, enjoying the torture of Roger Waters. Crazy!! One thing that upset me was the fact that you guys called "Comfortably Numb" Radiohead-esque. I love Floyd and I love Radiohead, but isn't strange to say that a 70's Floyd song is Radiohead-esque when Radiohead's parents were still shagging to Dark Side? I know what you probably meant, but try to avoid switching around times like that....KNITPICKY, sorry!

Nick Karn writes: I love Floyd to death, as they are easily among my top 3 favorite bands along with Dream Theater and R.E.M. No one was better at hitting the listener at the right spot at exactly the right time, particularly in their classic '73-'79 period. Also, it kinda pisses me off that David Gilmour gets consistently knocked all the time on other review pages, but damn it, his 'calculated' style is one that I really prefer; consistently blows me away every time. I'm actually still working on completing my collection, but these are the albums I do have right now:

The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn: A (the two instrumentals prevent it from absolute classic status for me, but this is an essential); More: C+ (a soundtrack with tons of merely pleasant filler, but some nice gems out of it); Meddle: B+ (the sidelong "Echoes" alone makes this one worth buying - a key progression to Dark Side); Dark Side Of The Moon: A+ (the first of the trio of unstoppable classic albums, what more can I say that hasn't been said already?); Wish You Were Here: A+ (the title track is one of my top 10-15 favorite songs of all time, a lot of phenomenal jamming and Waters' rants); Animals: A+ (my second favorite album of all time, and for good reason - a completely breathtaking concept here); The Wall: A- (I actually prefer the second disc more, and there is too much filler here but several shattering, unforgettable moments)

ddickson@rice.edu writes: I'd just like to point out that the whole Nazi bit that consumes side 4 of The Wall is a direct allegory to David Bowie's widely publicized delusional breakdowns at concerts during the late '70's--reportedly, he would salute his audiences with the Heil Hitler motion. If you noticed, both "In the Flesh" songs are glam-rock parodies.

dark.arkive@gmail.com writes: Meddle is my favorite Floyd album, although it's taken a while for that to become so.

The album's seeming fault--comparable to that of Bowie's masterpiece Low--is a completely illogical structure. Meddle has five songs of more or less typical length on the first side. They have nothing whatsoever to do with each other lyrically or musically (which is a shock for a post-Barret Floyd album). Then, side two is entirely taken up by "Echoes". This really threw me off at first, but I've learned to think of the first half as a coherent whole, as is "Echoes", which itself could've been broken down into at least five parts.

The thing with Meddle (which holds true for both halves) is that it's really about atmosphere, unlike the somewhat showier masterworks they forged later on. This album is egoless--simple, monotonal vocals, dreamy instrumental treating instead of a laser show feel, and the most compelling element is a single piano note. Thus, it's less accessible than DSOTM, but there are so many brilliant yet humble aspects that it quickly becomes addictive. The bass line on "One of These Days" draws you in quickly and chills you, but it implies terror more than it reveals it. It brings to mind a tornado off in the distance, not really someone trying to cut you into little pieces. "Pillow of Winds" is perfectly named...a soothing, hypnotizing application of sleepy guitars and tranquil vocals. "Fearless" is, well, weird. It has the feel of a basic, summery rocker, but a touch (just a touch) of Floydian irony and transcendalist, poetic vocals transform the song into something psychedelic, timeless, comforting and vaguely frightening at the same time.

"San Tropez", on the other hand, is exactly what it appears to be: the hugest band never to get happy is having some fun. It has a Hawaiian kinda air to it, or lounge jazz, or something. But it really is quite gorgeous. You just have to forget it's a Pink Floyd song, or you'll be all 'guh de buh wha?' and so on.

"Seamus" is a tough one. It seems banal, yes, because it's a very simple two-minute exercise in British blues. But what makes it great (if you don't already like British blues, which I do) is how perfectly it doesn't set up "Echoes". It doesn't connect a bit--acoustic blues and gigantic electronic/prog fest? It creates a sublime tension, because you know "Echoes" is coming but "Seamus" is a last reminder of Earth before you go off spiraling.

Suffice to say, "Echoes" is the one song in the universe that I can--free of conscience--call my alltime favorite.

I've kinda made Meddle a concept album in my head. It's a journey--you're in space in "One of These Days", falling through the sky in "Pillow of Winds", getting adjusted to life on Earth in "Fearless", living it up in that life in "San Tropez", observing a moment of Earth reality in "Seamus", and finally, hurling yourself into the depths of the ocean in "Echoes". A journey from the depths of space to the center of the Earth, that's Meddle.

Or something like that.





Come on Pilgrim EP

Willie's comments: Black Francis sure wasn’t as shy about incorporating a sense of humor into his songs in the Pixies’ early days as he was toward the end. On this, the band’s first release and de facto demo album, he croons a hilarious tribute to a caribou ("Cari-booooooooooooooooouuu!"), jabbers good-naturedly in Spanish, and expresses concern about harming his male organ. It’s all good fun, with Francis and other guitarist Joey Santiago happily coaxing their guitars to let loose with searing (though catchy) noise, but Come on Pilgrim plays better as a companion piece to Surfer Rosa than as an end in and of itself. Grade: B-


Surfer Rosa

Willie's comments: This is the album Nirvana admittedly ripped off for Nevermind and, no, Francis isn’t as good as Kurt Cobain at producing lyrical significance. Case in point: which lyrics speak for a generation: "Here we are now, entertain us" or "I was talking to Preachy Preach about kissy kiss/ He bought me a soda and he tried to molest me in the parking lot/ Yup yup yup yup"? However, Francis is arguably better at crafting harshly poppy tunes that stay with you for years, and he’s certainly a lot more fun to listen to, with his sarcastic film geek yelp that slides easily into a piercing howl. Songs like "Break My Body" and "Cactus" are engagingly disturbing ("Bloody your hands on a cactus tree/ Wipe ‘em on your dress and send it to me"), but bassist Kim Deal’s hysterically deadpan vocal asides and fun numbers like "Where Is My Mind?" keep things from getting dour. Grade: A-



Willie's comments: The Pixies didn’t tone down their gnashing-guitar harshness for this album, but integrated it more carefully into the confines of a pop tune. As such, songs like "Debaser," "I Bleed," and the inimitably squealy "Dead" take a few listens to get used to, but once you get your mind around their melodies, they’re every bit as loveable as more accessible numbers like "Here Comes Your Man," "Monkey Gone to Heaven," and "Gouge Away." Dissonance has rarely been this ravishing. Grade: A+

Ginny's comments: Too bad everyone didn't credit the Pixies all of the influence they obviously had. No matter how talented, inspiring or groundbreaking the Pixies were in the early nineties, they were unfortunately never much more than a rock-critic's darling or a 120 Minutes staple. Melding grunge, geek rock, a lil' punk, and an incredibly weird lead singer, the Pixies nonchalantly ushered in a new level of rock that most indie bands of today still strive to achieve. Doolittle is a feat of genius- their pinnacle of brillance. It starts of with possibly the strongest song of the Pixies career with "Debaser"-- a brash, crazy crowd-anthem that makes "Smells like Teen Spirit" seem like the after-fart of a really good meal by comparison. Slicing up eyeballs has never been this great! Brilliance follows with the tender "Wave of Mutilation" to the poppy "Here Comes your Man" to the weirdly psychedelic "Monkey Gone to Heaven" onto the rockin "Crackity Jones." Man- how can you fit so much musical goodness into one album, I ask!? Doolittle is an instant classic. Grade: A PLUS!



Willie's comments: I still have a hard time believing this album came from the Pixies’ canon. It’s dishearteningly boring- songs drag on and on much longer than they need to, and most of them don’t have a single decent hook to grab onto. Even the songs that you’ll come back to more than once (save for the catchy "Dig for Fire") are only half-there; "Is She Weird" has a great chorus but little else, and Francis lapses into an exquisite, monotonal monologue at the end of "The Happening," but the rest of the song is dross. This is a murky, dull album. Grade: C-

Ginny's comments: The good thing about some of the other Pixies music is their incredible ability to be loud without pushing the annoying meter into the red zone. Bossonova, unfortuneately, goes both ways a bit too often, either pushing songs into the red zone or having songs so dull they don't register at all. Though it definitely is not as strong as Doolittle or Trompe Le Monde, it's still not a bad lil' album nonetheless. Think of it as "Pixies Lite." Or "Pixies: The Hanging With Drunk Co-Workers Version." Some songs are just plain dull ("Havilina", "Cecila Ann", "Ana"), some just annoying ("Rock Music") but there are some decent rockers ("Hang Wire," "Allison"). I think my biggest problem with with album, is the half-assed attention paid to the lyrics, which are mostly just a useless phrase, repeated over and over ("My Velouria"). Given the Pixies usually interesting, bizarre, and at times, MOVING lyrics, this is quite a disappointment. "Dig for Fire" stands out as the best song here, both lyrically and rock-ally. Grade: B


Trompe Le Monde

Willie's comments: So this is where all the energy that was missing from Bossanova went! Francis shrieks like a banshee, and his guitar interplay with Santiago is paralyzingly noisy- just when you think songs like "Planet of Sound" and "The Sad Punk" can’t get any more ear-bleedingly intense, they lock into overdrive and blow you away with their chaotic genius. And there are infectious songs galore, from the relatively subdued "Motorway to Roswell" (one of Francis’s rare lucid moments; a heartbreaking, sympathetic tale of the alien being held at Area 51) to the aforementioned "Planet of Sound," there’s not a one that you won’t sing along with. A superb bow-out. Grade: A-


Death to the Pixies

Willie's comments: Two CDs: one is a greatest hits compilation of sorts, and one is a live disc that was probably culled from a show between Doolittle and Bossanova, judging from the track list. All the songs chosen for disc one are prime Pixies, although I would've sacrificed a couple of the Doolittle tracks in order to include more from Trompe le Monde (not that Doolittle isn't great, but practically half of that album is on here, whereas TLM gets only two entries). The live disc, however, makes Death to the Pixies kind of a bad value for anyone but Pixies neophytes. It's a terrific live show- good sound quality, blistering versions of "Hang Wire" and "Gouge Away," among others- but the completists who would want the live disc already have all the songs from disc one, and I can't say the live portion is worth the $20 pricetag on the set. If you've never heard anything by the Pixies and want a cross-section of everything they've done, however, spend the extra couple bucks and pick this up. Sure, you'll wind up buying all the studio albums anyway (except maybe Bossanova), but by that point, you'll be glad you've got the live disc. Does that make sense? Grade: B+


Complete "B" Sides

Willie's comments: As the title suggests, this album contains all 19 of the B-sides that the Pixies released throughout their career. There really aren't any new Pixies classics to be found on here, but there are a few revelations: "The Thing" is a beefed-up rendition of the good part of "The Happening" from Bossanova (thus making that album even less essential), early surf-rock songs like "Manta Ray" and "Dancing the Manta Ray" are a reminder of how entertaining Frank Black was when he was at his most exuberant, and covers of songs by Neil Young, the Yardbirds, and David Lynch are goofy fun. Some of the inclusions are pointless (an instrumental version of "Letter to Memphis," another version of "Vamos"), and the middle of the album crams too many short throwaways next to one another, but new Pixies product is always welcome in this world, no? Grade: B


Keith D. writes:Willie, Jenny, I like you guys. You're friends of a close friend. But I'm worried about you. Willie especially. Willie, have you been exposed to vast amounts of paint thinner lately? Model airplane glue? European meat products?

Really, I mean how else could you possibly have given the Pixies' "Bossanova" a C- and then given the Offspring's "Smash" a C?!? Willie, this is serious. I think that one of three things probably happened in order for this crime against my ears to occur: 1) You are insane. Willie, I know you. I don't think you're crazy. Possibly you went temporarily insane while compiling the "O" and "P" review sections, but I'll give your otherwise consistent-seeming sanity the benefit of the doubt. Which leads us to the next possibility. 2) You were paid off by the Devil. Now, Willie, I don't know how much interest the Devil has in pop music, but I think that Celine Dion's existence shows that he's at least got a respectable presence. But, Willie, payola doesn't seem like something to which you would let your respectable-music-critic-self fall prey. So, alas, you must have done this - placed the Offspring (the Offspring, Willie! The Offspring!) above the Pixies by (arguably understandable) mistake. Thus... 3) Whilst reviewing such a large amount of albums over a relatively short period of time, you lost perspective and graded Bossanova *within the scope of the other Pixies albums* and not against the entirety of rock music. Ok, graded against all of music, sure, give the Offspring's "Smash" a C. I think it's overly generous, but perhaps you particularily fancy them for some unspeakable reason, fine, everyone has their own loveable idiosyncrasies. But, now, the Pixies' "Bossanova" rated lower than anything by the Offspring when viewed (as your grading system views things) on a straight, entirety-of-music scale is insane. Willie, you're not insane. Your site is nice. You write intelligently and so does Jenny, and you almost completely maintain the (hard-to-maintain-on-an-album-review-site) perspective that is necessary to lend the reviews credibility and consistency.

"Bossanova" is one of the few slips in your depth perception. Sure, it's the Pixies' worst album, but worse than the Offspring's "Smash"? Never.

Willie, if this is not how you feel - if you still insist that "Bossanova" maintain its C- standing when considered against all of rock music - then I, as a friend of a friend, as one concerned for your mental health, urge you to immediately check in to rehab.

Keep up the otherwise good work. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Following this letter, I sent an explanation to Keith defending my grade of Bossanova, and he responded by sending me a Yahoo! electronic greeting card which read, "Get well soon! I hope that you have a speedy recovery and that they let you out soon."]

glasspeople5@aol.com puts himself in the running for a Pulitzer by commenting: bossanova, when compared to any other pixies record may be pretty weak, but comparedto your existance its amazing

ps ihate critics

Billy Bruns writes: visit mark prindle's site for real Pixies reviews. Prindle = God.

Come on Pilgrim: A+
Surfer Rosa: A
Doolittle: A+
Bossanova: A- (this grade stinks. spank me)
Trompe Le Monde: A+++
Complete B-Sides: A (and yes, the Thing is a part of The Happening, but it also happens to be worse. Thus, making you seem less essential than ever)

That essential thing made no sense, but I don't care.

Rich Bunnell writes: Oh, come on, people, the Pixies have four albums and three of them scored in the "A" range. Since the other one scored in the "average" range, I'd call that a pretty good track record myself. I haven't familiarized myself enough with the albums to give any of my own commentary, so I'll stop here, but let me just say that "Debaser" has got to be one of the best songs EVER.

Thatcoolbrotha@aol.com writes: In honor of your moving to a new server I'd like to say HELLMOTHERFUCKINGYESSHITASSSBITCHYKITTYRAUNCHODOODLE....um, ASS!

I got the pixies last two albums today. I don't like Trompe Le Monde that much or Bossanova. It seems they just got really boring after Doolittle. And has anybody noticed that the title track on TLM steals the vocal melody from Caribou? That just disgusts me. And Black Francis doesn't use crazy vocal antics anymore! And George Harrison died too, Damn! This day sucks! All my heroes are dying or putting out boring albums!

Joe Hinchcliffe writes: Well i gotta say i love Bossanova as much as i love Doolittle (which is their best record IMO) and i think Trompe and Surfer Rosa, as awesome as they are, have some filler. I really think Bossanova is a beautiful record as opposed to a boring, dull one. "Havalina" in particular is one of the most gorgeous songs ever for instance (it was me and an ex girlfriends favorite song too, so it brings forth some good and bad memories). "Ana", "Velouria", "Allison", "Dig For Fire", "Blown Away", and "The Happening" are fantastic songs as well. Only songs that i'll agree are quite dull are "Stormy Weather" (way too repetitive for its own good) and "All Over The World" (way too overlong for its own good). "Rock Music" appears obnoxious at first, but after a while it appeared to be, to me, a typical Pixies track where Black Francis screams his head off (like "Something Against You" or "Debaser"). I give Bossanova an A, Surfer Rosa an A- (a few songs at the end are pretty fillerish), Trompe a A- (some filler once again), Bossanova an A+ and Come On Pilgrim an A. I also gotta say:

"Ed Is Dead" has got to be one of the most underrated Pixies tracks.

I was very pleased to see the Pixies (or is it a solo Frank Black??) pick "Hang On To Your Ego" to cover, because not only is it a Beach Boys song, which is my favorite band, but because i think it is a far superior alternate version to "I Know There's An Answer" which is the real released song on Pet Sounds.

As most Pixies fans say, i wish Kim got a chance to contribute more songs to the band, as "Gigantic" is a wonderful song, as well as "Silver", which is supposedly co-written by Kim.

Those bastards Smash Mouth ripped off the riff to "La La Love You" for their crappy song "When The Morning Comes"!

cyshine@yahoo.com writes: Actually, what I like best about the Pixies is that they played really _different, fine_ tunes, in many different ways. They *invented* something new and good, and I believe that's remarkable.

About their records, I don't have a favorite one... it's like having kids: each one is distinct and special and has good and bad points. All of them take some time to be enjoyable. My favourite albums are all of this type. I started listening to their songs with "Death To The Pixies" double album. Then I bought "Complete B-Sides" and I thought, "Wow! If their B-Sides were so good - better than many "A-Sides" albums around -, what about their original stuff?". And bought all the other records.





Pizzicato Five


The Sound of Music

Willie's comments: A lot of the lyrics are in Japanese, the music periodically sounds like the Spice Girls, and this lounge-rock is only slightly less kitschy than the Mike Flowers Pops. So why does this album work so well? Hooks galore! "Groovy is My Name" is unstoppably energetic and uplifting, "Peace Music" is adorably plaintive, and "Sophisticated Catchy" is hilarious fun. It'd be a stretch to call this album irresistable- if you're not in the mood, it's not only resistable but impossibly grating- but for happy, campy lounge rock, look no further. I found this one for $6.49 in the cutout bin at Target, of all places! Grade: B





Not for Threes

Willie's comments: [WILLIE'S NOTE: I wrote this little rant against IDM as a childish way of blowing off steam against one particular IDM fan I knew. It's so hideously embarrassing and oversimplistic that I'm going to leave it up to punish myself for having written it, but I've really grown to like artists like Autechre in the intervening time, so glean what little information you can from this paragraph but don't take my value judgements too seriously. Thank you.] Within the broad category of "electronica," there is a smarmy little subset of musicians who are so inordinately pleased with their own abilities to take synthetic, electronic sounds and beats and arrange them into clever little patterns that they have the nerve to refer to their music with a term so appallingly smarmy that it probably warrants at least a few beatings and fatwehs: Intelligent Dance Music. "Intelligent" in this context apparently means "No, you can't dance to it, you foolish plebian," because many IDM practitioners (Autechre, Oval, etc.) take a special, smug pride in composing tracks that revolve around algorithms and patterns and tessellations so elaborate that it just sounds like a big, irritating mess. Generally speaking, IDM is boring music for misanthropic math geeks who like to look down on those of us who don't fancy the idea of needing a graphing calculator to unravel the rhythms and sounds that come out of our respective stereos. (This may be unduly harsh, but I've developed quite an antipathy toward self-congratulatory pretentiousness lately, and that particular trait is more concentrated in IDM than any other artistic genre I can think of except independent experimental film.)

However, as with any artistic movement, to singlehandedly dismiss every IDM artist would be to throw out the proverbial Spam with the inedible Spam jello crap. Just because nearly everyone under the IDM banner is a waste of vinyl, you can't overlook such artists as Mouse on Mars, Matmos, Aphex Twin (who admittedly does take frequent detours into the land of unlistenability, but Richard D. James seems to have personal problems that go beyond simple overcleverness), and perhaps the most consistently delightful electronica band of any type, Plaid. On Not for Threes, the duo takes a number of distinctive IDM elements (sterile synth noises, odd rhythms, and so forth) and proceeds to playfully subvert the IDM crowd's supposed subversiveness by re-integrating these elements into whimsical, memorable, and accessible formats that can be enjoyed by all. Sometimes this means bringing things down to the same equilibrium of techno and pop that Bjork often aims for (the Icelandic pixie lunatic lends her voice to "Lilith," in fact, which is a buried treasure that her fans would do well to check out), but more often, Plaid hangs around in their own bubbly stratosphere of outlandishly catchy instability. "Milh" is an extemporaneous-sounding slice of computerized beauty that channels Brian Eno, "Headspin" has a synthesized melody that undergoes a few exciting alterations, and there are a number of cute little interludes along the way that just add to the mood of amiable electronic satisfaction. Plaid might not be the most innovative IDM act to ever hit the Warp Records scene, but they're one of the few who makes the "Intelligent" part of that classification a boon rather than a liability. Grade: A


Rest Proof Clockwork

Willie's comments: I'm having fun, so allow me to continue my semi-informed screeds about techno: in the five or so years since I started tentatively getting into electronic music, I've noticed that it's really easy to make good, competent, enjoyable techno-based music. Obviously, it depends on what you're trying to accomplish, and which techno sub-genre you're working in, but as long as you've got a steady beat, and either a decent hypnotic melody or some amusing sound effects, you're going to come up with something decent and listenable, even if it's hackwork like Paul Oakenfold or, I am increasingly coming to believe, the Chemical Brothers. Out-and-out failures are rare in the techno world (Spring Heel Jack is the only one that comes to mind), but just as rare- judging from the amount of faceless electronic oatmeal they routinely play on my local NPR affiliate- are electronic acts with some personality. Plaid, you'll be pleased to discover once you hear them, are one of those acts. Mixing programmed drums and breakbeats with lots of ear-fellating synths and organic instrumentation (check out the delicate guitar work on "Ralome," or the inspired notion of having a double-bass on the otherwise routine IDM track "Pino Pomo"), Plaid approaches each song with a what-cool-sounds-can-I-make-here? sense of playfulness that makes this album addictive in any setting, whether you're in a club, sitting at your desk, or watching the sands of time pass quickly through your fingers as you work in the receiving room at a bookstore. The tunes themselves range from mellow, Aphex Twin-by-way-of-the-Residents ambience ("Dead Sea") to hysterically fast Sonic the Hedgehog music that begs to be labelled "zany" ("Dang Spot") to a marimba-or-something exercise that sounds like the Orb reinventing the American Beauty score ("Air Locked")- all melodic, all spilling over with good ideas. And there's a cartoon monkey with a turntable on the tray card! Wow! If I were you, I'd be going to CDNow and purchasing this disc right now! I wouldn't even have to put down my strange-tasting (improvised) Bailey's Irish Cream/Starbucks Frappucino concoction that I've been sipping from while I sit at the computer, because we live in a golden age of technology and liquor! Grade: A



Willie's comments: This two-disc compilation brings together a bunch of songs released by Plaid's Ed Handley and/or Andy Turner between 1989 and 1995, mostly under various pseudonyms (Atypic, Balil, Tura, etc.). The chronological assembly of the collection will be interesting for big Plaid fans, since it's kind of cool-ish to hear the duo's aesthetic progressing from generic house music to their more familiar IDMisms, but it's not going to be particularly useful for anyone else. Most of the first disc is disposable, in fact, unless you really get off on clubby, repetitive, breakbeat-based stuff like "Scoobs in Columbia," because although Plaid's penchant for monkeyshines makes frequent appearances (the silly burbling noises on "Norte Route," for instance), their knack for interesting melodies and song structures is mostly elsewhere. Disc two is much, much better, opening with the nifty dub goofiness of "Fly Wings," and hitting plenty of highlights like "Jolly" (topsy-turvy old-school percussion recast with buzzy intensity that would arrive full-blown on Double Figure) and "Letter" (tribal intoxication at its finest) before closing with the stunningly ambivalent "Angry Dolphin." (Mix enthusiasts could probably come up with a clever place for that track amid Juno Reactor's "Shark" and a couple entries from Yo La Tengo's The Sounds of the Sounds of Science on a collection of aquatic-themed songs.) Still, even though it's competent-to-good throughout, only about half of it is as restlessly creative and engaging as you want from your Plaid. So unless you can find it really cheap or can buy just disc two from a questionably ethical half.com seller, Trainer's not really recommended. Grade: B-


Double Figure

Willie's comments: Like most of their labelmates on Warp Records, Plaid has always done very interesting things with rhythm, managed to make their peculiar compositions melodic even when they're too weird to be danceable, and cranked out exotic-sounding song titles like "Ti Bom" and "Zamami." Double Figure has the distinction of toning down their previous work's devil-may-care playfulness and upping the formal "accessibility" on some songs, while still maintaining the unique humanity behind their songs. From a technical perspective, the album is nearly flawless (though it does tip too far toward Daft Punk-esque cheese on the closer "Manyme"), balancing peppy, energetic mindbenders with calmer fare, but Double Figure works best on a less intellectual level. If you just sit back and imagine it as the surprisingly high-tech score to an awesome, old-school Nintendo game like Mega Man, Plaid's music will race through your synapses in the most amazingly satisfying way. Grade: A






Willie's comments: There's not a good song on this debut album from these alt-rock remoras. I tried to give Pluto the benefit of the doubt for the first few songs because they're Canadian, and Canada has a much better good band-to-bad band ratio than the United States, but ultimately, I had to recognize that these guys are simply talentless Canucks, just like Alanis Morissette and Shania Twain (she's Canadian, isn't she?). The problem with Pluto is that they seem to think that four power chords repeated ad infinitum automatically makes a good song, along with generic slacker lyrics. It doesn't. There isn't a catchy or interesting melody to be found on the whole friggin' thing, and I defy anyone to listen to Pluto all the way through and not come away from it feeling totally drained and headachey. The only good thing I can say about the album is that at least Pluto had the courtesy to not tack on any unlisted "bonus tracks," prolonging the agony. Grade: F





Willie's comments: Poe is, in many ways, a refreshing change from the legions of female singer/songwriters who seem content to fill an album with acoustic guitars, tasteful strings, and pseudo-hypnotic piano music. Poe throws actual energy into her recordings, and she's not averse to snarling her lyrics through a walkie-talkie or tossing in a little humor, if the song calls for it. Her music is self-consciously eclectic: "Hello" is wispy electropop that presaged Madonna's Ray of Light, but it's immediately followed by "Trigger Happy Jack," a kiss-off to some guy that's set to messy, abrasive rock that would do Sonic Youth proud. The standout is "Angry Johnny"- an infectious trip-hop landscape that sounds as though it could have been produced by Dr. Dre (in one of his more mellow, soulful moments).

Hello's first half is bogged down by Poe's off-putting, bratty lyrics ("This morning, I spilled a Diet Coke on my mom and said, 'Hi,' when what I really meant to say was, 'Why's your life a joke?'"), but it never ceases to be interesting, and she lets her sweet side come out toward the end. In fact, the closer, a piano ballad called "Fly Away," transcends its generic arrangement by laying bare Poe's yearning voice, and one of the prettiest melodies since Elton John's heyday (before he just wrote "The One" over and over). Not a stunning debut, exactly, but a promising one. Grade: B


The Pogues


Rum Sodomy & the Lash

Willie's comments: Making a career from one of those shimmering "Why didn't I think of that?" strokes of inspiration, the Pogues successfully connected the dots between the rough-and-tumble mournfulness of Irish folk songs and the misanthropic sneer of the punk movement, and Rum Sodomy & the Lash is widely regarded as their opus. You'd file this album under the former category before the latter, obviously (banjos, bagpipes, tin whistles, and accordions do not a punk album make), but the music's nihilistic attitude displays a serrated edge of the sort not seen in mellower pub-rock bands like Weddings Parties Anything and the Men They Couldn't Hang. (On the other side of the spectrum, however, the band's reverence for their Irish heritage comes through in a subtlety that's missing from copycat bands like Black 47.) And that's not to mention the slurred, cranky vocal stylings of frontman and orthodontic cautionary example Shane MacGowan, which are more akin to the dazed ramblings of Dee Dee Ramone than the Clancy Brothers. On the ballad "The Old Main Drag," for example, after having spent several taxing minutes attempting to sing, he finally just spits out the final line in a disgusted monotone as the song eases to a close. MacGowan's gruff muttering, whether sounding nearly plaintive in slower numbers or taking on a pummeling insistence in uptempo songs like the magnificent "The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn," always has a magnetic screw-this quality that's a big part of the Pogues' appeal.

Far from being a sloppy album, however, Rum Sodomy & the Lash contains some of the most disciplined, tight performances I've ever heard within this genre. Downcast ballads like "A Pair of Brown Eyes" are performed with the same clarity of focus that the band employs on stompers like "Wild Cats of Kilkenny," an instrumental that showcases the Pogues' nimble skills without being self-indulgent about it. (The detail-oriented production of Elvis Costello helps, too- little touches like a well-timed tambourine hit can make a world of difference here.) You should pretty much know whether you'll like this album or not before you hear it; though there are fruitful detours into the realm of sea chanties and spaghetti western themes, you probably won't have much use for it if you're not the sort of person who digs the gloomy beauty and pigheaded resilience of Irish folk music. I personally could've done with more fierce, original anthems and fewer re-arranged interpretations of traditional songs, but the band's bizarrely jaunty pessimism keeps Rum Sodomy & the Lash compelling throughout. Grade: A-






Willie's comments: Minimalist techno is an acquired taste. I’m not speaking of ambient techno- as Brian Eno proved to fascinating effect, ambient music can have any number of things happening at once, just very slowly. Minimalist techno, of the type proffered by Pole and Pan Sonic, has very little going on at any given time, and it takes a while to get used to. Take Pole's debut CD. The album’s percussion and forward momentum come from samples of record static (those little buzzes and pops that you can hear when you put a needle on the silent portions of a record), arranged rhythmically. Only the occasional bass line or melody is added to this, and it gets a trifle old after 40 minutes, interesting and relaxing though it is. There's really not much else I can say about it because there's really not much else there, but it's a successful experiment on the whole. Basically, it’s not an album anyone would go out of their way to buy, but if it appeared in your CD collection one day, it’d be one of your favorites. Grade: B+



Robert Pollard


Not In My Airforce

Willie's comments: This first solo album by Guided By Voices singer/songwriter Pollard consists of a few tunes that are up to GBV's amazingly catchy, lo-fi standards (including "Girl Named Captain," which surpasses any song GBV had thus far recorded except "The Official Ironmen Rally Song"), but mostly, it's a lot of minute-long throwaways and scraps that never needed to be released. The majority of the album isn't tuneful or catchy or even interesting or listenable- it's just lazy noodling. Bah. Go buy Tobin Sprout's Carnival Boy, which was released simultaneously with this offering, instead. Grade: C





Dear 23

Willie's comments: The Posies bake crispy folk-rock that is sometimes as anthemic and pretty as any you could hope for. On this album, the standouts are the perfect, infectious “Golden Blunders” and the jazzy “Mrs. Green.” Too often on Dear 23, however, the band takes themselves too seriously (like on the humiliating “You Avoid Parties”) and wind up sounding like Guster or Kenny Loggins or somebody. I understand the Posies got more of an edge later in their career, so maybe you should start there. Grade: B-




Possum Dixon


Possum Dixon

Willie's comments: Oh, to be a college student back in 1993... Listening to the debut album from Possum Dixon, it's easy to imagine the advertisement, posted on a campus bulletin board along with countless ads for roommates, that resulted in the band's four-person lineup: "WANTED: Drummer and guitarists for undergrad indie-style rock band. Possible names: Hoover Blanket, Possum Dixon, The Last Picture Pages, Los Pantalones Guapos. To be determined. Influences: Pixies, Femmes, noisier Camper, tuneful King Missile. Sound: eclectic, yet with major focus on guitar-oriented pop; not so much focus on melody (I'm the singer, can't really sing). Attitude: kind of smug and disdainful, but in a poppy way. MUST HAVE OWN TRANSPORTATION. Contact Rob Zabrecky, bass." It's a familiar enough formula, and the band whips out a number of good songs without ever coming across a great one, though the two that come the closest are the lengthy, exasperated "Invisible" and "Watch the Girl Destroy Me," which is like a more muscular version of Blind Melon's "No Rain". It's an alright album. No real complaints except the utter lack of memorable songs; it's agreeable enough while it's going. If, like me, you were too young to participate in the overeducated collegiate scene of the early '90s, Possum Dixon can help you revel in nostalgia for a life you never knew- a time when you could turn on the radio and hear mediocre college rock bands like this one (or the Pursuit of Happiness or the Spin Doctors or...) who weren't actively awful like the Puddle of Mudds of today. (And I've phrased the band's name that way just to anger William Safire.) Grade: C+


The Postal Service


Give Up

Willie's comments: There are gripers out there (there are always gripers) who've written Death Cab for Cutie off as just another overeducated, oversensitive indie-rock band that relies on generically competent song constructions because they can't write songs that are truly gripping or memorable. And while the current hipster scene certainly has no shortage of such bands (Pedro the Lion, Beachwood Sparks, Cursive, etc.), those of us who are perfectly happy riding around in the Death Cab know that they totally don't deserve to be lumped into that category. Ben Gibbard's endearingly awestruck-sounding voice and his band's emo-via-R.E.M. aesthetic might not churn out regular doses of "Hey ho! Let's go!" catchiness, but theirs is a subtle, melodic approach to rock that perfectly suits Gibbard's under-celebrated lyrical poetry. If that's enough for some people to call Death Cab's talent into question, well, they probably don't deserve the band's pleasures anyway, but Gibbard's side project The Postal Service at least ought to shut them up. A record assembled via mail- hence the band's name- with Jimmy Tamborello, the electronics programmer behind Dntel and spiffy electro-pop band Figurine, Give Up is a collection of infectious new wave-based pop songs that prove Gibbard could be aiming for the top of the singles chart all the time if he wanted to. And if we lived in 1983, when these songs might've had a chance for airplay beyond hip college campuses.

Though Gibbard and Tamborello are obviously having a blast tipping their hats to the Human League, Missing Persons, and early Pet Shop Boys here, the music isn't a straight replica a la that Bloodhound Gang single from a couple years ago. The focus is on unpretentious analog synth noises, the occasional sample, and electronic percussion that's obviously born of a post-Mu-Ziq mindset, and it's all fun and occasionally a tad kitschy, but the formula simply harkens back to the '80s without getting cheeseball about it. "Nothing Better," for instance, is a reverent homage to the Human League's "Don't You Want Me" (right down to the part of the sensible woman who is moving on, portrayed with just the right amounts of tenderness and firmness by Jen Wood), but instead of an anthemically empty-headed chorus, the Postal Service opts instead for a bittersweet bridge that maturely cautions, "Your heart won't heal right if you keep tearing out the sutures." It helps a lot that Gibbard's lyrics have never been more specific or heartfelt, whether he's resignedly admitting romantic defeat in "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" or penning a sweetly hyperbolic lovesong with "Such Great Heights" (a fantastic single whose driving bassline and cheerful bleepiness finds both men at the top of their game). And the boys know the benefit of downtime on an album packed with so many pop gems, whether it's in the form of flighty slow tunes like "Sleeping In" or a bizarre lurker like "This Place is a Prison." In anyone else's hands, a one-off project like this would be little more than an excuse to dredge up old '80s cliches; the fact that Gibbard and Tamborello have built Give Up into something as substantive and frequently moving as it is simply shows that they've got the sort of creative staying power that's rare in the indie world. Annoying hipster following notwithstanding, this is the sort of album that should be packaged with an attractive, smart member of your preferred gender to hold you while you listen to it. Grade: A







Odyssey Number Five

Willie's comments: Like Natalie Imbruglia, Powderfinger is an Aussie act who specializes in somewhat a bastardized (which is to say, Americanized) version of the distinctly Australian rock pioneered by such artists as the Finn brothers, Hunters & Collectors, Dave Dobbyn, and Paul Kelly. Also like Ms. Imbruglia, Powderfinger is a band that is never willing to settle for subtlety when they could pound you with a cliche wrapped in a pseudo-anthemic chorus. Where Powderfinger differs from Natalie, however, is in their sound (Pearl Jam-esque sludge as opposed to sprightly pop) and the simple fact that they are five normal-looking men whose artistic shortcomings can't be redeemed by any sort of cutie-pie charm. Odyssey Number Five, their first LP available in the US, isn't so generic as to be useless- though the scruffy single "My Happiness" seems destined to be unceremoniously plunked onto a teen-movie soundtrack between cuts by Smash Mouth and Missy Elliott- but the band wears their influences like a secondhand suit of armor, not allowing any original ideas to peek through. Unless your CD collection already contains such Aussie-rock masterpieces as Crowded House's Together Alone or Weddings Parties Anything's They Were Better Live, you can wait to buy this one at least until you see it used. Grade: B-


Brad Langoulant writes: Cheers for reviewing Powderfinger, i didnt think anyone knew who they were outside of Australia. I hope that changes

Some of the stuff you said i defintely disagree with you about, Powderfinger are a very original band, they play all original tunes and no covers so that makes them original, they may not have any groundbreaking new musical ideas but when the music is that good who really cares, there able to find a good mix between Ausie pub rock and well contructed pop music.

Anyway I was a little disapointed with the fact that you gave them a crap review but then i noticed you also gave Abbey Road a crap review so i came to the conclusion that you guys are very extremely hard reviewers

1 more things about the Powderfinger review This isnt the best Powderfinger album and the least rocking album that theve made, but is still brilliant


Prefuse 73


Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives

Willie's comments: The best bits of Prefuse 73's (one of Scott Herren's recording monikers) electronic hip-hop collages are like musical sandstorms, with dozens of millisecond-long samples and noises all spiralling around and ricocheting off one another in a way that could conceivably blast the flesh off your face. On his first full-length, tracks like "Nuno" and "Point to B" chop up other rappers' vocal tracks into individual phonemes which are then pasted back together in ways that sound like some sort of moon language, but that make their own sort of strange sense when attached to soundscapes made from breakbeats, strings, horns, and whatever else the artist can get his hands on. Difficult as that may sound to process, though, the beats and themes of the tracks serve as a helpful, rotating bingo cage in which all the other madness rattles around without ever spilling out and making a big, hopeless mess. It's fairly accessible, inotherwords, regardless of whether Prefuse is going for a semi-pastoral mood, as on "Afternoon Love In," or for perfectionistic sensory overload like "Radio Attack." Vocal Studies does falter somewhat when Herren pulls an UNKLE and brings in outsiders like MF Doom ("Black List") and The Sea and Cake's Sam Prekop ("Last Night") to lay down straightforward vocal lines, behind which he almost timidly sketches his arrangements. Ultimately, though, this is a success of "why didn't I think of that?" inventiveness: why did it take so long for someone to so creatively adapt the electronic liquefy-and-paste technique that has long been a staple of IDM artists like Aphex Twin and Venetian Snares for hip-hop? The answer: who cares? Prefuse 73 does it better than anyone else would've anyway. Grade: A-



Presidents of the United States of America


Presidents of the United States of America

Willie's comments: You have to be in just the right mood to listen to this album: Not just in a good mood, but you have to be ecstatic, lest PUSA’s boundless energy and good-naturedly dumb sense of humor should start to get on your nerves. In that respect, listening to this album is like babysitting a five-year-old. It’s packed with simple, semi-punky pop nuggets that stick to your brain like flypaper (for how many weeks was “Lump” stuck in your head?), while Chris Ballew chatters on about bugs, food, and how much fun it is to play music. The band is at their best when they embrace the innocent fun of songs like “Peaches” and “Dune Buggy,” rather than getting cynical, like on “Naked and Famous.” It’s undeniably fun, but you may need to cool off with an Eno record afterward. Grade: B



Willie's comments: The band’s second album is long on eclecticism, but short on the hooks that marked their debut. “Volcano” is the catchiest song the band ever wrote, in which Ballew’s wordplay borders on clever (“Hi-fi heat wave/ Lo-fi lava cave/ That sulfer smell is/ Mount St. Helens/ Pompeii was yellin’!”), and “Mach 5” and “Toob Amplifier” are up to the band’s standards of wide-eyed whimsy, but the bluesy “Puffy Little Shoes” and Primus-esque “Froggy” are pretty irritating. It’s an album that’s impossible to hate, but hard to wholeheartedly recommend, either. Grade: B-




Mark Prindle


Nature's Smelly Ass: Maxell Audiocassettes' 1998 Fall Sampler

Willie's comments: Exhibiting all the same traits that make his music reviews the single most important documents of gonzo criticism on the Internet, the first solo album from Mark Prindle is a flaming flea market of overkill, sophomoric humor, self-indulgence, God Ween Satan-esque genre riffs, pop-culture references, noise, profanity, and free association, yet somehow still focused and disciplined enough to keep you listening and leave you feeling as though you've experienced something revelatory. Before I go any farther, though, I must address the issue of sound quality, because it's a problem that has dogged Mark ever since this album's release: I purchased this album upon its initial pressing (which is to say, when Mark burned me a copy in 1998), and got through it exactly twice. The entire album was recorded on a four-track in Mark's NYC apartment, which is not in and of itself a bad thing, but the original copies of the album were so poorly mixed it was unlistenable. Guitars were distorted into asteroid belts of fuzz, the vocals were buried beneath a tinny drum machine, and all the levels sounded as though they'd been pushed so far into the red the mixing board must have resembled a menstruating Noid. (It's hard not to say things like this when you're reviewing a Prindle album. Sorry.) However, in 2002, Mark remastered this and his subsequent two albums, and I cannot overstate the difference this makes. Suddenly, what was once vaguely rhythmic feedback has morphed into identifiable melodies, inventive guitar lines, and actual songs to boot! If your only experience with Mark's music is via one of the original versions of these albums, I urge you to upgrade your Prindle discography as soon as possible, because you cannot appreciate the quality of his music in the previously available format.

Which is not to say the production is otherwise without problems. Most of these songs lack a proper bottom end, which is fine for calmer numbers like the stewing "Trading Card Shenanigan" and the flighty "Smearing Sperm Whale Secretion All Over My Face"- where the guitar and faux-exotic rhythm are highlighted, respectively- but the ineffectual drum machine and not-bassy-enough bass render hardcore tracks like "Ging Hoopy- Runnin' Fast" and "Acid Rules" little more than flaccid demos of promising songs. Once you get used to the negative-fidelity sounds you're hearing, however, you can start to appreciate Prindle's unique ear for tones, chord progressions, and harmonies that seem to draw inspiration from every rock album Mark has ever heard. For example, one might not expect much subtlety on an album that contains lyrics like "Burger King said, 'Have it your way'/Well, I want half a pickle/Manager says he can't do that for me/Well, that's the last time I'm chewing his dickle," but check out the evocative, E-bow based "Furnished with a Caboose" or the sturdy two-guitar intro to the catchy "Suicide is Truly the Only Solution" (that sounds like R.E.M.'s "Feeling Gravitys Pull" on crack). Most of all, no matter highbrow you think your sense of humor is, there is an easygoing-but-persistent attempt on Prindle's part to make you bust out laughing every fourth or fifth song, at least. If the lyrics don't do it for you, he'll get you with throwaway gags like the cheesy handclap sounds before the verse of the punky "Joe the Sucky McDonald's Guy," or the hilarious way he freaks out while singing the punchline of "I Like Those Things That I Turn to Tune My Guitar." Like Touch Me Zoo's similarly overstuffed Wonderwear Music, Nature's Smelly Ass is an album that could have used some pruning (most of the hardcore tracks, and almost everything after the cheeky "Ornette Coleman's Dancing in Your Head" could be cut, really), but there are few things more satisfying in the independent rock world than the sounds of an artist embracing the genre's freedom to whip musical darts at a wall, just for the fun of seeing what hits its target and what doesn't. One of those things is when there's actually as impressive a hit-to-miss ratio as Mark exhibits here. Grade: B


Keep on Zaccin'!: Songs from and Inspired by Mystical Excursions on the Experimental Hallucinogen "Prozac" (Fluoxetine)

Willie's comments: With Keep on Zaccin's opening track, the five-minute "Separation of the Components of a Mixture," Prindle announces that his songwriting has taken a newly traditional turn: the song is satisfyingly twisty, but maintains an accessible pop structure free from the topsy-turvy japery of his previous record. Then, with the matter-of-fact flip-flopping of a New York Times editorial correction, Mark spends the next 70 minutes nullifying that announcement by diving even farther into experimental hyperactivity than before. It's mostly amazing, too- over the course of 65 tracks (most less than a minute and a half long), all commonly-held notions about what constitutes a "song" are challenged, squashed, or simply ignored, and you're left with a big hopeless pile of hooks that teasingly vanish before they have a chance to hook you, ear-burningly weird noise clusters, and melodies that eat themselves alive. Lest my description should make Zaccin' sound like a lengthy, "Revolution 9"-esque exercise in random sounds, though, let me assure you that the entire record is closer in tone and spirit to early Butthole Surfers, They Might Be Giants' "Fingertips," and the Thinking Fellers' whimsical muckery than to any self-indulgent post-rockers you'd care to name. (The endearingly strange "Avant-Garde? No! Stupid and Boring!" should silence any naysayers.)

Ultimately, the wondrous thing about Zaccin' is that it is less a cohesive album than a fascinating collection of musical moments, all strung together in a feat of channel-surfing hysteria. The catchy "My Songs Would be Significantly Less Sucky If I Bothered to Save Up for More Powerful Recording Equipment" is undercut by the furious "Internet Pornography Gives My Boner an Erection" (great Gibby Haynes impression on that one), which immediately bottlenecks into the ominous, flanger-powered "Spooky Guy with a Mustache," which, in turn, is contradicted by Brenda Aske Prindle (Mark's wife) belting out the merry "Dogs Galore!" and so on. There is a certain overreliance on the four track's speed control knob here, which seems to substitute for inspiration on a dozen or so tracks, and the album bogs down a bit in the middle, with too much noisy bluster that feels like a mental gangbang after awhile. However, when you've got innumerable moments of genius (the backing vocals on "I Suck a Big Ol' Peen," or the terrifically stupid "A Hilarious Riddle Which Begins as Follows: 'What Do You Call a Person Whose Diet Consists Solely of Jack Russell Terriers?'" to name a couple) scattered throughout the disc, you won't mind sifting through a little bit of rubble. Grade: A-


Stop, Drop and Roll: A Musical Celebration of Death by Smoke Inhalation

Willie's comments: A delerious concept album whose concept was stolen from a rumored-but-never-attempted Byrds project, Stop, Drop and Roll is, quite simply, the history of rock 'n' roll in 55 songs. Sort of. Mark's slap-happy journey begins with the zygotic, scratchy-voiced blues of "Talkin' Lemon Devil Woman Blues (and Chicago, in Addition)" and concludes with a beautiful murmur of a song ("The Post-Man Only Rings Untrue") that might be a gentle nudge at Yo La Tengo. The intervening tracks grab ahold of nearly every musical fad you can think of, and then eviscerate them all with the simultaneous respect and irreverence of an entymologist pinning insects to a display case. "Why Must I be a Teenager ( )?" takes doo-wop to its logical conclusion by whimpering for a few minutes before simply devolving into goofy mouth noises. The hilariously titled "Jesus Loves I, Yes Me Know" is a rastafarian middle finger to Jah. "Hot Rockin 2Nite (Live)" manages to send up every lazy arena rock act the '70s and '80s produced by simply laying a series of fake band member introductions overtop of a tinny sample of a cheering crowd (listen close at the end for a spiffy Peter Frampton joke, too). You get the idea. Of course, Mark's production limitations ensure that the songs never quite duplicate the production style of, say, Motown or prog rock, but this also ensures that Mark's unique stamp remains on each song, and not just because of titles like "My Penis Goes in Your Daughter's Vagina." I, for one, have never heard a genuine rockabilly song that I didn't find intolerable, but the distorted bassline on "Rock 'Til You Trop," coupled with its killer chorus, trump Chuck Berry's entire discography for me, and make this my favorite Prindle song to date.

The challenge in taking on this project- which I imagine was the reason that prodded the Byrds to abandon it- is not only in producing identifiable replicas/parodies of dozens of musical styles, but in making each song genuinely good; the sort of thing you'd want to listen to more than once for a giggle. So not only do I give Mark a mastadonic amount of credit for even attempting this feat (which simply would not work if he wasn't well-versed in nearly every type of music since the days when people were recording samples for Moby), but the fact that the album contains any number of truly great songs lands it squarely in the pantheon of underground rock miracles. The smirky, three-part prog fantasia "Gazing Through the Shadows of Eternity," for instance, is extremely well-constructed and addictive, even as Mark mockingly sings about "mantra and yantra all having a solid foundation in reality." There's still a plethora of pointless noise and undercooked songs here ("Spastic Penguin Guy" particularly rankles me), but it's futile to gripe about that stuff by this point, and it's also overshadowed by the eye-popping songwriting range exhibited here. And true, Stop, Drop and Roll can't quite duck the "novelty" label in the end, but Mark is unpretentious- and learned- enough to know that "novelty masterwork" isn't necessarily an oxymoron. Grade: A-


Only the Good Die Young: An All-Star Tribute to Mark Prindle (1973-2058)

Willie's comments: Allow me to digress for a moment, if you will. (Since you're currently reading reviews of Mark Prindle albums, I have a feeling you will.) In one of my film classes a few years ago, we watched a short film entitled A Movie by Bruce Connor. As the film begins, it appears to be nothing more than an America's Funniest Home Videos-esque highlight reel composed of stock footage: people falling off of things, people falling into things, and people otherwise getting creamed. It's all very amusing in a lowbrow way... until the accidents start becoming increasingly violent, and it becomes apparent that what you've been watching- and laughing at- is a montage of people actually dying on film. That moment of horrifying realization is made all the more appalling by the knowledge that you were, seconds earlier, chuckling at the misfortune of these individuals, and in pulling the humor out from under you in such a harrowing way, Connor's work hits you on a visceral level ten times worse than what it might have been if he'd just introduced it as a bunch of snuff film clips.

I bring up A Movie only because Mark achieves a similarly risky and gut-wrenching feat with Only the Good Die Young: it's a concept album about his lifelong battle with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and although it's frequently hysterical, the entire disc is permeated with so much of Mark's pain that the laughter is defensive and uncomfortable. For an hour and 15 minutes, Mark unflinchingly details every aspect of his life that has been affected by OCD, from his experiences with unhelpful psychiatrists to childhood superstitions, from mundane experiences with roaches to the surreal terror of the World Trade Center attacks. All this is presented for your consumption without a whiff of self-consciousness- and the unrelenting sadness can make it rough going at times- but as hopeless as things can get, Mark never lets self-pity drown the project. A few hilarious songs like "Add Your Thoughts? (Fuck Yourself?)" (a parody of R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It" that culminates in perhaps the greatest inside joke ever written) plow along with a surprisingly positive tone, given the subject matter, and occasional interludes like "Henry Henry Mr. Chew" (Brenda's rewrite of the Pinwheel theme song) lighten the mood a little as well. However, this is nevertheless one of the most difficult records I've ever heard.

Musically, Only the Good Die Young puts Mark's lo-fi antsiness to its best use yet. Although noisy guitar experiments like "I'm a Rebel! (A Fashion Rebel)" aren't far removed from the laughing-gas weirdness of Zaccin', here the chaos and unsteady hooks add up to an expressionistic typhoon of sensory overload that's entirely appropriate to these snippets of mental torment. That's not to say that there aren't catchy moments here- "P.O.W. (Prisoner of Wobbery)" and "Irish Eyes are Smiling (at My Wongdong Sweet Poontong)" are more memorable than anything Dashboard Confessional will ever turn out- but the focus is more on the sounds of synapses misfiring than on Nissan commercial fodder. (I will say, however, that I wish Brenda would electrify Mark's speed-control knob to deliver a harmless but memorable shock every time he touches it from now on...) It's unlikely you'll get through this album in one sitting- it's the most personal and specific artistic statement you'll ever hear, and the intimacy with which Mark invites you to try and understand his plight can be shocking- but it's worth working through. I hope to God that this exercise was somehow helpful or cleansing for Mark, because he obviously put so much of himself into it, but at the very least, I hope he can take some comfort in having created one of the ballsiest albums I've ever had the pleasure of listening to. (And I'm not just speaking about the number of times the word balls appears throughout.) Grade: A


Smilehouse: The Tragic Remains of an Abandoned Masterpiece

Willie's comments: Five years elapsed between Mark's initial, aborted attempt to create an album of fancily-arranged, relatively high-fidelity songs on his new digital 16-track machine and when he spent a weekend revisiting and completing them in 2007. Thus, Smilehouse's parody component mocks the classic rock phenomenon of half-assed "lost sessions" discs in which each song is issued a parenthetical cop-out like "(edit)," "(dub)," or "(BBC session)" to disclaim any suggestion of musical quality. (The copy Mark sent me was housed in a reused, green-tinted Rykodisc jewel case, for a very funny and subtle touch of authenticity.) Fortunately, the songwriting itself doesn't skimp on any of the attributes that made albums like Zaccin' such a gas, with the usual Zoogz Rift-style guitar noise, clever harmonies, still-funny poop jokes, and odes to Henry the dog enlivened by the newly crisp sound quality. My favorites include the creepy toy-based hard rock of "XYLODARK," the breathless guitar jingle "FASTCLEANS," and the Tom Waits/Jim White swamp noir of "SHIFTYLIFTY," but every listener is welcome to find his own standouts. And you'll find plenty. Without the limitations of the four-track (and his sometimes distracting need to comment on the limitations of the four-track), Mark seems more comfortable following through on his ideas' potential rather than straining to make a bang and then bailing. A gentle silliness creeps into tracks like "VIOLINS" and "INSTRUMENTAL," which are absurd musical skits closer to Pleaseeasaur or the Bonzo Dog Band than to nastier amusements like "DEADFAG" and the spot-on Jello Biafra parody "ERASE3458" (which nails not only the erstwhile Dead Kennedys frontman's voice but his insistence on bleating every sophomoric "insight" that occurs to him). As always, not every experiment works, not every 96-second blowout connects, and not every gag elicits a giggle, but an impressive percentage still do, and without the blurred edges that previously hampered the hooks, there's a certain, admittedly rare light in which Smilehouse could almost be called "accessible." Grade: A-



The Prom

In This Way They Found Me

Willie's comments: Sounding like an exceptionally talented opening act for Ben Folds Five, the Prom's debut album gets a long way on the absence of guitars. I don't know whether this is because so many bands use the guitar as a crutch, and eschewing the instrument forces them to invent new musical schematics, or whether it's just that every band has a guitar, so you're automatically going to sound different if you don't use one, but it works. To fill the musical void between their rhythm section and James Mendenhall's voice, the Prom stuffs their songs with piano and, most entertainingly, scratchy Moog noises that sound as blissfully satisfying on the Prom's rock songs as they do in Stereolab's art-lounge drones. The stomping "Atama Transmission," for instance, is buoyed immeasurably by the analog keyboard noises, turning a serviceable (if generic) tune into a giddy hook parade. The more laid-back numbers on In This Way They Found Me do tend to overshadow the peppier tracks, if only because the Sloan-esque slow-motion arrangements and gorgeous melodies of "…To the Boat" and "Shiver Holds" achieve the same understated majesty as time-lapse photography. That's not to say that the upbeat numbers aren't also great; no one with ears should be able to resist the infectious "Carrie" (which is catchy enough to distract you from the fact that the song is an unintentionally creepy romantic ode to a high school girl, like Travis's "U16 Girls" with whiny sincerity in place of nudge-nudge humor). I never went to an actual prom in high school ("legalized prostitution," as Jen called it), but even without having that as a frame of reference, I can say without fear of error that sitting and listening to the dulcet tones of the Prom is infinitely more rewarding than actually attending one. Grade: B+

Saloon Song EP

Willie's comments: This three-song EP was co-produced by Death Cab for Cutie's guitarist/producer/genius Chris Walla, and it shows. Not only in the newly powerful production (while In This Way They Found Me doesn't sound bad by any means, no one is even given a credit for having produced that album, which should say something about how many seams are visible on that one), but in Death Cab's influence on the song "Now and Then." The song is a beautiful piano ballad, but its melodic patterns (rhombuses instead of typical rock-song squares) are obviously modeled on Walla's band. Not that I'm complaining, mind you; it's still a heartstopper of a song. "Saloon Song" itself is a fine rocker which proves that the Prom's talent can't be dimmed even by succumbing to the tradition of a prominently featured guitar, and then there's the "sleepy version" of In This Way's "Jean Alexander Waltz," which doesn't sound remarkably different from the album version. The whole shebang is only nine minutes long, which is a touch underwhelming (if an EP is less than 20 minutes long, I can't help wondering why they bothered releasing it), but one hopes that the Prom's partnership with Walla continues, because Saloon Song bodes well for their next album. Grade: B-



The Pseudonyms

Rhododenron's Left Home

Willie's comments: You know how they always say that everyone who listened to the Velvet Underground in the '60s and '70s went out and formed a band? Well, my theory is that everyone who listened to They Might Be Giants in middle school wound up spending hours upon hours fiddling with tape decks, writing self-consciously goofy/clever lyrics, and applying the DIY principles of punk to dorky, sing-songy pop songs of their own design. I know it's true of myself and all my friends, and now the Pseudonyms have further added credence to my hypothesis. The Pseudonyms are the home recording project of Steve Knowlton (multi-instrumentalist and webmaster of the underappreciated Steve & Abe's Record Reviews) and Ian Kabell (lead vocalist), and listening to one of their albums will fulfill your recommended annual allowance of quirky. On this, their sixth album, the duo's boundless energy is alternately infectious and taxing, and how you ultimately respond to it depends on your innate tolerance for intentionally overwrought metaphors, silly singing voices, and songs about goldfish, mid-Michigan suburbs, and one's parents.

It's the middle one that really gets to me, frankly. Though a lack of technical singing ability isn't usually that off-putting for me (I am, after all, a fan of the Pastels, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Freedy Johnston), Kabell sings nearly every song with an exaggerated, Heywood Banks-esque southern accent in addition to missing a lot of notes, and that gets pretty grating pretty quickly. In fact, a lot of the songs don't seem to have any real vocal melody at all; Kabell just speaks the lyrics in an inflection that rises for one line and then falls the next. (You know that odd "jug" sound that's in all the songs by the 13th Floor Elevators? Imagine if that was the vocal line and you'll have some idea of Kabell's singing approach.) It's a shame that the vocals mortally wound so many songs, too, because the duo's musical talent is firmly in evidence on boppy little songs like "Roast Beef Sandwich," "Violence Can Solve All Your Problems," and "It's a Good Day." The Pseudonyms have a unique talent for song arrangements, as well- the title track is fueled by Knowlton's fascinating marimba/saxophone combination, while "Universe Song" is defiantly cheesy, programmed electro-pop. It's all very smart music, and as basement rock goes, the Pseudonyms write some of the most accomplished songs I've ever heard in that genre, but the sophomoric vocal stylings nevertheless make it a bit of an endurance test. Grade: C

Apotheosis Now

Willie's comments: In 1999, Knowlton and Kabell went into a real recording studio with real backing musicians and decided to re-record their favorite songs that they'd written over the previous 14 years. There's no question that the quality of these recordings is much better than on Rhododendron's Left Home- miscues are fewer, the vocals no longer entirely drown out the quieter instruments, and there are no loud pops into the microphone every time Kabell uses an aspirated P sound- but the studio environment has also forced the band to sacrifice a little bit of instrumental creativity. The songs here mostly chug along to a competent but unremarkable guitar-bass-drums-keys backing, as opposed to the timbre-happy arrangements that were so cool before. Things do pick up a bit on the second half, with the welcome return of Steve's sax on "Singing with the Radio" (a casually terrific song with a truly catchy melody) and a revamped version of "Start Breathing Again" that's aptly breathtaking (never underestimate the emotional impact of synth sweeps, my friends), but I do miss the marimba. Kabell's singing is still a distraction, too, but as a greatest hits compilation, Apotheosis Now does underscore how truly clever the band's lyrics can often be. Knowlton's "Shackin' Up," for example, is a funny relationship song ("We don't want to marry/We know true love's enough/This way when we break up/We each get to keep our stuff"), while Kabell's "If I Should Pass This Way Again" is a sweet breakup song... though you do still get numbers about brain piercing and spontaneous human combustion. I imagine you'd have to be in a very specific (and peculiar) mood for goofy rock songs to ever really get into this album, but on its most basic level, it's an unpretentious, easygoing bunch of songs that provides further evidence that there are still gigantic reserves of unsapped talent in the music world if you know where to seek them out. Grade: C


Steve Knowlton writes: I hate to shoot down your theory, but the Pseudonyms started recording in 1985, long before TMBG were on our radar screen (they have since become a favorite of Ian's, but I can take or leave them.) My theory is that the advent of relatively high-quality, low-price tape recorders for home use during the 1980s made it easier for the type of guys and gals who are unlikely to fit into a bars/dances/proms live music environment to create music on their own (that is, without trying to find other musicians willing to play their songs rather than AC/DC covers), and that those kind of people tend to be just a little intellectual/quirky about their music.

Anyway, thanks for the review. "Shackin' Up" is Jessica's favorite Pseudonyms song.

P.S.: That's Aaron Cook playing the sax on "Apotheosis Now."



Public Image Ltd.


The Greatest Hits, So Far

Willie's comments: If it didn’t seem irritatingly smug and easy, I’d start this review with the following sentence: In PIL, Johnny Lydon may no longer be Rotten, but quite a bit of PIL’s music is. But the fact that I even typed that makes me want to slap myself, so let me just say that the first five songs of this “greatest hits” compilation are garbage. PIL was Lydon’s dance-music project, but “Death Disco” and “Flowers of Romance” in particular are cringe-inducingly atonal, and, I would guess, impossible to dance to. Things pick up with “This is Not a Love Song,” in which Lydon sings hilariously repetitive lyrics in an Adam Sandler whine, all set to a pulsating disco beat. From that point forward, the kinks are ironed out, as “Rise,” “Seattle,” “Warrior,” and “Don’t Ask Me” are superb dance-pop (somewhere between Meat Beat Manifesto and Pet Shop Boys), even though “Rules and Regulations” is really ugly. If you can get past the first five songs, you’re in for a treat. Grade: B-


Nick Leu writes: We have very divergent opinions on this album, you and I(though I would probably give it the same grade as you). See, *I* look at this "greatest hits" thing as a song-by-song portrait of a band's decline. The first half is really catchy, bass driven, idiosyncratic and weird stuff. Love it. But somewhere around "Rise," the band starts treading into overproduced 80's dance pop of increasingly low quality, ending appropriately enough with the album's nadir(lyrically-the song itself isn't so bad), that "don't ask me, I don't know" song. I love "Disappointed" though. So plaintive and melancholy. Whatever.







Willie's comments: Pulseprogramming is an arty electronica consortium who claims five members, though only two of them (Joel Kriske and Marc Hellner) seem to be involved in the actual making of music; I guess the rest of them come into play at their concerts. And they'd probably refer to them as "installations" or "events," if I know my art people. Anyway, their debut album is a placid collection of droney ambient pieces that are hardly essential in anyone's collection, but are nevertheless well-constructed and pleasantly atmospheric if that's what you're in the mood for. The duo is clever enough to keep subtly adding and subtracting elements from songs like "Geometry" so they rise and fall on gentle waves of sound, and their frequent use of distant, echoey feedback as an agent of hypnosis is a neat touch, alongside the more traditional synth tones. However, the final four tracks, "There Aren't," "There Won't," "There Isn't," and "There Never Will Be," tower above the rest of the disc by integrating actual motion and something akin to melodies into the music, without spoiling the sensation of cocoon-like calmness the band's got going. Frankly, once you've heard a track like "There Never Will Be," which brilliantly melds the feedback and held keyboard notes to a To Rococo Rot-style theme that floats in and out, it's hard for a piece like the opener "Line" (literally just a two-minute chord) to sound especially impressive, nice though it may be. It's a fine disc to unwind to, or to meditate to, and it actually sort of makes me want to take up yoga, because I feel really serene when I listen to this album, but I can't see anyone who's not absolute fanatic about ambient music needing to run out and get it right this second. Grade: B


Tulsa for One Second

Willie's comments: The first thing you need to know about Pulseprogramming's second proper album is that the package folds out into a house. It looks like a run-of-the-mill Digipak, but when you open it, it turns into a three-dimensional Happy Meal of a CD holder! It's one of those really cool, gadgety pleasures that I love, so kudos to whichever members of the band are in charge of art direction. Delicious Kudos. Anyway, the audio portion of the album is pretty evenly split between sprightly ambient instrumentals and twisty, moody glitch-pop songs, all of which are infested with satisfying rhythmic tics and thumps running all over the place like trapped centipedes. It would be hard to find a better slice of electronic pop mellowness, in fact, than the opener "Blooms Eventually," which stitches a plaintive, vocoderized melody to a gentle, stuttery arrangement of what almost sounds like Optigan drones. (Think Jimmy Tamborello from the Postal Service remixing Sparklehorse.) None of the other vocal tracks quite reaches those heights, but "Stylophone Purrs and Mannerist Blossoms," for one, conjures a wonderfully haunting atmosphere with its echoey whispers and burbling bassline. Digital blips and skitters abound here, so much so that it sounds like even the synths were sampled and then laboriously chopped up into themes, but the cuts are smooth enough that it's never jarring or dislocating, and on tracks like "Largely Long-Distance Loves," the jumpiness just becomes part of the beat. Ms. John Soda covered this terrain somewhat better on their masterpiece No P. Or D., but the good thing about living in this modern world is that you're allowed to own more than one album that contains this sort of enthralling, futuristic tunefulness. Grade: B+



Punch-Drunk Love soundtrack

Willie's comments: I went to see The Hours yesterday, because I'm one of those dorks who does nothing but bitch and moan about the Academy Awards ("Blah blah where's Philip Seymour Hoffman blah blah I hate Lord of the Rings blah blah blah still can't believe Phil Collins won...") and yet still can't help but get so excited about 'em that I end up going to see most of the nominated films and watching the ceremony in its entirety. Anyway, The Hours was alright. Fine performances except for Nicole Kidman, fine direction, okay dialogue, but oh, the musical score. The score! You know, for someone who's frequently described as a "minimalist," Philip Glass seemed to have no qualms about belting the audience in the head with one of the most intrusive, overwrought scores this side of John Williams. The movie itself was just a little too big for its britches, but the annoying, omnipresent string section was positively megalomaniacal. And yet, Glass earned an Oscar nomination for his efforts, while Jon Brion's far more inventive (and entertaining) score for PT Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love was left a-mouldering among the commoners.

Luckily, you can correct this error in judgement by leaving the Hours CD on your local Sam Goody shelf while picking up this immensely enjoyable disc. Brion is a hot-shot producer guy who used to be in the Jellyfish and has since worked on records by Aimee Mann, Badly Drawn Boy, Rhett Miller, and a host of other popsters who cleverly straddle that line between the indie and the mainstream. And here, he brings his playful arrangements and multi-instrumental talents to a score that's as deceptively lighthearted as the film itself. Though plenty of these tracks are just permutations on the film's sweepingly pretty theme, the disc never really gets repetitive, because Brion is canny enough to tackle styles ranging from sweetly goofy orchestrations ("Punch-Drunk Melody") to supermarket Muzak ("Healthy Choice," which sounds like incidental music from The Sims) with equal effectiveness. Plus, he drops in weirdo interludes like "Hands & Feet," which is an addictive experiment in found percussion and computerized bleeps. It's truly a work of art, as scores go. This CD also adds a few random songs, presumably of Anderson's choice, and although Shelly Duvall's empty-headed "He Needs Me" (originally from the Popeye soundtrack) is a kick, songs by Conway Twitty and Ladies K don't really add much. And, as with any score, it would probably help you to "get" the record if you saw the movie first, because it's going to feel half-finished otherwise, but if you dig memorable, bite-size orchestral pieces and dark whimsy (though not necessarily in a Toys way), you'll definitely want to check this out. Grade: B+