The Sad Little Stars
The Stars Below
Willie's comments: "Good artists copy, great artists steal," goes the rock cliche, and there's more than a kernel of truth in that. Take Ween, for instance. They've developed into two of the best songwriters of our time through the judicious ripping off of various bits of rock history. (I just realized today that "I Saw Gener Crying in His Sleep" is basically a smirky rewrite of Melanie's "Brand New Key," of all things.) However, I'd like to add a disclaimer to that nugget of wisdom: smart artists know where to draw the line. Case in point: the Sad Little Stars, a New York duo (multi-instrumentalist/singer/songwriter Max Low and occasional singer Rachel McIntosh) whose debut album is little more than a fitfully charming document of what happens to musicians who spend too long locked away with the collected recordings of Stephin Merritt. The sugary melodies and modest keyboard/guitar arrangements here might be easy on the ears, but they're audibly calculated to sound like Merritt's brilliant indie-pop compositions in the Magnetic Fields or the 6ths or the Future Bible Heroes. (Not as much attention is paid to his Gothic Archies project.)
Granted, sometimes the Sad Little Stars get by on sheer chutzpah: "Rubber Heart" steals its melody from the bridge of the Magnetic Fields' "I Don't Believe in the Sun" and tacks on a heavenly sea chanty chorus that you'll sing along with in spite of yourself, and "In and Out of Trains" sounds like an inspired outtake from the Fields' The Charm of the Highway Strip. But over the course of an album, it's somewhat wearying- and a touch embarrassing- to hear Low keep trying to ape Merritt's supple baritone, dry wit, and sophisticated pop instincts. Naturally, The Stars Below is at its most engaging when Low lets his other influences shine through. Though there still aren't any new ideas in his homages to Elliott Smith (the beautiful "Don't Fuck With Love"), Frank Black ("I'm Going to Paris to Fall in Love"), and recent Yo La Tengo ("We Were Just Waking Up"), they're performed with the infectious enthusiasm of an obsessive fan, and they also help to break up the one-note Merritt-worship of the rest of the album. If the Stars can step out from the looming shadows of their idols, I could see them cohering into a lovable little twee-pop duo, but The Stars Below is strictly for those who've already purchased all the Series of Unfortunate Events audiobooks and still feel like they don't have enough Stephin Merritt-style pop goodness to satisfy themselves. Grade: B
Max Low writes: Willie, thank you for your review of the stars below.
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Willie's comments: Before the SoundsFamilyre label rose to prominence, there wasn't a lot of spiritual indie rock out there. Neutral Milk Hotel had that one song that goes, "I love you, Jesus Christ!" and the Dead Milkmen's final few albums had a theological bent, but by and large, it's rare to hear an indie band embracing any sort of spirituality. This fact makes Salako's Musicality a breath of fresh air- it's by no means preachy, but there's a religious vein running through this album that lends it an intellectual depth that's often missing in this sort of happy-faced psychedelic pop (the Minders, for example). Song titles like "Come! Follow Me" and "Truth in Me" hint at what's on Salako's collective mind, but it becomes more clear when they recruit a gospel choir to sing the chorus "Follow the light of the Lord" on "Look Left" (a move that might have seemed pretentious if not for the song's ebullient tune). But how is the musicality on Musicality? Terrific. The opener "The Bird and the Bag" borrows a bit from the Beatles' "In My Life" before settling into a hypnotic, metronomic refrain. "Do It Yourself" has subtle hints of electronica, while "Look Right" seamlessly flows back and forth between a marching verse and a waltzing chorus. For an album that works as well as contemplation fodder as it does as sunny driving music, check this out. Salako has produced a revelation. Grade: A
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Saturday Looks Good to Me
All Your Summer Songs
Willie's comments: Saturday Looks Good to Me, a twee-pop collective based in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan and centered around songwriter Fred Thomas, could've been the result some sort of science experiment to synthesize the most concentrated instant indie credibility in all the world. Merging the sweet, backward-looking pop hooks and florid arrangements of Belle & Sebastian (or at least the Pastels) with the flat, lo-fi production of Guided by Voices or Comet Gain, and handing the vocal duties over to a rotating crew that includes a number of slightly-below-the-radar indie-pop names like Tara Jane O'Neil, Ted Leo, Erika Hoffmann, and Jessica Bailiff, Saturday Looks Good to Me is a hipster's dream come true when they're at their best. All Your Summer Songs, their first album on Polyvinyl, glistens with the willful naivete of kids unironically trying to capture the innocent fun of pop music's infancy even though they didn't live through that period. Check out the beach-party vibes of "Underwater Heartbeat," for example, with its groovy saxaphone riff, or the bouncy, heavily reverbed "Meet Me by the Water," or the surprise visits from Mellotrons and glockenspiels throughout: none of it is original (except in the sense that most contemporary nostalgia bands don't set their time machine coordinates for quite so far back in rock history), but it's so unbelievably happy and catchy that who cares? However, it's less easy to enjoy Thomas's cliched excursions into Marty Robbins/Ritchie Valens-style doo-woppy ballady stuff, like "The Sun Doesn't Want to Shine." Unfortunately, he does that a lot in the second half of the album, and although he gets points for sincerity, these songs stop the record dead in its tracks, deflating a lot of the accumulated upbeat charm. Basically, when they keep things under the three-minute mark, Saturday is pop personified; longer than that and it's an incredible drag. Grade: B
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Saturday Morning Cartoons Greatest Hits
Willie's comments: What a great idea! Take the peerlessly catchy theme songs from old, classic cartoon shows and have them performed by college rock heroes of today! Its so brilliant, I wish Id have thought of it. This collection works best when the artists are paired with an appropriate song. Of course the Ramones sound great tearing through Spider-Man, but it was a stroke of genius to have the spastic Violent Femmes perform Eep Opp Ork Ah-Ah from The Jetsons. Matthew Sweet transforms Scooby-Doo, Where are You? into joyous, slick pop, and Liz Phair, the Butthole Surfers, Reverend Horton Heat, and Tripping Daisy fare equally well. Some problems arise, however, when the performance duties are turned over to bands who seem unable to let down their self-important airs. Why let the humorless Sponge cover Go Speed Racer Go, for example? The same goes for Collective Soul, Face to Face, and the Toadies. And why on Earth would talentless surf-rock band Wax be allowed to attempt Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy only months after the release of Ren & Stimpys own superb soundtrack album?! Grade: B
SoulCrusher77 writes: I almost forgot I had this until I ended up digging through my room looking for albums to purge as contribution to my campus radio station's upcoming used cd sale, and accordingly gave it a "moment of truth" spin. In the end, it proved to have just enough winning moments to escape the fate of discs like Ultra by Depeche Mode and both Rob Zombie solo albums. Er anyway, I basically agree with your assessment. The Ramones' rendition of "Spiderman" is the main highlight (somehow Joey Ramone's voice and lyrics like "Is he strong? Listen bud, he's got radioactive blood!" were meant for each other), but also of note for me are The Butthole Surfers' western-theme-music-by-way-of-garage-rock version of "Underdog" and Reverend Horton Heat's surf-punk rendition of the Johnny Quest theme. The main drawbacks are that a few interpetations race way past the line of "fun" and end up somewhere around "so damn twee you feel like someone is shoving an entire box of sickeningly sweet breakfast cereal into your mouth", and as you said, a few bands that seem to be unable to let their overseriousness go even when doing songs about damn cartoon characters. Frente's "Open Up Your Heart And Let The Sun Shine In" is a particularly egregious example of the former (and how the hell did a song about not letting Satan ruin your day end up on the Flinstones anyway? Is BC in fact not the only instance of prehistoric cave-people anachronistically accepting Jesus Christ as their personal savior? Eh, makes about as much sense as aliens showing up anyway), and Collective Soul's contribution is the most extreme case of the latter, although it does have a bit of unintentional comic value. Ed Roland trying to invest all the overblown drama of that shitty "world that I know" song into the theme for a Sid And Marty Kroft production about a band of ethnically diverse teenagers with fake antennae is just so hillariously wrong somehow.
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Schoolhouse Rock Rocks!
Willie's comments: Like the far superior Saturday Morning Cartoons Greatest Hits (see above), this compilation features modern bands interpreting songs from an old cartoon. The difference, however, is that the hippie-ish songs from Schoolhouse Rock haven't aged nearly as well as, say, the Spider-Man theme song, and to the ears of '90s listeners, the songs sound impossibly stupid. Ween, naturally, pulls off "The Shot Heard 'Round the World" well, because they groove on stupid-sounding melodies, and Pavement wisely recasts "No More Kings" as a typically great Pavement song, but they're the exceptions. Compounding the problem is the fact that many of the bands on this compilation do their best to emphasize how ironic it is that they- an angst-ridden artist- are performing a song from a didactic children's program of long ago. Chavez, Moby, Goodness and the Lemonheads (featuring Gibby Haynes, no less!) are all guilty of this, but the biggest offender is the Deluxx Folk Implosion. In their performance of "I'm Just a Bill," frontman Lou Barlow speaks his part in a disaffected slacker voice that's so dripping with sarcasm that you'll want to slap him. I kept thinking of the Simpsons parody of that song, "An Amendment to Be," and Bart and Lisa's reaction to watching this drivel:
LISA: "It's a campy '70s throwback that appeals to Generation X."
BART: "We need another Vietnam to thin out their ranks a little."
After listening to Schoolhouse Rock Rocks!, I couldn't agree more. Grade: D+
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The Sea and Cake
Willie's comments: It was an inspired stroke on someone's part to form a band that contains both Archer Prewitt and John McEntire. Both are talented multi-instrumentalists- Prewitt from the Coctails, McEntire from the influential Tortoise- and both are adept at forging lengthy, shape-shifting instrumental numbers that rely on rhythm and timbre as much as melody to stick in your head. What doesn't make sense, however, is why all the material released by that band, the Sea and Cake, should be so monochromatic. Obviously, Sea and Cake frontman Sam Prekop has something to do with it, because his specialty seems to be leisurely pop tunes with two-note vocal melodies that are practically whispered. That puts a bit of a fence around the talents of Prewett and McEntire.
Oui is the sixth release by the band, but from the information I've gathered from friends, it's not only representative of the rest of the band's work, but it's more consistent on the whole as well. "Afternoon Speaker" and "Everyday" are particularly effective lounge-rock pieces, with pleasant guitars and keyboards that seem to be politely stepping out of one another's way as the tunes move forward. However, you're likely to lose track of the fact that you're even listening to an album around "Two Dolphins," and you probably won't remember until the sudden silence that occurs after the end of "I Missed the Glance." I myself have attempted to give Oui a close listen about five times, and I have yet to make it through without my attention wandering elsewhere. I don't want to say the Sea and Cake is boring per se, because the band has a bubbly tone about it that can be invigorating, but it all just seems too tidy; too uniform to be rock. Pick up Oui if you like, but leave the Sea and Cake at that. Grade: B
Nick Reed writes: I have to say I take issue with the comment "Pick up Oui if you like, but leave the Sea and Cake at that". For some reason Oui became their most popular album...did "Afternoon Speaker" hit it big or something? I think all of TSAC`s albums are at least good, but this simply isn´t the best place to start, and it´s not the best. If it´s your only TSAC album then you´re definetely justified in calling them boring. Not that their sound is typically a whole lot more exciting than this, but they´ve written much more effective material. Their first three albums were all minimal and low-key guitar-based rock music, but they were great at what they did. I´d say The Biz is the best of those, and probably their best overall. The songs are upbeat and hooky, but there´s a very warm quality to it, and the performances are all excellent, especially John McEntire´s drumming which is phenominal. Their second period is where they started to pick up an electronic influence, perhaps wanting to be the next Stereolab or something. It´s produced some of their greatest songs ("Sporting Life", "The Argument", and of course "Afternoon Speaker") but the albums weren´t too consistant until One Bedroom, their 2003 album. I´d recommend that one to you...I think you´d definetely like it, especially since it closes with a great cover of "Sound and Vision". Really not a bad song on that one. So I definetely wouldn´t leave the band at just Oui - it´s not a bad album at all, but it´s their most boring and inconsistant. Just thought you´d like to know ;)
SEE ALSO: COCTAILS
SEE ALSO: TORTOISE
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: PREFUSE 73
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Willie's comments: Sebadohs Lou Barlow has made a career out of giving musical voice to his inner doubts and neuroses, and this is his finest moment- songs like Skull, Magnets Coil, and License to Confuse are razor-sharp indie rock, while the mournfully beautiful Together or Alone is a dolefully catchy tale of Barlows low self-esteem when it comes to matters of the heart, as he mumbles lyrics like These unsure hands could never soothe you/ Im too scared of doing something wrong. Roughly half the album belongs to bassist Jason Lowenstein, however, and his powerful rants like Careful and S. Soup, while substantially rougher than Barlows ditties, are no less infectious. Grade: A-
SEE ALSO: THE FOLK IMPLOSION
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: THE 6THS
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El Baile Aleman
Willie's comments: German electronica artist Uwe Schmidt- best known as Atom Heart, and who recorded the magnificent album Pop Artificielle, a collection of glitch-pop covers of classic rock songs, under the name lb.- has thus far released three semiserious albums of Latin pop under the name Senor Coconut, and this one is probably the most famous. Following El Gran Baile, which is an enjoyable enough album if you're more interested in Latin music than I am, El Baile Aleman is a collection of nine Kraftwerk songs recast in the styles of cha-cha, merengue, baklan, and cumbia, for no apparent reason. Funny as El Baile Aleman can be, though, the transmogrification of Kraftwerk's tunes is absurdly logical enough to transcend the novelty status of joke cover bands like Black Velvet Flag, the Mike Flowers Pops, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, etc. With vibraphones, xylophones, horns, and an assortment of traditional Latin percussion in the place of drum machines and synthesizers, songs like "Showroom Dummies," "Home Computer," and "Tour de France" are never disembowled for humor's sake; they're just kind of affectionately goosed. For instance, "Autobahn" replaces the original's introductory car-revving noises with the sounds of an engine crapping out, and hilariously re-creates the Doppler effect treatments with organic instruments, but it's otherwise more-or-less faithful. A nifty celebratory atmosphere pervades this collection, even on songs like "The Man-Machine" that used to be creepy, and even though there's really no reason for El Baile Aleman to exist, it's immediately and thoroughly lovable. Grade: A-
SEE ALSO: lb.
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Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols
Willie's comments: Almost archetypal in the punk consciousness by this point, the Sex Pistols debut coasts by more on attitude than on intelligent social critique, musicianship, or listenability (save for Anarchy in the UK, which contains all of the above). While its entertaining to hear Johnny Rotten lambast Queen Elizabeth in God Save the Queen or dismiss the entire nations youth culture with the lines Were so pretty/ Oh so pretty... vacant, the posturing wears thin in less energetic numbers like E.M.I. When Bollocks is great, it's great, but taken as a whole... it's probably best to stick with the Ramones. Grade: B
SEE ALSO: PUBLIC IMAGE, LTD.
THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: 120 MINUTES LIVE
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: GOLDEN PALOMINOS
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Willie's comments: Itd be hard to imagine a more dour songwriter than Ron Sexsmith. When lyrics like Pretty little cemetary/ On a summers day/ Walking with my family/ Stopping on the way/ To read the epitaphs and wonder at the graves are the rule rather than the exception, you should know that youre in for a depressing ride. Genius producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake (Crowded House, Soul Coughing, Elvis Costello, infinite others) sometimes add interesting flourishes to lighten the mood, like featuring Sheryl Crow on accordion, but mostly, the production is as sparse and gloomy as the lyrics. Honestly, it would be unbearable to sit through if Sexsmiths voice wasnt so interesting (his mush-mouthed delivery allows you to understand only half of what hes saying) and his folk songs werent so breathtakingly beautiful. Thinly Veiled Disguise is particularly gorgeous, and At Different Times has some invigorating tuba work, but if you need a good folk fix, the whole album is worthwhile. Stay away from it if youre in a good mood, though. Grade: B
Willie's comments: Like Space, the Presidents of the USA, and Jamiroquai, Ron Sexsmith is one of those artists from whom you can get all you need to know about them by owning only one of their albums. After that, it gets pretty redundant. On Whereabouts, Froom and Blake make Sexsmiths downcast songs sound like the work of an entire band rather than a singer-songwriter, and, while that benefits some of the perkier songs like Right About Now, its not so good for Sexsmith as a whole. By robbing him of the stark beauty of Other Songs, Sexsmith gets plopped down into a generic pop-song mudhole without any of his individuality intact. Hes no longer folkish enough to be himself- or even a folk-rocker like Freedy Johnston- but his songs arent catchy enough to be good pop. As a result, Whereabouts winds up sounding like a collection of ponderous Rufus Wainwright B-sides. Grade: C+
Hugues writes: It's incredible to read that. I like the Disclaimer site, which is one of my favorites, but here you miss the point. Totally. "Whereabouts" is a far better record than any other one of Rufus Wainwright (and I love Rufus music as well). Ron's music isn't more redundant than any other one either, if you except the Beatles and a few other bands or artists who were different with each album. This argument of redundance is unfair. I can't understand one can't hear how good these songs are, and they are so good, with each Sexsmith album! To boot, "Whereabouts" is especially my favorite!!
If "Still Time" doesn't give happiness to you, I can do nothing for you. I don't see how I can you make realize how much you miss the point. One thing I know, is that this record and the others of Ron will be, sooner or later, considered as ones of the best in all the pop history, because heartful music is made to stand the test of time, it's written.
THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: KINKS TRIBUTE ALBUM
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE; MITCHELL FROOM
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Truth Walks in Sleepy Shadows
Willie's comments: Barbara Mannings best full-band excursion the SF Seals produced a few relatively cacophonous releases before coming up with this enormously entertaining LP. Barbara is obviously enjoying herself immensely, playing with an entire band, as evidenced by the giddy sea chanty Kids Pirate Ship and the lovable way she screams SF Seals! in the middle of SF Sorrow. Ipecac and Pulp are great indie-girl rock, while How Did You Know? mines Barbaras beloved vein of melancholy blues to detail a crumbling relationship (Always misunderstood/ Silence makes sense faster than I could). Add a few wonderful covers- including a run at John Cales Soul of Patrick Lee which sounds like the best song R.E.M. left off Fables of the Reconstruction- and youve got yourself what may have been 1995s best album. Grade: A+
SEE ALSO: BARBARA MANNING
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Oh, Inverted World
Willie's comments: It almost seems unfair that Shins frontman James Mercer should be able to effortlessly write an entire album full of blissfully hooky, uplifting indie-pop songs and artists like Wilco, Spoon, Elf Power, and The Long Winters can't even be counted on to write one such song per album. Maybe if the Shins ever break up, Mercer can earn some extra scratch by farming his skills out as a musical ghost-writer, like Kurt Cobain was for Courtney Love, or Billy Corgan was for Courtney Love. Let's hope it doesn't come to that, though, because the Shins' debut introduces them as probably the best unpretentious guitar-based pop band to come on the scene since the Pernice Brothers. It's all about the songs with the Shins, and although the arrangements don't go to the ear-candy extremes of Beulah or the New Pornographers, there are plenty of subtle, effective touches that you might not notice for the first few listens, like the French horn(?) in the background on "The Past and Pending" or the shimmery keyboards on the gut-bustingly pretty opener "Caring is Creepy"; it's nothing that crowds out the humble guitar/bass/drum base of the songs, or that detracts from Mercer's truly amazing melodies. The Shins have gotten a lot of Beach Boys comparisons because of this last element, and although there's an obvious Brian Wilson influence in the harmonies and soaring tunes of songs like "Girl Inform Me" and "Your Algebra," Mercer is an infinitely better songwriter. Oh, I'm dead serious: instead of relying on annoying, simplistic repetition for catchiness like Wilson has always done, Mercer's melodies not only stick with you, but are enjoyably complex and carefully constructed in a way that strikes me as inspired as much by R.E.M. as the Beach Boys. This is best exhibited on the perfect, haunting "New Slang," which finds Mercer quietly comparing his loneliness to hemophiliac bakers in a melody that is one of the best you'll ever hear, particularly when he launches into a wordless falsetto atop the song's acoustic guitar-and-bass setup. (The golf-clapping percussion is clever, too.) Oh, Inverted World is a half-hour of simple, summery pop that doesn't pretend to be anything more, but it's so lovingly put-together that it stands out as something special nonetheless. Grade: A
Trevor e.y. writes: I am glad you like Oh, Inverted World so much Will. I too think it is a classic album for our times. I think one reason people overlook this album is because it seems so effortless and easy, but like you said, many other bands can barley make one song an album as good as all the songs on here (though hey now, Spoon is awesome!). Great review though, and I agree with what you say so that makes it even better!
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: THE POSTAL SERVICE
THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE SOUNDTRACK
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Willie's comments: Long before it was de rigueur for American hipsters to affect a fondness for all things Japanese, Shonen Knife was delighting a small cult of fans in the Western world by giving the most immediately gripping aspects of our own rock history back to us, repackaged in a wrapping of innocent playfulness and Ramones-style upbeat rock minimalism. The effect is hilariously dizzying, because there's an enormous amount of cheerfulness baked into each tightly-wound song, complete with lyrics that are bursting with quotable non-sequiturs. For instance, "Bear Up Bison" is a conservation song whose message is tied into lines like "He has a right to live though he's ill, ill, ill-shaped" and a completely random allusion to XTC. "Cycling is Fun" is an invigorating, sweet throwback to Phil Spector's girl-band productions that... pretty much just goes on to say how much fun cycling is. (Answer: lots.) And sometimes those influences extend to outright thievery: "Burning Farm" interpolates the wordless chant from Cannibal & the Headhunters' "Land of 1,000 Dances," "Devil House" is a cheerful rewrite of the Buzzcocks' "What Do I Get?" "Antonio Baka Guy" proudly lurches through Deep Purple's (horrible) iconic "Smoke on the Water" riff, etc. However, there's nothing ironic or cynical to Shonen Knife's borrowed bits; indeed, they employ their favorite classic rock hooks with the enthusiasm of a teenager learning to play a guitar by strumming out the songs she grew up with. Furthermore, although the music is all familiar, songs like "Black Bass" and "I Am a Cat" feature such wonderful harmonies and unexpected melodic turns that they make up in catchiness what they lack in originality. The songs frequently go on longer than they should with so much repetition ("Twist Barbie" is four minutes, "Burning Farm" is five), but Let's Knife has enough perfect moments like the concise "Ah, Singapore" and two versions of "Tortoise Brand Pot Scrubbing Cleaner's Theme" ("The best pot cleaner in the world is specially selected Tortoise brand") that it's forgivable. Plus, what's not to like about an album that has a song called "Flying Jelly Attack"? Grade: B+
Willie's comments: Once again, Shonen Knife come armed with lyrics about food, animals, and love which are utterly charming in their innocence and often brilliant in their simplicity. For instance, take this snippet from the bubbly, Ramones-esque "Concrete Animals": "Generally speaking every park has them/ Commonly they are at the sandbox/ Occasionally they are vandalized by someone." In anyone else's hands, a song called "Brown Mushrooms" would be a thinly-veiled ode to hallucinogens, but in the hands of Naoko Yamano, "In fifteen minutes, they'll become appetizers/ They'll be cut into pieces to be mushroom spaghetti!" Rock Animals isn't as relentlessly cartoonish as their debut, Pretty Little Baka Guy, or even Let's Knife, but the musicianship is far superior- check out the arpeggio on "Butterfly Boy" or the searching melody of "Another Day." "Johnny Johnny Johnny" is evidently a tribute to Devo's "Come Back Jonee," which is unfortunate, since the latter's a pretty crappy song to begin with, but the rest of the album finds Shonen Knife at their best. If there's one thing the band can do, it's transport you to a world of children's picture books while keeping your foot tapping along. Grade: A-
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: SONIC YOUTH
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Willie's comments: You can safely ignore the debut album from Sigur Ros. Though released in 1997, it wasn't available in the United States until 2004, after Agaetis Byrjun and ( ) made post-rock superstars out of them... so I know it's going to be tempting for those of you who gave your heart to the band after their subsequent releases to want to backtrack and see what unheralded treasures Von holds, but the answer is none. No, really. None. There are some okay bits- "Hun Jord" (or thereabouts; I'm not going to bother looking up the character codes for some of the symbols in their song titles, because I am an American and that's the way we are) isn't bad, as it showcases a Mogwai-style aggression that they'd quickly drop- but there's nothing that indicates the truly creative and expressive musical outfit Sigur Ros would quickly become. It's mostly just ambient sound experiments (the clattering hooves and squishing snow sounds of "Mistur" are admittedly pretty cool) and heavily reverbed dreampop mistiness that doesn't utilize Jon Por Birgisson's angelic voice enough, and sometimes just sounds like an even more boring, drawn-out version of the underwritten guitar-based filler on U2's The Joshua Tree. Not much in the way of melodies or song structures; just slow, repetitive notes and noises on tracks that don't even work for Eno-style ambience because they're too generic to be anything but non-entities. In fact, the first time I listened to Von, the RealPlayer program I use at work cut out on me in the middle of the grumbling percussion loop "Verold Ny Og Od," and I didn't even notice the sound was gone for about five minutes. If you really feel like being a completist, I know nothing I say is going to stop you from checking out Von, so instead I guess I'll just hope that you'll re-read this review afterward so I can say, "I told you so!" Grade: C-
Willie's comments: Sigur Ros basically becomes a totally different band here from who they were on Von. They're now a truly amazing group from Iceland whose songs are, appropriately enough, like musical glaciers: they're huge, cold, and beautiful, and they're not in any hurry to get anywhere. They've opened for Radiohead and share a homeland with Bjork, and the influence of both of those artists is evident on Agaetis Byrjun, in their intricately constructed melodies and vaguely ominous arrangements, but Sigur Ros is ultimately their own band. The songs range from the infectiously jazzy "Hjarto Hamast (Bamm Bamm Bamm)" to the uplifting whalesong of "Svefn-G-Englar" to "Vioar vel tl Loftarasa," which wouldn't sound out-of-place on R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People, but they all share the common ingredients of slow, propulsive basslines, distant bubblings of feedback, and Jon Por Birgisson's amazingly supple voice. It's art-rock, make no mistake, but it's endlessly listenable art-rock, and you should definitely check it out if you're into Radiohead or Godspeed You Black Emperor! The only thing that might hamper your enjoyment of this album is not being able to understand a word of what Birgisson is singing, since it's in Icelandic (the lyrics could be as brilliant as Thom Yorke's or as vacuous as Brandy- I haven't been able to find a translation). Listening to this album evokes the same thrilling mixture of boundless freedom and despondent loneliness that you would get from staring out the window on a late-night flight across the ocean. Grade: A+
Willie's comments: Tearing another leaf from Godspeed You Black Emperor's tree, Sigur Ros's second album features neither song titles nor a proper title itself. (I suggest you refer to it in verbal conversation by cupping your hands in the shape of parenthesis whenever the title comes up. And if it does, you either have very cool friends or you are trying too hard to show off to people you barely know.) That's entirely appropriate, however, for a record that plays less like a collection of songs than it does one lengthy, sustained field recording of men who are attempting to conjure sounds more beautiful than are humanly possible. They obviously can't quite hit the utopian note they're audibly striving for, but their sadness at falling a bit short also comes through in the music, making ( ) all the more tragically beautiful. With Birgisson sounding increasingly pained through the mist his bandmates have created, and not much to differentiate one song from the next (there are, somewhat disappointingly, no memorable hooks like "Flugufrelsarinn" or "Hjrarto Hamast" on this album), this record makes a bloody impressive mood piece. Again, the rhythm section tends to move the songs along- however leisurely that motion might be- as guitar, synth, and string notes fade in, shape-shift, and fade out behind it, and the effect is still more cleansing than just about any other band could accomplish. If you're looking for rock, you might want to skip this one, but if you're looking for profoundly moving ambient soundscapes, ( ) can be a cozy little turtle shell for you to crawl inside, turn out the lights, and just soak in. Grade: A-
Steve writes: What I hear is Sigur Ros isn't speaking in Icelandic at all. I hear that they're just making random sounds and it sounds nice. Sure some of the sounds are Icelandic, but they don't actually mean anything.
Marilyn writes: Sigur rós are not making up words, exept in Olsen olsen, this is Icelandic, i am from Iceland, Iceland loves Sigur rós.
Their lyrics are OK not great just fine, just like Thom Yourke´s (most pretentious musican alive today).
Nick Karn writes: I was actually curious about what the lyrics on Agaetis Byrjun translated to as well, and I found this page - http://www.alwaysontherun.net/sigur.htm - in a Google search. Very intriguing....
Oh yeah, and Agaetis is a definite A+ if there ever was one, and the best album I've heard come out of the last five years so far (not that I'm an expert in that area, though). In particular, that 7th track about airstrikes is one of the most stunning pieces of music I've ever heard in my life. You and Cole are right on the money with this one!
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Simpsons companion albums
The Simpsons Sing the Blues
Willie's comments: Back when Bart was funnier than Homer and schools were banning Underachiever and proud of it T-shirts, Matt Groening and company decided to cash in on their cartoons success with this album of vaguely Simpsons-related songs. Listening to it in light of how much funnier and smarter the show got after this albums release, The Simpsons Sing the Blues is even more cringe-inducing than it originally was. Do the Bartman is still reasonably catchy, but time has made it just seem obnoxious, while School Daze (Barts duet with Buster Poindexter, of all people) was impossibly annoying to begin with. Meanwhile, Springfield Soul Stew and Sibling Rivalry are thoroughly dull, without a joke between them. The only keeper is Look at All Those Idiots, a funky little tune sung by Mr. Burns and Smithers (Yes, I know its really Harry Shearers voice, and Mr. Burns and Smithers are just cartoons. Must you pop every bubble?), but even that includes an unforgivable pun about a musical breakdown. The best TV show of all time is capable of more than this. Grade: D
Songs in the Key of Springfield
Willie's comments: This is more like it. Rather than writing unfunny original songs for this album, the geniuses behind The Simpsons simply compiled all the wonderful, hysterical musical numbers that have been featured on the show over the years. For example: Be My Vest is Mr. Burnss hilarious parody of Beauty and the Beasts Be Our Guest about turning animals into clothing (Like my hat? Twas my cat!). Theres a medley of songs from Troy McClures Planet of the Apes theatrical performance that manages to slip in a reference to Falco among the dead-on skewering of stupid Broadway performances. Its all just as funny as can be, and as catchy and gorgeously orchestrated as South Parks Uncle Fucka, though the shows ending theme is reprised a few times too many in various styles. Grade: A-
John Schlegel writes: I am a HUUUUUGGGE Simpsons fanatic (not literally; I'm 5ft, 9" and weigh 165 lbs), but Simpsons Sing the Blues is pretty lame. I liked it when it first came out, but I was in the seventh grade then, and I also loved the show at that time. Now I am willing to accept that the CD is that trite, obligatory cash-in album for a hit TV show--for shame! But I suppose it is still an essential novelty for all major Simpsons buffs to own. And, yes, I do remember that "Look at All Those Idiots" song being a hoot.
As for Songs in the Key of Springfield, it's a classic! The ending theme is rehashed too many times, which gets boring after awhile, but all the classics from seasons 1-7 are here. It has "We Do (The Stonecutters' Song)," the "Streetcar" suite, "Planet of the Apes," the "Flaming Moe's" song, "The Amendment Song," and many more! The latter's one of my favorites for sure: ". . . Because those liberal freaks go too faaaaaarrrrr"--hilarious! Some of the smaller divvies are priceless too, like "It Was a Very Good Beer": "My name was Brian McGee/I stayed up listening to Queen/When I was seventeen." Yeah, this one's a MUST-HAVE for fans!
firstname.lastname@example.org writes: Of course you're bound to be disappointed by The Simpsons Sing The Blues if you expect comedy! If you only expect comedy, your album is Songs In The Key Of Springfield. If you expect the Simpsons to pop out of your speakers and jump into your living room, yours is Sing The Blues! It's not like the TV show, but it wasn't supposed to be. And I wouldn't like a CD that attempts to be as funny as the show. It doesn't even pretend to be funny: instead, it features interesting and sophisticated looks at the characters! Read the lyrics for "Moanin' Lisa Blues" and tell me that is not the pinnacle of characterisation. It is so brilliantly written it actually hurts. "Sibling Rivalry" is even more impressive, in fact. The songs are all great, and that's the truth. The crew had very good songwriters at disposal, and the songs are catchy and non-clichéd. Chuck Berry's "School Day", "Born Under A Bad Sign", "God Bless The Child" and "I Love To See You Smile" are fantastic covers! Great vocal acting, great songs, great singing... what's not to like? Buy this album if you always appreciated the more subtle details and nuances of the characters. If you don't, stick to Songs In The Key Of Springfield. It's also great, though, but these are songs taken from the TV show! And the songs from the show all rule, so how couldn't it be good?
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Willie's comments: For a glimpse into the dry, droll wit of Stephin Merritt, consider that both the name of this band and the name of the album were apparently chosen because of the difficulty inherent in attempts to pronounce them. Then consider lyrics like "I was happy, which is not like me at all," and "I was young, you were dumb/ Now youre older and Im wiser." Merritt wrote every song on Wasps Nests, and its all very intelligent and funny, but what makes this collection of cheesily catchy synth-pop ditties different from Merritts Magnetic Fields albums is that a different indie rock hero sings each song. Superchunks Mac McCaughan murmurs "Dream Hat," Yo La Tengos Georgia Hubley mutters "Movies in My Head," Barbara Manning sweetly sings "San Diego Zoo," etc. Despite some distractingly atonal vocals from the Bats Robert Scott on "Heaven in a Black Leather Jacket," this album is an understated pleasure. Grade: A-
SEE ALSO: THE MAGNETIC FIELDS
SEE ALSO: STEPHIN MERRITT
SEE ALSO: FUTURE BIBLE HEROES
SEE ALSO: GOTHIC ARCHIES
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: THE BATS; BARBARA MANNING; YO LA TENGO; SEBADOH; UNREST; THE CLEAN
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Willie's comments: Since almost every review of this album I've ever read has been maddeningly vague about what sort of music is contained on this, Slint's seminal sophomore release, I'm going to pigeonhole it: it's an emo-core album. If you're a big fan of Sunny Day Real Estate or the Promise Ring, you'll probably have a high ol' time with Spiderland... or you may just find yourself bored to tears, like I was. See, the six long, guitar-based songs here are beholden to the same school of sinister, mid-tempo tunelessness as Sonic Youth's recent work, but without that band's arty sense of purpose. Singer Brian McMahon speaks most of his lyrics (occasionally screaming or singing) in a voice that's a little too nerdy for this type of music, while the songs run around in odd patterns that work only half the time. "Breadcrumb Trail" is a fine prototype for the type of music that the Seattle scene would improve upon in the late '90s, but the self-important "Good Morning Captain" and the useless instrumental "For Dinner..." prove that Slint, like, say, the Silver Apples, is a band whose historical importance has overshadowed the fact that they weren't particularly great to begin with. Grade: C+
email@example.com writes: i love Good Morning Captain! self-important?
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: TORTOISE
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Willie's comments: Sloan is a brainy rock band from Nova Scotia (Canada) who have, over the past ten years, developed a surprising cult following in the United States as well as their home country. Originality has never been the band's strong suit, as they've grown from making a tuneful (though image-conscious) college-rock racket to becoming an easygoing hook machine fueled by plundered classic rock touchstones. However, you shouldn't underestimate the appeal of a band composed of four talented songwriters who can all effortlessly pivot from pun-filled sarcasm to sweet emotional vulnerability to gleeful rock star cliche, and their music has a deferential energy that puts fun above all other concerns. On this early, lo-fi EP released on their own indie label, Murderecords, Sloan gives us three songs that would later appear on Smeared (Underwhelmed, Marcus Said, and Sugartune) and three great songs that still await proper release. The future Smeared tunes pale in comparison to the high-energy versions on the LP, but songs like Pretty Voice (Youve got such a pretty voice that no one wants to hear) are nifty power-pop numbers. Grade: B
Willie's comments: There are four great songs on Sloans deliberately sloppy debut album: "Underwhelmed" is bassist Chris Murphy's infectiously snarky tale of a relationship ruined by overintellectualization of everything, topped with enough dazzling, undergraduate wordplay to make John Linnell's head spin ("She rolled her eyes/Her beautiful eyes" is followed, several verses later, by a mention that his girlfriend "cursed me up and down and rolled her Rs/Her beautiful Rs"). I Am the Cancer weds a simple, pretty alienation melody (featuring vocals by Jales Jennifer Pierce as well as by Murphy) with layers of chaotic, scratchy guitar to bracing effect. Sugartune is one of many forthright pop gems by guitarist Patrick Pentland, and Murphy's Two Seater has guitars as thrillingly disagreeable as any Sonic Youth song, without losing its sense of melody- it's easily the band's most aggressive recording. The remainder of the album is pretty generic, however, partially because much of the music is mired in early-'90s grunge-pop formula, and partially because Murphy wrote nearly all of the songs here (Pentland and other guitarist Jay Ferguson each wrote two, and drummer Andrew Scott wrote one), which means Smeared doesn't have the democratic charm of their later records. I couldnt identify Marcus Said, 500 Up, or Raspberry in a lineup, frankly, but I can recommend the album on the strength of "Underwhelmed" alone, which is probably one of my ten favorite songs of all time. Grade: B
Willie's comments: Toning down the barre-chord madness in favor of more memorable melodies and actual notes, Sloan makes a big step toward maturity on this album (which seems to go in and out of print with the tides, despite containing the bent pop song "Coax Me," which was a huge hit in Canada). The pleasantly diversified feel that was lacking on Smeared is in full force here, as Murphy writes more catchy, witty numbers (the good-natured Engrish joke Penpals, the bitter heartbreak tune Bells On), while guitarist Ferguson contributes the naive, poppy Snowsuit Sound, which goes along amiably until about halfway through, when it shifts gears into a gorgeous, nonsensical refrain (Youre sizzleteen/ And youre older than me). Elsewhere, Scott gives us an affectingly deadpan tale of an adulterous relationship (People in the Sky), and Pentland pens the heart-wrenchingly adorable I Can Feel It, which is seemingly designed to make the indie-girls coo and swoon. Its a subtly addicting album, which you might not notice upon first listen. Once you allow the band's accomplished harmonies, ever-witty lyrics, and increasingly confident- and personal- songwriting styles to really hit you, though, you'll wonder how you ever lived through your high school years without Twice Removed. (Lucky for me, I didn't have to because Sloan was all over Detroit radio when I was in ninth grade!) Grade: A
One Chord to Another
Willie's comments: After a brief breakup, Sloan returned with another stylistic costume-change and an album which so perfectly melds '60s musical tradition with '90s attitude that it couldve been released on the Elephant 6 label. Using the Beatles as a reference point (rather than a crib sheet, like Oasis), Sloan harmonizes like Paul & John, incorporates Chicago-esque horns (best exhibited on the perfectly hooky "Everything Youve Done Wrong"), and somehow manages to make Scotts drums sound just like the Kingsmen. Every band member again pulls his own weight, which ensures that One Chord to Another is refreshingly free from the filler that plagues releases from bands with only one or two songwriters- every single number here has its own catchy little attitude and M.O.; there's nothing redundant. Highlights are Murphys Autobiography, which outclevers even his own Underwhelmed, and Fergusons The Lines You Amend, which is a dark little song about a friends suicide set to a happy melody. Grade: A+
Willie's comments: After conquering the '60s with One Chord to Another, Sloan set their sights on '70s power-pop to less interesting effect. Its all a lot more self-conscious (particularly Suppose They Close the Door, which abruptly splices two songs together for no good reason), and the bombastic hooks, while frequently catchy, put a distance between the band and the listener. That is to say, the band is obviously having a blast by pretending to be arena rock stars on songs like "Money City Maniacs," but they don't really let us in on the fun in the intimate way they did on their more previous two albums. Cmon Cmon (Were Gonna Get It Started) is good, bouncy fun, and the harpsichord-driven I Wanna Thank You is catchy enough, but the fact that one of these songs appeared in a beer commercial (She Says What She Means, I think) should give you a hint about where Navy Bluess head is at. Still plenty of enjoyment to be had here, but it's something of a step backward. Grade: B
Between the Bridges
Willie's comments: Where Navy Blues was a grab for credibility too calculated to be wholly effective, Between the Bridges ups both the ambition and pleasure to be found in the music by letting the songs simply go where they want to go without an agenda. Sometimes that means borrowing from the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset" ("The Marquee and the Moon") and sometimes it means turning up the tempo of a deliberate Scott number for a sunny bridge or two ("The N.S."), but it almost always means letting the album glide by without overreaching and stumbling. The amps have been turned back down to the poppiest of rock levels (the blustery "Friendship" aside), the harmonies are richer than ever, and the simplicity of beautiful songs like "A Long Time Coming" is refreshing. Although the lyrics can get a trifle annoying- betraying a certain amount of bitterness about Sloan's lack of commercial success- and though I greatly prefer the frayed edges of One Chord to Another to Between the Bridges' occasionally too-studied production ("Waiting for Slow Songs," the endless "Sensory Deprivation"), these songs are still far from stuffy. For instance, "Beyond Me" would be terrifically catchy even if it didn't go overboard stuffing Rubber Soul guitar licks into every available musical orifice, but the fact that it does? That's what provides the sort of joy that Sloan does better than anyone. Grade: B+
4 Nights at the Palais Royale
Willie's comments: This double-disc live album, generously drawing from their first four albums, dispels the widely-held myth that Sloan are studio geniuses who really can't cut it onstage. If anything, many of the songs- particularly Andrew's- greatly benefit from the energy the band puts behind their poppy, two-guitar assault. Likewise, the band's affable stage persona makes the songs from Navy Blues more accessible than they were in their original incarnations (particularly the newly infectious "Suppose They Close the Door"). 4 Nights hits all of Sloan's best songs to date, from big (Canadian) hits like "Coax Me" and "Underwhelmed" to more esoteric greats like "Torn" and "Anyone Who's Anyone." The crowd greets every song with unflagging enthusiasm, and even if the songs often don't sound tremendously different from the studio versions, then you've got yourself an essential Sloan greatest hits album, buddy! Grade: A
Willie's comments: I once read that Pretty Together marked a slightly new path for Sloan in that it was the first album on which the songs were written as a band, as opposed to the four individual songwriters. However, I've been unable to confirm that elsewhere, and it seems likely that the report I read was based on a misreading of the All Music Guide's comment that the album sounds as though the songs were written as a unit, so I'm not sure what to think. I certainly don't think any of the band's members seem to have ceded their own stylistic quirks for this album (particularly Scott, whose increasingly lazy numbers stop Pretty Together dead in its tracks on three occasions: "In the Movies," "The Great Wall," and "Never Seeing the Ground for the Sky"), but there's no denying that the songs that connect do so in a more fully-assured way than ever before. The big-hook blowout "If It Feels Good Do It," for instance, is more carefully constructed in its Cheap Trick-esque charge than anything off Navy Blues, and Ferguson's pining "Dreaming of You" builds from a syrupy acoustic verse to an exquisite chorus without ever crossing the line from confessional to wimpy. Best of all, "The Other Man" is Murphy's unapologetic vow to come between the object of his affection and her boyfriend, armed with a regretful melody that both undercuts his claims to Machiavellian coldness and sounds so positively inspiring that it'll make you want to run out and break up the first relationship you see. It's all the more a shame, then, that so many of these songs are mere throwaways. In addition to Scott's stillborns, the hooray-for-rock-'n'-roll blaster "Pick It Up and Dial It" is avert-your-eyes embarrassing, and the second half of the album gets a little bit soggy with mid-tempo ballads like "Are You Giving Me Back My Love?" when we could really have used one or two more rockers to cleanse our palate a little between the quality mush-pop songs like "Your Dreams Have Come True." Like Navy Blues, Pretty Together could hardly be described as disagreeable, because Sloan is so consistently attuned to the mechanics of what makes a song catchy that even their lesser songs are tolerable, but there's really not enough inspiration here to pull off a fully satisfying listen. Grade: B
THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: DGC RARITIES
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Willie's comments: I, for one, miss dreampop. At its best, the slow, reverb-centric songs could make you feel as though you're being carried through life by a gentle cloud, and My Bloody Valentine, Lush, and Slowdive excel at achieving this effect. (Of course, at its worst, dreampop can make you feel like you're having a fever dream in which Gibby Haynes is drowning you in his swimming pool, but no matter.) Slowdive would later become the excellent folk-rock group Mojave 3, so there is no shortage of memorable melodies on Souvlaki, one of two Slowdive albums which is still domestically available. Beneath the hollow reverb, glacial flangers, and deadpan vocals are actual songs that manage to buoy the atmosphere. "Souvlaki Space Station" is aggressively beautiful, while "Here She Comes" points to a Yo La Tengo influence. "Dagger," "40 Days," and "Alison" are all surprisingly catchy, and it certainly doesn't hurt that Brian Eno helps out on two songs. The U.S. release of this album contains four bonus tracks which effectively build on the album's satisfying shoegazer aura while incorporating elements of electronica. It's not as huge a musical watershed as MBV's Loveless, but it is probably the most accessible dreampop album that was ever released. Grade: A
SEE ALSO: MOJAVE 3
SEE ALSO: NEIL HALSTEAD
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: BRIAN ENO
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Willie's comments: Elliott Smith had his niche pretty well mapped out by his third solo album. It's like he discovered a button on his computer marked "PRESS FOR BITTERSWEET, ACOUSTIC FOLK-ROCK SONGS WITH PLAINTIVE, MULTITRACKED VOCALS" and he hit it 12 times and titled it Either/Or. What I'm trying to say is, there's not much diversity on this album. Certainly, the songs are pretty and the lyrics occasionally inspired ("Pictures of Me" is an amusingly suspicious look at fame), but there's nothing here to really sink your teeth into the way you can with "Miss Misery" from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. Either/Or never really settles on a mood, either- it ambles back and forth infuriatingly between gloomy and twee. If you always wished Nick Drake's little brother would release an album, you might enjoy this, but this territory has been covered in a more innovative fashion by Trembling Blue Stars and Belle & Sebastian. Grade: C+
Willie's comments: The Oscar nomination Smith scored for "Miss Misery" (which he should've won) must have bolstered his confidence in his songwriting ability, because he tries plenty of new things on XO. Keyboards, electric lead guitars, and even the occasional shot of distortion all populate the album, which should lengthen any listener's attention span. "Amity" is practically punk, while the a capella "I Didn't Understand" features Smith harmonizing with himself in a carefully arranged melody that would shame Queen. Even happier is the marked increase in hooks. "Oh Well, Okay," "Baby Britain," and "Bled White" all have memorable tunes, while "Bottle Up and Explode!" is top-tier folk-rock. XO is the perfect album to listen to on a rainy drive. Grade: B+
Willie's comments: Basically more of XO, Figure 8 has plenty of serviceable folk-rock songs and a handful of extraordinary ones. The rocking "Son of Sam," the pensive "Easy Way Out," the grand "Can't Make a Sound"- all are superb. However, like Smith's other albums, this one suffers from a stultifying uniformity of tone. The songs are all pretty, which is fine to a point, but Smith's lyrics all irritatingly tread the line between smug and confessional. Ultimately, he's too guarded in his songwriting to elicit any real emotion from the listener, gorgeous though his songs might be. It's as though he's read one too many reviews that referred to him as "wussy" and decided that smarminess was a way to combat that. Even Badly Drawn Boy- a man who acts hilariously like a walking ego in person- knows when to let a genuine emotion peek through without irony blanketing it, for Pete's sake! I'm being harsh here; if Smith continues along this same path for the rest of his musical career, he will have accomplished more of lasting value and beauty than most songwriters do. If he's content with making albums that are good but not great, more power to him. If he wants to ever create a true classic, though, he's going to have to either censor his reflex towards bilious sarcasm, or hone it into something more potent, like Aimee Mann. Grade: B+
firstname.lastname@example.org writes: all of elliott's albums are A+!
how do u grade a man pouring his soul out?
how do u grade a suicide note?
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Willie's comments: Smog is the homely home-recording project of Bill Callahan, and Julius Caesar is possibly the least polished album I've ever heard (seriously, it's in the running with Mother of All Saints by Thinking Fellers Union Local 282). Callahan mucks up songs like "What Kind of Angel" and "37 Push Ups" with scratchy, piercing guitars; the instruments on "Stick in the Mud" have evidently been given only a cursory attempt at tuning; and the vocal tracks are turned up to vibrating, distorted levels throughout. However, if you can ignore the raggedy edges of the proceedings, Julius Casesar contains at least a few great, minimalist indie-rock tunes. "Your Wedding" and "Golden" are peculiar treasures, with simple, repetitive, ominous melodies that sound like they were rescued from some uncharacteristically dismal Eric's Trip recording sessions. The ridiculous "I am Star Wars!" on the other hand, features Callahan ecstatically emoting over a sample from the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman" that threatens to go on forever. However, Callahan spends too much time here trying (self-consciously) to be Lou Barlow, which is a tendency that quickly grates. Grade: C
THIS ARTIST APPEARS ON: HIGH FIDELITY SOUNDTRACK
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Willie's comments: Did you ever get the feeling that some movies were made just so the filmmakers would have an excuse to put together a soundtrack? I get that impression from Snatch. (It just so happens that writer/director Guy Ritchie- a.k.a. Mr. Madonna- made a tremendously enjoyable film to go along with this album.) Soundtrack albums to hip films like this one (or Trainspotting, Pulp Fiction, etc.) are never meant to be grand artistic statements so much as mass-produced mix tapes, so it's extremely satisfying when one works this well. Like Snatch the film, this album is just a hair too derivative- too self-consciously eclectic. It's hard to escape the image of Ritchie picking some of these songs not because he enjoys them, but because he thinks that his quirky/kitschy musical tastes will impress people; thus, we get samplings of reggae, old-school funk, trance, drum-and-bass, arena rock, and jazz, along with some other oddities, like John Murphy's reworking of "Hava Nagila."
However, also like Snatch the film, it's easy to put such cynical thoughts out of your mind and fully give yourself over to this album, because there are some awesome songs here, like the smooth, harpsichord-based Britpop of the Stranglers' "Golden Brown" and 10cc's infectious "Dreadlock Holiday," and other superior tracks by Klint, Massive Attack, the Herbaliser, and the Johnston Brothers, among others. Ritchie unearthed a great relic with "Don't You Just Know It," a 1958 recording by Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns- a twisted slice of Chubby Checker-esque bebop. Of course, there's a Madonna song on here too, but Ritchie mercifully gave us one of her nifty new-wave tracks of yore ("Lucky Star") instead of saddling us with another William Orbit-penned rehash of "Ray of Light." And whaddayaknow? Snatch turns out to be exactly the terrific mix tape it was intended to be! Grade: A
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The Slow-Motion World of Snowpony
Willie's comments: It feels odd calling Snowpony a "supergroup," because, unlike the Traveling Wilburys or Asia, the band doesn't really contain anyone famous. Rather, it's composed of peripheral members of influential indie-rock bands, and the songwriting is exclusively the job of one of the members (Katharine Gifford, formerly of Stereolab). As such, the fact that the rest of the band used to be in Quickspace and My Bloody Valentine really doesn't seem to matter all that much, essential though their contributions are here. The Slow-Motion World of Snowpony plays like a rock album for Stereolab fans, and that's a very good thing. "Snow White," "Easy Way Down," and "3 Can Keep a Secret (if 2 are Dead)" revolve around repetitive, hypnotic guitar grooves that will sound familiar to any 'Lab fan, but are hundreds of times more ominous. Gifford's lyrics, too, are more bleak than Stereolab's nonsensical blabber, but she's a skilled enough songwriter to keep the songs poppy- by inserting horns here, by adding a multitracked harmony there. If I may say something irritatingly corny, by evoking everyone on the indie-rock scene from Barbara Manning to Looper, Snowpony may not be a supergroup in the traditional sense, but they truly are a super group. Grade: A
SEE ALSO: MY BLOODY VALENTINE
SEE ALSO: STEREOLAB
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A Can of Bees
Willie's comments: Before he shifted his focus to brilliantly psychedelic folk-rock, Robyn Hitchcock fronted this odd, jangly rock band in the late 70s and early 80s. The Soft Boys are more known for influencing bands such as R.E.M. and Yo La Tengo than for their music, and, for this album at least, thats deserved. The music on A Can of Bees has an ugly, tuneless, angular quality that brings to mind the unlistenable albums of early XTC. The sole redeeming number among the mechanical blues garbage is Sandras Having her Brain Out, which has enough hooks for five songs; mischievious, feminist-baiting lyrics (You dont really need a brain if youre a girl); and nifty barbershop harmonies to boot! Grade: C-
Willie's comments: Concentrating their talents in poppier areas, the Soft Boys came up with a large number of great rock songs on Underwater Moonlight. I Wanna Destroy You is a bilious media critique that dilutes its venom with dry Hitchcockian humor in lines like A pox upon the media and everything you read/ They tell you your opinions and theyre very good indeed! Elsewhere, Queen of Eyes is a great, concise pop gem, while Tonight and Kingdom of Love build their momentum slowly, until you realize at the songs end that youre entranced. If Pete Buck played guitar for the Rolling Stones, it might sound something like this. Grade: A
Willie's comments: For the most part, Invisible Hits continues the trippy pop legacy of Underwater Moonlight, though it does take a few regrettable sidesteps back to dour blues wanking (The Asking Tree, When I Was a Kid). On Rock n Roll Toilet, all the band members switch instruments, for a hilariously sloppy sound (dig Andy Metcalfes incompetent drumming!), while Wey Wey Hep Uh Hole is probably the funniest song Hitchcock ever wrote. Youre more likely to find this album in a cutout bin than anywhere, so why not spend the five bucks? Its worth it to hear Have a Heart, Betty (Im Not Fireproof). Grade: B-
Willie's comments: In 1980, the Soft Boys went their separate ways, sort of. Guitarist Kimberley Rew (a man) split to write songs for Katrina and the Waves, while Hitchcock started making solo albums (with the other Soft Boys as his backing band, on and off) for the next 22 years. In the meantime, Underwater Moonlight had achieved "underground classic" status, and the band reunited to put together that album's 20th anniversary reissue on Matador Records. Apparently, they all hit it off so well that they decided to start touring and recording together again, which resulted in Nextdoorland, a brand new studio record that is as fantastic as Moonlight, in a lot of ways. Though their collective musical talent has sharpened considerably in the past two decades, the Soft Boys' style hasn't undergone any massive renovations for this reunion. That's a good thing. There aren't any glimpses of "Walking on Sunshine" pop ipecac or Hitchcock's solo Syd Barrett-isms here; just the same terrific harmonies, shrapnelized guitars, and Beatles-derived psychedelica that made their best work so influential and timeless years ago. (The only remarkable difference between Invisible Hits and Nextdoorland is the happy elimination of the interminable, bloozy drone numbers.) "Strings" is a simply outstanding rock tune whose backward-sounding melody and goopy bassline wouldn't sound out-of-place on Revolver, "Mr. Kennedy" has the brightest chorus I've heard all year, and those are but two of the highest highs on this album of sustained, jangly brilliance. As many of this site's visitors are quick to point out, I am far from an expert in the realm of classic rock history, but I feel pretty sure of myself in saying that no other band has come back from such a lengthy hiatus with such a knockout album. Besides the Monkees' Justus, I mean. Grade: A
SEE ALSO: ROBYN HITCHCOCK
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So I Married an Axe Murderer soundtrack
Willie's comments: Just like the movie it comes from, this soundtrack album is easily identifiable as a product of 1994, with contributions from Soul Asylum, Spin Doctors, and Neds Atomic Dustbin. Thing of it is, all three of those bands perform great songs (the latter churns out a goth cover of the Bay City Rollers Saturday Night that gives the original some much-needed friction), and you also get superlative numbers from Toad the Wet Sprocket (Brother) and the perennially underrated Boo Radleys (a cover of the Las There She Goes). Chris Whitleys coffeeshop moping couldve been excised, and Sun-60 is similarly unwelcome, but for a trip down memory lane back to when rootsy alt-funk and sincere pop ruled the day, Axe Murderer is worth a spin. Grade: B
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Willie's comments: Elisabeth Esselink- Dutch record store owner and cut-and-paste looping artiste- makes songs that are so clattering and angular in their threadbare arrangements that it's almost counterintuitive that they'd be so catchy and danceable. The typical song will consist of a few drum loops, repeating alternations between, say, a brass sample and an out-of-context guitar line, and some keyboard or other atmospheric sounds, all of which are chopped into snippets maybe four seconds long, and then repeated until the song hits another section, at which point a different set of loops will kick in. All the while, Esselink will sing against the rhythm in a little-girl voice that brings the whole collage together with her memorably simple vocal lines. Pick Up, her second full-length, is like a much more ludic version of Beck's Odelay or Le Tigre's go-go dancepunk. Although there are very few layers to the songs at any given moment, tracks like "Chris the Birthday Boy" (which leads off with the sounds of a baby's toy playing a lullaby and a clarinet) and the strangely funky "The Burglars are Coming!" bring together so many disparate sounds in such a unique, infectious manner that's the aural equivalent of a thousand puzzle pieces put together randomly to form a far more interesting picture than the landscape that results from assembling it "correctly." Her lyrics are just as incohesive, generally consisting of snapshots of interpersonal confusion, sprinkled with funny non-sequitur observations ("She was facing me and walking backwards, and I could see her eyes growing as round as saucers/Fresh as a rose on the day of the battle, or whatever that poem is," "Everything smelled as if she had loads and loads of Vicks nose-drops"). So Solex probably isn't for everybody, but if whimsical, strange indie-kid collages are up your alley, you should definitely pick up... this album. [Ducks to avoid fiercely hurled shot glasses.] Grade: A-
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Willie's comments: For all its importance to the alterna-rock community, Daydream Nation is far from essential when you stand it next to such note-perfect hallmarks as Pavements Slanted and Enchanted or My Bloody Valentines Loveless. It is a tidy little album on its own terms, however. Deadpan guitarist Lee Ranaldo sings/speaks a lot of great songs ("Erics Trip," "Hey Joni"), while other guitarist Thurston Moore and his wife, bassist Kim Gordon, each do their own thing on a number of tracks that are actually pretty good despite a high quotient of boring, noisy guitar rambling to actual riffs. "Providence" is a neat answering machine message set to music, but thats also my favorite track on the album, which should say something about Daydream Nation. Grade: B-
Willie's comments: Once the Youth got all those accolades for Daydream Nation and Goo (which I have yet to purchase but is supposed to be good) they apparently fancied themselves infallible. So they crapped out this unfortunate little mess of unlistenable, half-baked feedback fests that are the musical equivalent of a untangling a wadded strand of Christmas lights: Its no fun, its horribly frustrating, and halfway through, youll likely just say, "Aw, screw it" and throw it down. Grade: D-
Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star
Willie's comments: The idea of a Sonic Youth album on which Ranaldo sings no songs does not appeal to me; ordinarily, I tire very quickly of Moore and Gordons self-important social commentary, and I need Ranaldos endlessly entertaining acid flashback poetry to balance things out. However, despite a vocal monopoly from Moore and Gordon, Experimental is a killer record! Moore is still doing his stultifying "Hooray for outcasts and freaks and anything thats not mainstream" stories, only hes now writing great tunes to go with them, from the bracing acoustic number "Winners Blues" to the Butch Vig-enhanced squall of "Starfield Road." And Gordon is still writing exclusively in her horny feminist persona, but songs like the bluesy "Bone" are hypnotic. Bonus points for the indie rock history lesson "Screaming Skull" ("Lemonheads/ Husker Du/ SST/ Superchunk"). Grade: B+
Willie's comments: Maybe the reason most of Gordon and Moores earlier lyrics bore and irritate me is because I started my Sonic Youth exploration with this album. By this point, both songwriters had matured to a point where they could write songs with actual emotions instead of cooler-than-thou detachment. Moores "Junkies Promise" is a fascinating exploration of an addicts mind, while "The Diamond Sea" is an actual, sublime (if about 12 minutes too long) love song with gorgeous lyrics to match. As for Gordon, her increasingly haunting voice serves "Becuz" well, but she actually moved me to tears on the loss-of-innocence tale "Little Trouble Girl." Plus you get two top-notch Ranaldo songs! Grade: A
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: R.E.M.; SHONEN KNIFE; THE BREEDERS
THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: SUBURBIA SOUNDTRACK; TIBETAN FREEDOM CONCERT ALBUM; NEVER MIND THE MAINSTREAM... THE BEST OF MTV'S 120 MINUTES VOL. 1; DGC RARITIES
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Willie's comments: The sole problem with Soul Coughings wonderful, bizarre, hilarious debut is the album sequencing- its kind of a drag to listen to all the way through because similar songs are placed right next to each other (If you program your CD player to switch City of Motors with Blueeyed Devil, it makes things much better). Calling this music rock/funk or acid jazz is too easy, and jazz/blues/funk/alt-rock/hip-hop/pop is too wordy, so just call it amazing. Vocalist M. Doughy recites his weirdo poetry over the precise rhythm section of bassist Sebastian Steinberg and drummer Yuval Gabay, while keyboardist Mark De Gli Antoni sprays samples at you like missiles. Sounds chaotic, and sometimes it is, but its also incredibly catchy and fascinating. Is Chicago, is Not Chicago says it all. Grade: A
Hello CD Club EP
Willie's comments: This 5-song, 18-minute EP was released as the June 1996 selection of John Flansburgh's CD of the month club, and it is nothing if not a complete piss-take. The whole thing was recorded in Gabay's basement, and I suspect that the whole, mostly instrumental thing was improvised, with Doughty playing a cheap Casio instead of singing. Fans of "Circles," "Super Bon Bon," or even "Is Chicago, is Not Chicago" might be put off by these murky experiments, which generally center around Steinberg's endlessly repeated basslines, but that's not to say they're not enjoyable. "El Burro in the Underworld" and "My Ass is in the Bronx" work well as crude funk, while "Come On and Dig Me 'Cause I'm the Fly Pygmy" is almost danceable. "Sack Full of Puppies" is distractingly disjointed, but viewed as a side project rather than a proper Soul Coughing EP, this works fine. It's impossibly rare, anyway, so you really don't need to worry about it unless you want to pay like $80 for it on eBay. Grade: B
Ginny's comments: I'm thinkin' it's probably a good thing that Soul Coughing broke up, I'm thinkin', because they can go down in history as the band with a practically flawless discography. They are the musical equivalent of King Midas- everything MIKE Doughty and co. touch turns to musical gold. (Take note, I didn't say M. Doughty or even Doughty- as he now prefers to have a first name, thankyouverymuch.) Soul Coughing manage to take even inane, even goofy lyrics and make them singable, danceable, memorizeable and downright loveable without decending into Quirkyville. Take "4 out of 5" for instance. Now, wouldn't math have been infinitely more fun learning this way? Another thing that makes Soul Coughing stand out is one of the damn best bass players around. Many of their songs actually revolve around the bass, instead of simply using it as "supplemental" to the melody. "The Idiot Kings," "White Girl," and "How Many Cans" are good examples of this. Hey, a band that can make the lyric "quantify my luck/I need a mercy fuck" memorable and not stupid-sounding has got to be doing something right. Grade: A
Willie's comments: More trippy fun, with better production than Ruby Vroom, catchier melodies (perhaps youve heard Super Bon Bon?) and more interesting keyboard playing from De Gli Antoni. Instead of randomly inserting odd samples into the mix, this time, he blends more gently into the songs- check out the pearl drop effects on Soft Serve, or the woozy carnival noises on 4 Out of 5, which sounds like a merry-go-round falling apart. Doughtys surreal sensibility has never been better than on the cartoonish Disseminated (Call up bop and Im bunting stomach/ Koko mop I chop, nothing, plummet) or on Paint, where he simply makes up words as he goes along. Grade: A+
Willie's comments: As their sound evolves further, the Cough has become a sort of non-electronic drum n bass cadre. Steinberg and Gabay play their instruments with such breakneck adroitness that youd swear they were programmed on songs like Blame and Rolling, but their rhythms are so fascinatingly bizarre that no programmer would ever manage to piece together musical riddles like those on Monster Man, $300, and Fully Retractable. Circles is possibly the catchiest single of all time, while Pensacola is genuinely frightening, and Gabays accented chanting of Roller boogie, motherfucker on Houston is a quintessential example of what wonderful place in the atmosphere this band is coming from. Grade: A+
New York, NY, 16.08.99
Willie's comments: This is one of five double-disc live Soul Coughing releases put out by Kufala Recordings in 2004, and if it's indicative of the rest of the albums in the series, said albums are for only the die-hardingest of the die-hards. The sound quality's so-so, and more importantly, the band's performance isn't nearly as impressive onstage as in the studio. Granted, Soul Coughing was on its last legs by the time they played this show, but even at the top of their game, it'd be hard for me to imagine the tightly-coiled arrangements from Irresistible Bliss and El Oso translating properly to a spontaneous, sweaty live environment. (Though it does allow Doughty to exclaim, "Spontaneity, thy name is Encore!" at one point, which got a laugh out of me.) And indeed, although the crowd seems to be fairly into songs like "$300" and "Super Bon Bon," it's hard not to hear them as a little sloppy, stripped of their pinpoint production precision. There are some interesting attempts to mix things up, with "Bus to Beelzebub" suddenly shifting into a swing beat midway through, and De Gli Antoni taking control of a raucous "I Miss the Girl" by turning it into a litany of rhythmic dialogue samples from David Mamet's Oleanna, but the slower numbers are strung-out buzzkills ("Maybe I'll Come Down," "True Dreams of Wichita") and the muddiness of the recording does no favors for the band's instrumental virtuosity. If I were you, I'd wait for the reissue of Doughty's justly lauded solo disc Smofe + Smang: Live in Mpls. and stick to the studio albums with Soul Coughing. Grade: B-
SEE ALSO: MIKE DOUGHTY
THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: THE X-FILES: SONGS IN THE KEY OF X SOUNDTRACK ALBUM; THE X-FILES: THE MOVIE SOUNDTRACK; THE CONAN O'BRIEN ALBUM; TOMMY BOY SOUNDTRACK
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: MITCHELL FROOM; NEIL FINN; THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS; BT; LOW
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Willie's comments: I've recently realized that the rate at which I purchase CDs (or have friends burn them for me) is way out of proportion to the rate at which I get around to listening to them. Not that I'm such a busy person that I can't make time in my day for a new album when I get one- I doubt the cast of Friends would be offended if I skipped a syndicated episode of their program one evening so I could check out the new Tahiti 80 disc- but I can only listen to new, unfamiliar music so often before I get a hankering for some Ramones or some Yo La Tengo or one of my other old standbys. And, of course, I don't think there's anything wrong with that; if I just accumulated records without ever listening to any of them more than once or twice, that would kind of defeat the purpose, wouldn't it? However, it does mean that I'm stuck with a backlog of about 70 albums at this point that I haven't listened to, and, frankly, I can't see some of them making the listening schedule in the forseeable future. Chief among these, I'm somewhat embarrassed to say, are the six or seven Neil Young records that my friend and colleague Scott Floman copied for me awhile back, and have been sitting forlornly on my dresser since last spring. Now, I do enjoy Neil Young- I've totally loved just about every song of his that I've heard- but for some reason, whenever I think about listening to, say, Zuma, the little cartoon devil on my shoulder just tells me to pull out my copy of After the Gold Rush instead, so I'm sure I've missed out on all sorts of great Neil songs. (That devil also tells me to use an awl to jab holes in all my neighbors' garden hoses. He's a mischief maker, that devil!)
Luckily (for me, not so much for Neil), I recently recieved a disc from the Athens, Georgia band Soundtrack Mind that can easily stand in for a Neil Young singles collection! Plastic Dreams is full of great, brawny rock songs that superficially sound like they were cut from a certain Canadian longhair's songwriting mold: playfully scruffy rock songs with huge choruses that are mostly as basic and satisfying as a big, juicy Boca burger. Take a listen to the vibrant "Town," for example, and tell me that it's not among the best southern-college-rock anthems you've ever heard. And yes, the vocal stylings of lead singer/bassist Jonathan Potter do have more than a passing resemblance to Neil's tomboy bleating, but to write Soundtrack Mind off, even as a quality Neil Young clone, would be doing them a disservice. For one thing, the band's style of harmonizing (an impressive blend of voices that is best heard on the addictive "Really Want" and "Would You Believe") recalls no one so much as the Police, and every now and then, you'll come across a song like the seductively catchy "Can't Buy," that sounds like a burlier version of Turin Brakes. If it sounds like I'm spending a lot of time comparing Soundtrack Mind to other bands, well, perhaps that's unavoidable. For all the great songwriting that springs from the collective pen of Potter, guitarist Rusty Bridgers, and drummer Bryan Mullis, they don't really do a lot that's especially unique. However, that's not really a criticism in this case, when you've got an album that crams so many memorable riffs, hooks, and attention-grabbers into ten songs as these guys do. Soundtrack Mind ahoy! Grade: A-
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South Park companion albums
Chef Aid- South Park album
Willie's comments: The promise of new songs from Ween and DEVO was enough to convince me to buy the soundtrack album to South Park. While Weens contribution ("The Rainbow") is up to their usual amazing standards, DEVOs (the sloppy "Huboon Stomp") is a huge disappointment, perhaps because Mark Mothersbaugh didnt seem to have anything to do with it. Elsewhere on this album, Isaac Hayes sings a bunch of songs as South Parks randy Chef, and, while the songs are appropriately funky and soulful, the amusingly sophomoric lyrics (written by Trey Parker) get old after a few listens. Elton John contributes a new song, but its basically the same rewrite of "The One" hes been doing for nearly a decade, and none of the other contributing bands are particularly interesting either. The exceptions are Wyclef Jean, with his ultra-catchy "Bubblegoose," and Primus, of all people- in "Mephisto and Kevin," Les Claypool explains the origins of Parks little monkeyman Kevin, leaving Hayes to sing the intrinsically funny chorus: "I am Gopher Boy, pondering reality/ I am Gopher Boy/ Who will buy my raspberries?" Grade: C+
Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics
Willie's comments: When it aims to offend, this album of South Park Christmas songs succeeds at pushing the envelope in much the same way that the inimitably hilarious South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut film did. "Merry Fucking Christmas," sung by embittered schoolteacher Mr. Garrison, cheerfully denounces all Eastern religions ("Get off your heathen Muslim ass and fucking celebrate!"), while "The Lonely Jew on Christmas" and "The Most Offensive Song Ever" mercilessly mock Judaism and Christianity, respectively. And "Christmas Time in Hell" should ruffle a few feathers by placing JFK Jr., Lady Di, and Michael Landon among the damned. However, most of the other songs don't even try to be offensive or even funny. While the Mr. Hankey theme song is good for a few chuckles, and Mr. Mackey's straight reading of "The Ringing of the Bells" is quite beautiful, interpretations of "O Holy Night," "I Saw Three Ships," and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" are basically traditional Christmas music with silly voices. Trey Parker and Matt Stone can be infinitely more daring than this. Grade: C+
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Willie's comments: Canadian John Southworth occupies a unique niche in pop music: His loungey, occasionally banjo-based concoctions are tremendously slick and catchy, falling somewhere between They Might Be Giants and the Squirrel Nut Zippers, while his endearingly nasal voice sings about surfing and UFOs more than any other topic (much like Frank Black). On Mars Pennsylvania, "It's Not the End of the World" is a perfectly gorgeous pean to doomsayers, which offers comfortingly odd lines like "It ain't exactly hip to be an Earthling/ Should've been a career girl." "American UFO," on the other hand, is built around an infectious Moog riff, and "Happy Birthday Mister President" is wonderfully catchy. Southworth's backup band throws numerous timbres around (most notably in "Man If We Could Surf Forevermore"), but it's never quite weird enough to be as mind-blowingly interesting as TMBG or Ween, and a little of this does go a long way. However, it's still a promising debut. Grade: B
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT JOHN SOUTHWORTH
Willie's comments: When Rolling Stone reviewed this album, they compared the lead singers voice to Ren from Ren & Stimpy. Thats about right- the lead singer (Scott Griffiths might be his name), though British, sings in a bizarre, faux Middle Eastern accent that sounds more like Peter Lorre than any actual singer I can think of. It can be charming at times, as in the catchy Brit-pop of Neighborhood or the Ween-esque lounge groove of Female of the Species, but when he turns to chanting rather than singing, like on Mister Psycho, it gets really irritating. The music is unassailable throughout the album, however, ranging from folk to electronica, and touching every base inbetween (Im partial to the orchestral rock of Me and You vs. the World, which is an amusing Bonnie and Clyde tale), with equal amounts of synthesizers and decks as guitars and strings. Space probably isnt a band youd want to hear more than one album from, but this is the one to get. Grade: B
Jamie Summers writes: regarding your review of the space album, thats his real accent, he's from liverpool, yep same place as the beatles, except he's far more scummy than them. oh but i agree that they're awful. no one here ever took them seriously and they disappeared quick.
THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: AUSTIN POWERS SOUNDTRACK
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT SPACE
Willie's comments: When your record collection begins and ends with David Bowie, any band you decide to form probably wont get much credit for originality. Such is the case with Spacehog. The songs are smothered in heaping dollops of glam, while Roy Langdon's vocals are handled in a fair approximation of Bowies froggish wail. In fact, if the songs werent so danged catchy, Id lump Spacehog in the hopelessly derivative pile along with the Rembrandts, Silverchair, and Filter. Happily, though, numbers like Cruel to be Kind and In the Meantime soar along on the strength of angelic, rocking choruses, while sexy slower numbers like Zeroes and Ship Wrecked could actually pass for Ziggy Stardust himself. There are more than enough clunkers here (Spacehog, Candyman), and its never as fully satisfying as it would be if the band had a sound of their own, but its a good spot of fun. Grade: B
The Chinese Album
Willie's comments: Do you wanna know a surefire way to tell whether you've got an awesome album on your hands? If it contains a song on which the lead singer does a duet with Michael Stipe (the unremarkable "Almond Kisses" in this case), and that song seems like a throwaway compared with the rest of the record, then it's gotta be pretty good. (Robyn Hitchcock's Perspex Island notwithstanding.) That's the case with The Chinese Album. With Resident Alien, it seemed like the analogy "Spacehog: David Bowie:: Oasis: The Beatles" was pretty much inevitable, but they've actually grown a lot between that album and this one. They announce their maturity from the getgo here, with "One of These Days," a terrific electronica song that's catchy despite the fact that it's built around an atonal piano line and a sacreligious sample from "Seen and Not Seen" by the Talking Heads. From there, the Bowie influence returns with a vengeance, both in straight glam songs like "Goodbye Violet Race" and the cheeky rock-opera parody "2nd Avenue (Isle of Manhattan)" and in Ant Langdon's songs ("Skylark" and "Captain Freemans"), which sound like collaborations between John Lennon and Bowie, if you're able to divorce yourself from the "Fame" connotations. But even though they never manage to emerge from the shadow of the Thin White Duke, anthemic songs like "Mungo City" (the single here, which doesn't have the mass appeal of "In the Meantime" but is still very hummable) and the magnificent "Sand in Your Eyes" at least do his legacy justice. Grade: A-
Willie's comments: Well, The Chinese Album wasn't the earth-shattering success that Spacehog evidently thought it would be (and, by all rights, it should have been), so they seem to have retreated into petulant genericism on The Hogyssey, much as the Rentals did on Seven More Minutes. It's not that there aren't some fun modern-rock songs on here- "A Real Waste of Food" and "Jupiter's Moon" are particularly engaging- but it seems as though Spacehog has lost their Bowie-centric identity, along with any of the other attributes that made their previous efforts stand out from the top 40 power-chord pack. Their lyrical cleverness has descended into unfocused cynicism ("This is America" lacks the subtlety of an anti-materialism song like Blur's "Look Inside America"- or Bowie's "I'm Afraid of Americans," for that matter), The Chinese Album's sense of humor has been replaced by "ironic" posturing (Ant's "At Least I Got Laid"), and the band's gift for memorable choruses is nowhere in evidence. The title track is a hilarious- and addictive- reconstruction of Strauss's... er... theme to 2001 that I don't know the actual title of... well, at any rate, Spacehog's cover is both funky and ballsy, which are two qualities that are missing from bland fare like "Perpetual Drag." The Hogyssey isn't really a waste of time, exactly, but it seems to mark the point at which Spacehog's balloon of innovation was punctured. Grade: C+
Norville Barnes (go, Muncie!) writes: First off, I would like to say I am a fucking huge Spacehog fan. They just kick so much ass. With that said, let's start the reviews.
Resident Alien B
This was the first CD my family ever got. My brother listened to it some (on the computer, we didn't have a CD player yet), but then his tastes changed and discarded it under piles of trash in his room. It became one of many unused CDs in his large collection. One night, while going through his music to find something to listen too while I go to sleep, I found this litle gem under a pile of dusty Cure albums. I went back to my room and put it in my CD player. Holy shit! This is fucking awesome! I listened to it again and again the next few nights. The great singing of Langdon on "In the Meantime", the hard guitars of "Spacehog", and the folky Beck sound of "To Be a Millionare". It is just so damn cool! It would have gotten an A+ had I not heard
The Chinese Album A+
And I thought Resident Alien was good. The Chinese Album blows that shit out of the fucking water. This is Spacehog's greatest album out of the three. Too bad it was such a commercial disappointment. Every one of the tracks is a classic, and I listen to the album at least once a month. "Mungo City", the first and only single off the record, is an amazing song, one of many. The songs are not just glam though. "Captain Freeman" is an old rock and roll song, and "Skylark" sounds like a children's song. "One of These Days" samples Talking Heads, and "Almond Kisses" has Michael Stipe on duet. Thats two of the greatest fucking bands in the world. There really isn't much to say about this album, it is just amazing. It is an essential to any CD collection.
The Hoggyssey A-
After the fucking incredible Chinese Album, Spacehog gave us an album not as great as Chinese, but probably better than Resident Alien. It is fun, rocking, and best of all, cheap. I bought it for ten bucks, as opposed to most CDs which cost like fifteen or twenty. The album as a whole isn't amazing, but there are some really fantastic songs. "Jupiter's Moon" sounds similar but is a lot better than another piece of shit song about Jupiter in the pop charts currently. Well, anything is better than that piece of cat shit. "This Is America" is funny, but "At Least I Got Laid" is hilarious, and whenever I listen to it I can't help but sing along. Same thing goes with "I Want To Live", it will be stuck in your head for quite some time. They hit a selection of rock not as wide as someone like Beck, but the sound changes several times. Hard rock ("The Earthquake"), pure glam ("As It Is"), and disco ("The Hoggyssey") are all covered, though the latter is probably the weakest song on the album. So if you like Spacehog, or just have ten bucks to spare, I suggest picking up this album and help out a band that really needs it, not some shit like Uncle Kracker or Tyrese. I like them girls, what the fuck is up with that?
THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: XTC TRIBUTE ALBUM
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Searching for the Scientist: Live Recordings
Willie's comments: The Spacewürm (presumably a nom de plume) is best known for his technique of recording strangers' wireless phone calls on an illegally modified scanner and then using the more interesting conversations as the nucleus of his electronic compositions. These recordings of his live show offer virtually none of that, however, instead dishing up a series of largely enjoyable, if indistinctive, heavy dance tracks. Searching for the Scientist is dominated by a lengthy trio of songs in the middle ("Russian Space Pussy" and two parts of "Even the Dwarf Starts Small") that indulge in loads of migraine-assisting acid-industrial bass thumpery, but they're fluid and spry enough to more-or-less earn their length rather than going the easy Mortal Kombat soundtrack route of endless repetition. "The Invisible Girl" is less inventive: it's nothing more than a tape of some yappy kids playing and a few drawn-out synth pad noises of the sort you might make when you first get a keyboard and are mesmerized by how easy it is to get an enjoyably spacey vibe out of that thing. The remaining two tracks, which bookend the entire exercise, are the really good ones. "Electrodisque" coaxes some complicated jungle rhythms out of an 808 machine before eventually letting fly with a chill IDM hook that is the only piece of music on the album that can rightly be called a melody, and "Inside the Egg" buries what sounds like a Shirley Temple song and a film score beneath layers of skittering and whomping percussion. The disc does nicely capture what you'd hear on any given night in a tiny electronic club, but the majority of the set isn't memorable enough to maintain its appeal outside of that setting. Grade: B-
See You Later Oscillator
Willie's comments: Although its punny title may make you want to smack The Spacewürm (if for no other reason than for evoking memories of Top Design's smarmy Jonathan Adler), See You Later Oscillator may in fact be the most vital document of found-voice electronica since the Brian Eno/David Byrne collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Recordings of a hysterical scorned woman, singles-line voicemail boxes, and misplaced food orders are among the phone calls captured and taxidermied here for the curious (in either sense of the word) electronica fan. These dialogues generally play out without too much obvious editing from the artist, but rather than providing a simple voyeuristic rush, these selections are suitably enigmatic and elliptical to invite multiple listens, while the hypnotic musical backdrops work at keeping the listener absorbed. They may consist of gently tweaked feedback ("This Person is a Man") or aggressively dreamy marriages of ambient and trip-hop (the instrumental "We Come in Pieces," which recalls some of DJ Krush's moodier material), but they all lend a detached, ethereal atmosphere to the conversations, making them seem somehow larger than simple eavesdropping. Although the verbal content is all about urban American loneliness, self-centeredness, and sleaze, the subtlety of the music is oddly humane rather than cynical. For instance, on "Age Breaker," The Spacewürm takes a recording of two spoiled proto-frat boys and overlays some gentle, hollow sound washes that emphasize the pitiable emptiness of the discussion rather than its loathsome specifics. By turns creepy, funny, and upsetting, it's a perfect album to listen to on nights when you're feeling particularly isolated from humanity, to remind you that you're not alone in being alone. (Incidentally, if you're into Found magazine or that sort of thing, The Spacewürm has also released a book entitled I Listen, made up of transcripts of other recorded conversations. It's not nearly as haunting as this album, but it's an engrossing read nonetheless.) Grade: A
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She Haunts My Dreams
Willie's comments: Bands whose names are derived from geographic locations, um, generally don't make anyone's "desert island" lists, to put it mildly. Spain, however, is different from your Europes and your Asias and your Chicagos and your Bostons. From all audible evidence, this three-piece has plenty of musical chops (bassist/frontman Josh Haden is the son of jazz guy Charlie Haden, and drummer Joey Waronker has appeared, Zelig-style, on albums by more than 40 bands), but Spain's music doesn't rely on solos- or any other sort of musical complexities, really. With subtle, stripped-down arrangements that slowly propel relatively elementary tunes and Haden's mumbled melodies, Spain is content to occupy very little space with their music, yet the very smallness of their sound gives it an addictive, confessional tone. She Haunts My Dreams is a humdinger of a breakup album, to boot. Like an early prototype of Beck's Sea Change, or a more tuneful cousin to the Afghan Whigs' resigned Gentlemen, this record is a hushed trudge through the emotional manipulation, ambivalence, and fatalistic hopelessness that accompanies a crumbling relationship. If he weren't busy playing the bass, it wouldn't be hard to imagine Haden holding his head in his hands as he mutters, "There must be a way to feel like I used to feel before it all went wrong," or "I hoped and prayed that God wouldn't make her the one..." Musically, I've heard Spain compared to the moody likes of the Tindersticks, and while I can hear the similarities (songs that sound so stark and defeated that they barely have the energy to glower at you), I think it'd be easier to compare Spain to a more rural, slightly bluesy, infinitely more talented version of Smog, because these songs are really, really, really basic, when you get right down to it. However, precise touches like the Velvets-esque solo during "Bad Woman Blues" or the gentle Hammond organ on "Our Love Is Gonna Live Forever" show that the simplicity here is just a well-considered choice. Grade: A
Willie's comments: This record kicks off with "She Haunts My Dreams," an ass-kicker of a song that, as the title implies, condenses all the heartbroken befuddlement and moody tunefulness of Spain's previous record into three intensely sad minutes. Why it was left off the previous album we can only speculate (or perhaps do research, but that sounds singularly unappealing right now), but it's a splash of unhappiness that I Believe would be crying out for otherwise, to balance the occasionally overbearing cockiness that's spread lightly over the remainder of the album. With the addition of second guitarist/keyboardist Shon Sullivan, Spain's songs have a more confident, rural feel, but Haden takes that confidence a little too far, tossing aside introspection for his version of sweaty, Chris Isaak-esque pillow talk. No matter how intrinsically sexy his slow, throbbing basslines might be, Haden approaches his lyrical seductions with such humorless attempts at smoothness that it's hard not to smirk at how cheesy lines like "We don't have to take it slow, talkin' the whole night through/I just want to take you home and make your body move" or "Last night was just like a dream/Girl, you were meant for me" are. (He says "girl" more than the friggin' Backstreet Boys on this disc.) If you can block out the fact that the lyrics sound like they were torn from R. Kelly's notepad- and then grammar-checked- I Believe actually is a decent little make-out disc at times, though. "You Were Meant for Me" sounds like R.E.M. taking a nap on a huge, comfy rock in the desert, while "Do You See the Light" weaves thrillingly back and forth between ecstasy and minor-key yearning. But still, not every song connects, and apart from "She Haunts My Dreams," the enjoyment you're gonna get from this record is probably proportional to how interesting you think it would be to hear Joey Tribbiani saying, "How you doin'?" about 100 times set to music. Grade: B
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Good Morning Spider
Willie's comments: Between the release of his unpronounceable debut album and the recording of this one, Mark Linkous (the man who is Sparklehorse) died. Seriously. (You can't buy an opening hook like that for a review, I might point out.) He was dead for awhile due to some unfortunate drug interactions, but he luckily got revived, and from what I gather, wrote most of this album while confined to a wheelchair. And Good Morning Spider does, for better and worse, seem to reflect the confusion, enlightenment, and shaken amazement of a man who actually has been to the other side and back (as opposed to the soothing platitudes spouted by frauds like Sylvia Browne or John Edward). I mean, if you actually died, and then were lucky enough to be given a second chance to make something of yourself in this world, and you had one of those rare deals with Capitol Records where they aren't screwing you six ways from Sunday, what would you do with it? I doubt most people would've handled the inherent pressures as well as Linkous does. Discombobulating though this album is, it doesn't aim to be a Grand Theological Statement (GTS) or even a magnum opus. It's just the simple, beautiful sounds of a man trying to "get my stupid mind together," as he sings on "Sick of Goodbyes" (unfortunately, this particular song didn't gain any luster in the six years since co-writer David Lowery released it on Cracker's Kerosene Hat).
Good Morning Spider is a wobbly hula-hoop of a listening experience. The opener, "Pig," starts out with a few seconds of acoustic guitar before kicking into gear as an uncharacteristically aggressive (though tuneful) bit of Jon Spencer-esque noise in which he proclaims, "I want a new face right now and I want it bad/I want a new body that's strong/I'm a butchered cow." Three minutes later, though, Linkous whispers his way through the slow-motion "Painbirds" as though he's curled up in the fetal position on the studio floor. Though Linkous sticks more closely to the folksier end of the musical spectrum, the album is full of moments to make question marks appear above the listener's head: "Chaos of the Galaxy/Happy Man" frustratingly buries a catchy little number beneath waves of radio crosstalk and static, "Cruel Sun" sounds like it was recorded through a megaphone, and "Ghost of His Smile" sounds like a lo-fi version of the Cars. However, once you're attuned to things, the cobwebby brilliance of the album will carry you through the rough spots and set you down in perfect little musical fields like "Hey, Joe" (it should be against the law to make a Daniel Johnston song sound this wrenchingly pretty). Wait for It's a Wonderful Life to provide you with the sounds of a man appreciating his extra life; Good Morning Spider is the product of a man just coming to terms with it. Grade: A-
It's a Wonderful Life
Willie's comments: Finally hooking up with a producer- Dave Fridmann again- who knows how to play up the beauty of his songs rather than their idiosyncrasies, Linkous has released perhaps the best album of 2001 with It's a Wonderful Life. Utilizing creaky old organs (Wurlitzer, Optigan, Mellotron), his own creaky voice, and vocal contributions from creaky superstars like Tom Waits and PJ Harvey (as well as the Cardigans' Nina Persson, whose supple crooning provides a nice counterpoint), this album feels like a journey through an attic the size of Charles Foster Kane's storeroom. Overheard secrets, faded photos, and a distinctly Southern mix of hospitality and sadness pervade Linkous's lyrics, whether he's lamenting "I can't seem to see through solid marble eyes" or "I'm full of bees that died at sea." The songs wriggle from ancient-sounding waltzes (the title track, which borrows its Optigan line from "Noble Experiment" by Thinking Fellers Union Local 282) to rock that crackles like a warm fire ("King of Nails") to plush chamber-rock that would shame Mercury Rev ("Gold Day"), but all are suffused with a comforting intimacy. It's a Wonderful Life exists in such a perfectly constructed realm of rural timelessness that only the plug for sparklehorse.com that appears in the liner notes reminded me that this was a current album, and not some long-lost LP that managed to find its way into my hands. Grade: A+
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: DANIEL JOHNSTON, CRACKER, PJ HARVEY, THE CARDIGANS, MERCURY REV; KOESTER; DENALI
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The Spent Poets
The Spent Poets
Willie's comments: Back when the term "college rock" described an actual, identifiable genre (i.e., too-clever bands like Possum Dixon and the Pursuit of Happiness who got off on their own "Hey, get me! I'm in a band!" sense of fame too much), the Spent Poets released this fatty collection of coy pop throwbacks that is somewhat randomly being re-released in 2001. Songwriter Adam Gates does manage to come up with a few great, arty rock songs ("Why are You Sleeping with Mister Brown?" melds Sonic Youth squall with an explicit parody of the Beatles' ethnic influences, "The Rocks in Virginia's Dress" is playful U2), but his campy sensibility is often too smug to be much fun. It's easy to mix 'n' match elements from David Bowie, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Beatles, and XTC, but rather pointless if you're not going to bring anything new to the party except pretentious lyrics like "Hell's a golf course that sways like a drunken sailor in tropicana breezes." This album is catchy and listenable in a generic sort of way (I do dig the cheesy, ever-present organs), but all the Spent Poets are really doing is taking a leisurely bike ride down the same irony trail that was first cleared by the far superior Jellyfish. Grade: C+
Dave Charlton writes: I am older and dont like much since 1990. this is the only CD I have heard in which I enjoy every song on the CD. Usually I only like one or two songs. Dont like rap or grunge. I would rate this as the best CD since 1990. I dont understand the lake of originality.
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Willie's comments: My Dutch friend Anne sent me this album for Christmas, and it instantly became one of my favorite albums ever. Spinvis is one guy who records exciting, production-happy indie-rock in his attic studio near Utrecht, though there's nothing lo-fi or cheap-sounding about it. English-speaking ears might take a little while to get acclimated to the amelodic "kchchh" fricative noises that pop up a lot in Dutch, but it will take you no time at all to fall in love with the sweet, infectious songwriting of tracks like "Bagagedrager" or the funky "Limonadeglazen Wodka." Spinvis favors an electronica-inflected style of rock that recalls the Super Furry Animals, a less self-indulgent Cornelius, or Air at their cuddliest (and if you don't mind when the aforementioned artists sing in Welsh, Japanese, or French, respectively, then you have no excuse for complaining that you can't understand the lyrics here). The songs wind their way through lush fields of keyboards and programmed rhythms, but the production never succumbs to studio fussiness; Spinvis knows when to let the arrangements hang back and let his voice be the main attraction, like on the lovable, guitar-based "Smalfilm," but he's happy to give his songs any sound they need to live up to their potential. If I had my way, the taut "Astronout" would've been a worldwide hit, with its compelling vocoderized melody and kick-ass dynamic shifts between the flute-based bridge and the blazing guitars of the chorus, but even in patches where the tunes are a tad underwritten (as with the sloppy closer "Regen en Patchoulli"), there's such an efficient-yet-intimate vibe to Spinvis that it's hard to mind. Despite the fact that Spinvis is on V2 Records in Europe, it's currently unavailable in the United States, but I highly encourage you all to be resourceful and figure out some way of getting ahold of this album. I'd recommend finding a great friend in the Netherlands like Anne, but even the friendless among you need to find some means of getting this. There are literally thousands of great albums out there that you'll probably never hear in your lifetime. Don't let this be one of them. Grade: A
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Lazer Guided Melodies
Willie's comments: J. Spaceman writes really interesting melodies. They generally arent catchy enough to remain in your head for long after youre done with the song, but, man, are they gorgeous while theyre going. Lazer Guided Melodies contains twelve songs, irritatingly indexed into four tracks for some stupid reason, and they almost subliminally crescendo from somnambulant dreamscapes ("You Know Its True") to pulsating rockers ("Run," which owes its rhythm to "Da Doo Run Run") and back again, sometimes within the same song. The breathtaking orchestration of songs like "Step Into the Breeze" is a major plus. Grade: A-
Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space
Willie's comments: For the most part, this 1997 release from Spiritualized owes a large debt to the more chaotic portions of Pink Floyds The Wall. The title track is a brilliant, relaxing, polyphonic masterpiece built around the affecting refrain All I want in lifes a little bit of love to take the pain away; and a few tracks like Broken Heart evoke Brian Enos Another Green World more than Floyd, but the exquisitely orchestrated Come Together, Electricity, and No God Only Religion rock and roil like nobodys business. Cop Shoot Cop... disintegrates into self-indulgent noise, and Cool Waves sounds too much like an African spiritual for my liking, but this album transports Floyd to the 90s much better than, say, The Division Bell. My hat is off to J. Spaceman. Grade: B+
Let It Come Down
Willie's comments: You have to realize that, when I talk about the orchestration of Spiritualized's music, I'm not talking about some dinky, Pernice Brothers-esque string section. I'm talking about the sort of full theatrical treatment that would make James Horner green with envy- brass, strings, woodwinds, timpani, anything you can name. Let It Come Down adds a complete gospel choir to the mix on some tracks, indicating that the Spaceman's ambitions have only grown since Ladies and Gentlemen. But has his psychedelic chamber rock grown to match the size of Spiritualized's supporting cast? Depends on what you're looking for, I guess. More than a few critics have already commented on the maturity of this album's lyrics, and I guess I just don't see it. Spaceman's mordant wit is still intact (despite the dated skewering of recovery programs in "The Twelve Steps"), but he still doesn't sing about anything besides love, God, and drugs. Fine topics for rock 'n' roll, sure, but they don't exactly represent an artistic blossoming for Spiritualized. More disappointing is the fact that the album begins with seven of the best songs ever written by a human being (the stirringly hopeful "Do It All Over Again," the scuzzy "Out of Sight") and then wraps the whole thing up with four impotent, sappy sketches that forget the rock part of orchestral rock. Imagine if you were watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade on TV, and in the opening ranks were Nelson Mandela, Thomas Pynchon, a miraculously resurrected John Lennon and the other three Beatles, Marlon Brando carrying the severed head of Osama Bin Laden, a scantily-clad Natasha Gregson Wagner, and Jesus Christ... and then, for the grand finale, they've got your next-door neighbor on his riding mower, tossing out handfuls of confetti as he takes swigs from a bottle of Jagermeister. You couldn't call it a bad parade, since it still started out with so much amazingly cool stuff, but it'd be more than a little anticlimactic, right? Right. Grade: B
Cole Bozman writes: on Spiritualized - Ladies & Gentlemen bla bla bla:
ye gods, what'd they do, record at 15 ips then master it at 7 1/2? the wall of sound approach is neat, but it's all so goddamn slow that I can hardly listen to half of it at a time, much less the entire thing. maybe if I smoked a lot of pot, I'd like it more, but as it stands, I give it a C, or something close to that.
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Willie's comments: Mixing accomplished prog rock with early new wave, Zappa-esque experimentation, and almost operatic orchestration, Split Enzs first incarnation was an excellent freak rock band (contemporary parallels would be calmer Mercury Rev or a more tuneful Beta Band). Frontmen Tim Finn and Phil Judd create songs that are totally gorgeous, but also totally weird. Walking Down a Road, Under the Wheel, and Stranger than Fiction each have enough melodies for three or four songs, but theyre stapled together in invigorating ways, anchored by the pretty piano work of Finn and Eddie Rayner. Maybe and Amy (Darling), on the other hand, are fairly pedestrian pop songs that are improved by the bizarre arrangements and, when Judd sings, an inimitably, hilariously irritating delivery (he bleats like a demented sheep). It never goes so far as to be grating, though- much of Mental Notes sounds like a Tommy-esque rock opera written by an insane classical composer. Even after 25 years, it still sounds futuristic, too. Grade: A
Willie's comments: This marks the point where Split Enzs discography gets confusing, so pay attention. For whatever reason, the Enzers second album reprises- with slightly different arrangements- four songs from Mental Notes. That leaves only five new songs, which are perfectly good, but (except for the wonderful Matinee Idyll ) inessential and very much in the Mental Notes vein. High-quality filler though it is, its still filler. Stick with the first album. Grade: C+
Willie's comments: Judd left the band before the recording of this album, and Tims brother Neil (later of Crowded House) joined in a supporting capacity. When Judd left, he took most of the bands more bipolar tendencies with him; most songs from Dizrythmia pretty much stick to one melody, theme, tempo, etc. That doesnt mean Split Enz got any less unconventional, however. Just more disciplined. This albums opener, Bold as Brass, is one of the best songs ever penned, with strangely magnetized guitars zipping around a twisty vocal line and many whimsical noises in the background. This all adds up to a fascinating and infectious pop stew that couldve been the cornerstone around which a hundred bands were built- They Might Be Giants, Ween, Lincoln, et al. The rest of the album cant match that songs greatness, but its nonetheless a sturdy album, with highlights being the pretty Without a Doubt and the disturbing Charlie. Grade: B+
Willie's comments: The band didnt mature much between Dizrythmia and Frenzy- they sound like basically the same album, except Frenzy has a few concessions to traditional, Tubes-esque new wave (I See Red, Master Plan), and more ballads. There are more weird noises, unpredictable- though catchy- melodies, and engagingly strange lyrics. Hermit McDermitt and the title track are the best of the lot, but keyboardist Rayner emerges as a terrific songwriter with the angular Marooned. Grade: B+
The Beginning of the Enz
Willie's comments: Following Frenzy, the Enz released this album, which was recorded before Mental Notes but never released, which means its got a bunch of great Judd/Tim Finn collaborations, including embryonic versions of Second Thoughtss 129 and Mental Notess Spellbound. There are, frustratingly, no liner notes indicating who the other band members were at this point, but wind instruments (flutes, saxamaphones, etc.) play a prominent role in most of the songs, like early Kraftwerk. Arranged in a more orthodox manner, some of the songs could sound credibly like the Beatles or Simon & Garfunkel, but by refusing to deign to commonplace songwriting techniques, Judd and Finn create wholly original numbers like Split Ends and For You that are, typically, just as interesting as they are catchy. Grade: A
Willie's comments: Neil began taking a more active songwriting role about this time, and for this album, he wrote the Enzs biggest hit ever, I Got You. You can still hear this song on radio stations sometimes, and with good reason: the moaning, ominous keyboards of the verses provide a perfect contrast to the anthemic chorus (I dont know why sometimes I get frightened), and its a brilliant synth-pop tune. In fact, True Colours itself is a superior synth-pop album. Its not going to win any points for originality, sounding as it does like A Flock of Seagulls, but its hard to argue with the hooky appeal of songs like Whats the Matter with You, Double Happy, and Tims amusing self-pity tune Nobody Takes Me Seriously. This album might make you wax nostalgaic for Split Enzs earlier, more groundbreaking work, but True Colours is nevertheless long on charm. Grade: B+
Willie's comments: This album, for reasons unknown to me, is also sometimes seen under the title Waiata. Who knows why. Anyway, as great as the Enzs new-wave work on True Colours was, it wears a bit thin here. Not that the songs arent catchy- Hard Act to Follow and One Step Ahead are particularly great- but it just all feels a bit redundant. If nothing else, Corroboree makes clear that the Enz have a true secret weapon in Eddie Rayner. His vaguely experimental, vaguely classical tunes (Wail and Albert of India here) never fail to shake things up a bit, to beautiful effect. If youre really, really into the Finn brothers canon, then you certainly wont be disappointed. But if youre not a die-hard fan, theres really not much remarkable here to recommend. Grade: B-
Time and Tide
Willie's comments: This album is almost a return to form, with extremely catchy songs like Lost for Words, Six Months in a Leaky Boat, and Dirty Creature incorporating pseudo-reggae rhythms. Thats at least something different. And Haul Away is Tims ecstatic, autobiographical song that simultaneously evokes the Dukes of Stratosphear and a Renaissance festival. Still, the anarchic sense of adventure that marked the bands early work- or even great, Juddless albums Dizrythmia and Frenzy- is missing. Forgive the excessive aquatic imagery, but Time and Tide is just treading water. Grade: B
Enz of an Era
Willie's comments: This is a serviceable greatest hits album thats basically a collection of the bands most easily accessible numbers. Disappointingly enough, nothing from Mental Notes or The Beginning of the Enz is represented here, in favor of more basic songs like My Mistake and I See Red. Still, theres no denying that Tim and Neil can write hooky songs: I Got You, Bold as Brass, and Six Months in a Leaky Boat are all here, and its nice to have them in one compact place. The previously unreleased Another Great Divide is worthless, but I would recommend picking this album up instead of Time and Tide or Corroboree. Grade: A-
Willie's comments: For this album, Neil emerged as Split Enzs main songwriter (penning six of the ten songs), which is okay with me, because he turns out some great tunes. The effects-happy Bullet Brain and Cactus Head recaptures the anything-goes spirit of Mental Notes, and just about everybody in the world loves the ballad Message to My Girl, which is both pretty and eloquent (but if, like me, youre a fan of Duran Durans Is There Something I Should Know, the resemblence between the two songs will basically kill Message to My Girl for you). The Enz sound almost like the Talking Heads on No Mischief, while I Wake Up Every Night is as catchy as anything the B-52s ever did, and features unapologetically cheesy keyboards. Conflicting Emotions would be Tims swan song with the band (except for reunion tours), and its appropriately grand. Grade: A
See Ya Round
Willie's comments: Even if I hadnt told you, youd figure out by listening to it that this is Split Enzs final studio album. Neil seems a bit unsure what to do now that Tims gone, and obliquely alludes to breaking up the band in I Walk Away. The last half of the album is taken up by songs written by members of the Enz who dont typically get to- the always superlative Rayner, bassist Nigel Griggs, percussionist Noel Crombie, and new acerbic drummer Paul Hester (who joined Neil in Crowded House after this album). Neils songwriting is still top-notch, if a bit darker in songs like Years Go By. But the many songwriters make See Ya Round lack cohesion, great as songs like Adz are. It feels like a one-off, which, of course, it was. Its all good fun, but I still wish Neil wouldve saved his songs for Crowded House and just left Split Enz alone once Tim took off. It just doesnt feel right, somehow. Grade: B
The Living Enz
Willie's comments: This is a double CD that documents a 1984 show in Australia as well as six additional live tracks recorded elsewhere. Many of the performances are invigorating and energetic (particularly I See Red, which is thrillingly dizzying), and some of them merely pay lip service to the studio versions, but the Finns energy is always contagious. (Just an aside, but itd be worth your while to pick up one or two Crowded House bootlegs. Theyre always fun. You dont necessarily need 100, like my brother, but they really were a tremendous live band.) Despite a poor recording, this is a good example of the super shows Split Enz would put on. Bonus points for having the cajones not to include I Got You. Grade: B
History Never Repeats (The Best of Split Enz)
Willie's comments: This is basically a truncated version of Enz of an Era that includes Message to My Girl but not anything that predates True Colours (except I See Red). Therefore, it does not include Bold as Brass. And therefore again, you should skip it and get Enz of an Era. Theres really nothing more to say; History Never Repeats is simply superfluous. Grade: C-
Oddz and Enz
Willie's comments: Oddz and Enz is a 6-CD set that includes every album from Mental Notes through The Beginning of the Enz, as well as an enjoyable bonus CD of unreleased material called Oddz and Enz. However, it is, I understand, possible to buy Oddz and Enz the album without buying Oddz and Enz the box set, which is advisable only to people who already own all of Split Enzs first five albums (well, maybe not Second Thoughts...). Otherwise, why not just splurge and buy this very economical collection (it costs about $70, which is pretty cheap considering that the first five albums are available only as imports)? You really should own these albums. Come on, spoil yourself. You deserve it! Grade: A+
Willie's comments: Basically Oddz and Enz Part II, this is a 6-CD set that contains the band's final five studio albums and a reasonably good bonus CD called Rear Enz. It's just as economical as Oddz and Enz, but not really as necessary to own, only because the band's later albums were so inconsistent. If you're a die-hard, this will serve you fine (although how did you get to be a die-hard without already owning these albums?), but if I were you, I'd just buy Conflicting Emotions and maybe True Colours. Still, you can't beat the price! Grade: B
Graham Fyfe writes: Waiata is a Maori word (NZs native inhabitants). Corroboree is it's Aborigine equivalent (Australian).
Jules writes: Hi just found your site and think it's excellent. I'm a huge music fan myself and appreciate diverse sounds as well, but actually was looking for Split Enz, when I noticed you don't seem to have any reference about Schnell Fenster, which surely you must know about! A band composed of Phil Judd, Noel Crombie Nigel Griggs and Micheal Den Elzen. Surely you must at least appreciate some of the awesome guitar work and melodies on The Sound of Trees? When I first saw Schnell Fenster in about 1988 when they were first doing publicity and had their first single out, it was as if for someone born in 1974, who missed most of split enz as a child, and caught what I could on Countdown...it was as if, Split Enz had been born again...I was ecstatic...Schnell Fenster (german for quick window) were not like Crowded House, they had the proper Enz weirdness to them....meanwhile Tim relesead yet another accoustic/folk sounding meandering solo thing....but even Schenll Fenster's second album while not as consistent and lacking the same "spaced out weird rock modern sounding guitar based arty atmosphere" that seemed something like the image on the cover (a portrait by Phil of somewhere in Melbourne I think) ....you must at least refer to this band please! :-)
Oh and btw, Corroboree was released in Australia in the name of Corroboree, where it means "gathering for a tribal event" and was released for the rest of the world as "Waiata" a Maori word <from New Zealand> meaning much the same thing. Why ? Cos they're all Kiwis! (well, except for Nigel Griggs and Paul Hester...but you know what I mean) perhaps there was some NZ significance to naming the album that...
Ps: my favourite albums are definetly the first three, I think second thoughts has elements and atmosphere all of its own that still sets it apart from Mental Notes. Mental Notes is like surreal art rock world, Second thoughts is more like some kind of twisted musical hall , whereas Dizrythmia is an alternative future dimension science fiction, you can still hear Mike Chunn's basslines though, even if N/G plays them...and you can hear Phil's writing in Sugar and Spice...
I hate True Colours 99 percent of the time, but I hope I never is spine tinglingly odd and beautiful , like Tim keeps doing. He seems to have a talent for beautiful but disturbing songs, and for this reason Conflicting emotions is also one of my favourites, cos it is so lush sounding, especially the awesome title track which is chilling....ah I love split enz....oh I totally love Neil's Try whistling This , it means a lot to me, I've heard some of the second one, I like "rest of the day off" a lot...neil is a genius...Tim has finally gotten his act back together too and started writing proper songs again...perhaps another reunion should be soon?
again, thanks for your site and your interest in music, I like a lot of what I see
David R. writes: Hello, I was interested to read the following comment in your review of Split Enz's True Colours album (http://www.disclaimerband.com/s.html#splitenz)
"...Its not going to win any points for originality, sounding as it does like A Flock of Seagulls..."
True Colours was released in 1980 - A Flock of Seagulls didn't release their first album until 1982. In fact, an article on the Seagulls official web site confirms that it was the Seagulls who were influenced by Split Enz (not the other way around!) www.aflockofseagulls.co.uk/tpressfive.html
SEE ALSO: CROWDED HOUSE
SEE ALSO: NEIL FINN
SEE ALSO: SWINGERS
SEE ALSO: FINN BROTHERS
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The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie soundtrack
Willie's comments: SpongeBob SquarePants is an odd little kiddie-culture phenomenon. Its grody surrealism is a blatant rip-off of Ren & Stimpy, yet its smart and witty enough to retain Mr. Shows Tom Kenny as its main characters voice. Its mainstream enough for its ubiquitous characters to be used as pimps for everything from school supplies to Cheez-Its, yet its hip enough to attract guest stars like Jeffrey Tambor, Stew, and Jim Jarmusch. The soundtrack to SpongeBobs feature film debut is similarly confounding, with a combination of kids-will-listen-to-anything opportunism and whimsy-is-worth-the-effort inspiration that delivers just enough amusement to justify the headaches and keep you coming back to it. The first nine tracks are especially great, highlighted by a sweet Flaming Lips song that manages to recount the movies plot in the service of Wayne Coynes usual triumph-over-adversity lyrics and a tune catchier than anything on At War with the Mystics (SpongeBob & Patrick Confront the Psychic Wall of Energy), and also offer arguably the catchiest song Wilco has yet recorded (Just a Kid) and a typically enjoyable Shins tune (Theyll Soon Discover) alongside top-notch childrens fare like Prince Pauls Bubble Party (a great bit of hip-hop playfulness made up largely of samples from an early SpongeBob episode) and some Beach Boys-y optimism by SpongeBob himself (The Best Day Ever). After Weens Ocean Man, though (which, in addition to being thematically relevant, is a fine enticement for kids to pick up Weens masterpiece The Mollusk), things sink to deep-sea angler fish levels in a hurry. A Motorhead song that sounds like every other Motorhead song, a marching-band song from the film that wrecks the movies funniest visual gag, an obnoxious silly-voice extravaganza from Patrick the starfish, etc. Granted, the soundtrack has been assembled with more care than a lot of cartoon compilations that are ostensibly more grown-up (e.g., Chef Aid: The South Park Album, The Simpsons Sing the Blues), but that doesnt excuse the fact that the second half of the disc can largely be compared unfavorably to Squidward honking away on his clarinet. Grade: B
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Girls Can Tell
Willie's comments: Nowhere outside of the hip-hop community and Henry Rollins's body of work have I seen such a total disregard for the importance of a vocal melody as indie-rockers Spoon present here. It's not a shortcoming that jumps out at you right away on Girls Can Tell- the opener "Everything Hits at Once" stays afloat by clinging to a syncopated keyboard line and some gently memorable guitar work- but once you get a few songs into the album and Britt Daniel's voice degenerates into a Gavin Rossdale-esque grunt, you'll notice that the songs really don't have a center. Jim Eno's confident drumming pushes things along sure enough, but the instruments themselves come at you in rhythmic spurts, seemingly there to accentuate nonexistant vocal lines. (The exception is "Lines in the Suit," which takes the reverse approach, stapling an underweight arrangement to a terrific melody.) The lyrics aren't much better- the Constitutional enjoiner of "Take the Fifth" makes little sense within the context of the song, while "The Fitted Shirt" is just crotchety ("I long for the days they used to say 'Ma'am' and 'Yes sir'"). I realize this description makes Girls Can Tell sound like the worst album ever recorded, but it's almost never off-putting, really (apart from "The Fitted Shirt," which is alt-rock so generic as to evoke another band whose name begins with S-P-O and who enjoyed minor popularity in the early '90s). That is to say that it's not actively abrasive; only so formless that it seems to melt before your ears like a cheap gold bracelet. Grade: C
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: TOBIN SPROUT
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Spring Heel Jack
Busy Curious Thirsty
Willie's comments: Boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring. For all the energy that goes into drum-and-bass techno, this album is just a repetitive, pounding mess. While I realize repetition is key to producing danceable electronica music, there arent even any amusing, Propellerheads-esque samples or noises to shake things up a little here. Just the occasional orchestral note (one note, repeated ad infinitum). Cripe, this is annoying! Grade: D
LoadesC writes: Busy Curious Thirsty
is one of the best drum'n' bass albums around. Like many albums of this genre
it does outstay it's welcome a little, you also have to be in the right mood
to listen to it. Best appreciated loud and with the lights out. It's clearly
not along the lines of your favourite stuff - catchy, rather safe power pop.
My Spring heel Jack ratings:
One million shades B+
There are Strings A-
Busy Curious Thirsty A-
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT SPRING HEEL JACK
Willie's comments: In Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout only got to contribute two or three songs per album, which was a shame because his compositions like "To Remake the Young Flyer" stood out above even Robert Pollards best material. On his own, Sprout has proved that his GBV gems were no fluke- Carnival Boy is a masterpiece of catchy, poppy indie rock that falls somewhere between R.E.M. and Sebadohs calmer stuff. Sprout paints a soothing but somehow unsettling musical world on this album- a land where Syd Barrett lives on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams and love, fear, and pain are indistinguishable from one another. Grade: A+
Moonflower Plastic (Welcome to My Wigwam)
Willie's comments: On his first post-GBV album, Sprout ups the production values a little (the tape hiss that squalled through songs like "Cooler Jocks" on the last album is gone), and lets some of his self-consciousness go as well. This results in a few gorgeous, clearhearted piano ballads like "Since I..." and "Moonflower Plastic (Youre Here)." However, fans of Carnival Boy wont be disappointed; theres still plenty of energetic ear candy here, from the hilariously-peppy-given-its-title "Beast of Souls" to the buoyant "Exit Planes." Grade: A
Let's Welcome the Circus People
Willie's comments: A bit of Pollard-esque atonality creeps into Sprouts songwriting on this album, making songs like "Smokey Joes Perfect Hair" sound just a tad off the mark. And while there is an abundance of keyboards throughout the album, that doesnt stop a discouraging sameness from pervading songs like "And So On" and "Maid to Order," catchy though they are on their own. Still, its great fun to hear Midwestern Sprout attempt a Paul McCartney accent on "Liquor Bag," and "Digging Up Wooden Teeth" is a pleasure. Grade: B
Demos & Outtakes
Willie's comments: The existence of Sprout's 20-song Demos & Outtakes CD is a bit of a head-scratcher. There isn't much here for diehard fans to chew on; a whopping 16 of these songs have seen prior release somewhere (either on GBV albums, the above solo albums, or the debut album from Sprout's Eyesinweasel project), and most of these demos aren't dramatically different from their finished form. Sure, the rubbery wah-wah guitar on "Little Bit of Dread" is cute, and it's interesting to hear how peppy "Smokey Joe" is without the spooky keyboard, but most of these songs just sound like sloppier takes of the album versions. On the other hand, newcomers might be put off by the sub-basement production values. Granted, tape hiss has always been as much a part of Tobin Sprout albums as angular guitars and fake British accents, but some of these songs sound like streaming audio taped on a microcassette recorder located inside a washing machine. If you aren't already familiar with Sprout's body of work, you are hereby ordered to skip this extraneous release and pick up Carnival Boy. If you do have a working knowledge of his oeuvre, you can ignore the second part of that directive. Grade: C+
Lost Planets & Phantom Voices
Willie's comments: Apart from a couple silly instrumental asides (the loungey surf goof "Martini" and the harmless Casio mess "Fortunes Theme No. 1"), Tobin's fourth solo album is so homogenous it occasionally threatens to topple over into pancake-batter blandness. Not much changes from one song to the next: mid-tempo basement pop that features Sprout's endearingly pinched voice harmonizing with itself, backed by several layers of guitars that seamlessly balance crisp distortion and friendly jangle. His formula goes down so easily, in fact, that a few songs ("Rub Your Buddha Tummy," "Earth Links") drift on by without even announcing their presence. Thank the lo-fi gods, then, that those are the exceptions, since Sprout hasn't lost his gift for peppy and addictive melodies. Whether he's multi-tracking himself humming until it achieves epic grandeur on "Let Go of My Beautiful Balloon" or just letting loose with effortless, soaring choruses on "Doctor #8" and "Catch the Sun," Sprout has a gentle, patient touch that can coax beauty from even the most weightless of arrangements. It's still no match for his twin masterpieces Carnival Boy and Moonflower Plastic, but Lost Planets is full of enough small-scale indie-pop pleasure to make it worth your while. Grade: B+
SEE ALSO: GUIDED BY VOICES
SEE ALSO: EYESINWEASEL
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: SPOON
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Classics Volume 25
Willie's comments: Don't be misled by the title. There are only two truly classic songs on this greatest hits compilation: "Cool for Cats" and "Up the Junction," two boppy little synth-pop numbers swelling with Cockney charm. The rest of this album showcases Squeeze's devolution from a nifty new wave outfit (the opener, "Take Me I'm Yours," is engagingly New Order-esque) to a bunch of determinedly eclectic Talking Heads wannabes. The band's earlier work is vastly more enjoyable- particularly the screwball soundscape "Wild Sewarage Tickles Brazil" and the catchy "If I Didn't Love You." But right around the time that the useless pseudo-soul trifle "Tempted" came out, things started to fall apart. Apart from the derivative but infectious "Heartbreaking World," everything represented on this album after 1981 pretty much sucks- especially the repulsive rootsy crap of "Striking Matches." As such, Classics Volume 25 offers few clues as to why Squeeze is seen as such an influential- even respected- band. Grade: C+
John Schlegel writes: The Squeeze compilation you review here is a piece of garbage, and the worst feasible collection of the band's material I can imagine. Your review is dead on--their older, quirky new wave stuff is oodles of fun, but with East Side Story the band started to go all boring, neo-'50s, '80s wuse-pop sounding, like Simply Red or something. I actually like the song "Tempted," but not really anything from Squeeze after that. I want to proclaim something here: The band's Argybargy is an '80s pop/new wave MASTERPIECE. And, much to my chagrin, the one single from that album represented on the comp. reviewed above, "If I Didn't Love You," is one of Argybargy's weakest tracks! Where are the mindblowingly-BRILLIANT "Pulling Mussels (from the Shell)" and "Another Nail for My Heart"?!! The collection does have "Cool for Cats" and "Up the Junction," which are highly enticing classics, but not a whole lot else from the earlier records is here. Want my advice? Get the simple, single-album length collection "Singles, 45's and Under," which just collects earlier hits. It's AMAZING, and actually happens to be both a Best Buy CD and a used music store mainstay (somehow!). Argybargy is also worth having if you can find it; it is out of print, like a handful of '80s new wave and college rock gems, including Robyn Hitchcock's Fegmania! and the Smithereens' Especially for You (hence, my copies of all these albums are vinyl). With that, as news anchor Kent Brockman from the Simpsons says, "That's my two cents."
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Squirrel Nut Zippers
Willie's comments: If you own only one album from the ill-advised Swing Revival (not that Im saying you should necessarily own any), this should be the one. Not only have the Zippers been around substantially longer than bandwagon-jumpers Cherry Poppin Daddies, but theyre much more talented at replicating the spirit and sound of the original swing albums than, say, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy or even the Brian Setzer Orchestra. And, happily, the Zippers dont confine themselves to the straightforward swing of songs like Memphis Exorcism or Got My Own Thing Now. The deservedly popular single Hell is more mambo than swing, and it wouldnt sound out of place on the Big Night soundtrack, while Twilight is a ballad that sounds convincingly like a song from an old Bosco cartoon, and Put a Lid on It evokes the Stray Cats. A little of this stuff goes a long way with any band, but Hot has more hooks, sincerity and talent than anyone else in this genre, if you like that sort of thing. Grade: B
THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: THE CONAN O'BRIEN SHOW ALBUM; A LIFE LESS ORDINARY SOUNDTRACK
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: BEN FOLDS FIVE
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The Chris Stamey Experience
A Question of Temperature (with Yo La Tengo)
[NOTE: This review is based on the version of this album that was released as V.O.T.E. under Stamey's name a few months before this came out.
A Question of Temperature has a slightly different track order and an extra track or two, but as far as I can tell, it's basically the same album. Sorry for the confusion.]
Willie's comments: My experience with Chris Stamey's post-dB's work is fairly limited, but from the bit I've heard- the sappy (if harmless) Mavericks album he recorded with Peter Holsapple and the forgettable solo disc Fireworks- teaming up with a band as inventive and unconventional as Yo La Tengo was a good gamble, in order to rough up his often-timid jangle-pop sound a bit. And to that end, this collection of songs on which YLT serves as his backing band (as they did on Jad Fair's disposable Strange But True and a Ray Davies album that will apparently never see the light of day) works, because their fondness for atmospheric noise and unstructured guitar babblement dilutes some of Stamey's syrup. However, V.O.T.E. (named after a cute, poppy pro-voting PSA that kicks off the album) is terminally flighty in the end. Half the album is devoted to covers, and although the run at the Yardbirds' "Shapes of Things" is vibrant and Stamey's voice shines on a peaceful version of Television's "Venus," the remainder just seem ill-chosen- particularly an interminable slog through Cream's blues-rock monstrosity "Politician." Stamey's originals are similarly uneven, ranging from two versions of the underwritten lullaby "Sleepless Nights" (nice, subtle feedback work from Ira Kaplan, but not much else to keep your attention) and the ear-squashingly generic rockabilly of "Desperate Man" to the more pleasant likes of the shimmering guitar-pop of "The Summer Sun." However, the only song on which the two artists' respective proclivities really gel into something special is the eleven-minute "McCauley Street (Let's Go Downtown)," which starts off a gentle, Galaxie 500-esque wisp of a pop song and then just keeps building and building and building into a majestic fireball of guitar noise that eventually hits supernova and then calms itself back down again. I realize that this is the sort of inter-band project for which you're supposed to put aside your expectations a little, in order to join in on the seemingly impromptu fun, but I'll do no such thing! Grade: B-
SEE ALSO: THE dB'S
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: YO LA TENGO
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT CHRIS STAMEY
The Dream that Stuff was Made Of
Ginny's comments: I'm actually quite proud of myself for this album, cuz it was pure research that lead me to discover them. It's quite rare that I just buy an album without having heard a note of it first, but after consistent rave reviews and comparisons to the likes of the Pixies, Flaming Lips, and The Olivia Tremor Control, how could you go wrong? My adventerous palette paid off! They are quirky, fun, yadda yadda-- all of those positive words that music critics are so fond of. They share a hometown with the Lips (Norman, Oklahoma) so the influence is obviously there, though it's more Clouds Taste Metallic than The Soft Bulletin. What's great about this album, though is the way it pulls off such a wide range of styles without losing its coherence. For instance, "Cracker Jack" is Grandaddy-esque, which flows straight into the meaty "Matador" (sorta reminiscent of Crash Test Dummies) and by the end of the CD ends with the gentle "Pulling Out My Hair" a la Belle and Sebastian or gentler Pixies. Now if that doesn't take talent, I don't know what does. Grade: A
P.S. I went this entire review without using the words "crunchy" or "gritty!" Bonus!
Willie's comments: As much as I love serious songsters like Radiohead, Bob Mould, and Nick Drake, it's always great to hear a band who strives only to have fun. The Starlight Mints are the best such band I've heard in a long while. There are no important statements to be found on The Dream that Stuff was Made Of; no lyrics calculated to tear at your heartstrings or fire up your synapses. Just 11 top-notch indie rock songs built around unsteady rhythms that rattle like a wooden roller coaster, and enough childlike energy to keep a goofy grin on your face from beginning to end. On one level, the Starlight Mints' music can be a fun exercise in indie-rock history: along the way, frontman Allan Vest tips his hat to Weezer ("Valerie Flames"), the Violent Femmes ("The Twilight Showdown"), the Pixies' Surfer Rosa ("Sugar Blaster"), Pavement's affinity for wordplay ("Sir Prize"), and Camper Van Beethoven's faux ethnic pretensions ("Margarita"). However, that's intellectualizing things a bit too much- the point of the music is just to groove on the twisted melodies and erratic guitar riffs that permeate the album. The best songs are buoyed by James Honderich's exuberant violin work, but The Dream that Stuff was Made Of is a cheeky thrill throughout. Grade: A
Built on Squares
Willie's comments: You'd never know it from the evidence, but the Mints are down to a three-piece for their sophomore effort (though with plenty of guests when needed). From the opening bars of "Black Cat" (a kicky, slinky geek-pop confection that manages to work in a Puttin' on the Ritz-style string section, a killer indie chorus, and a coda based on the sounds of tap shoes), it's clear that this band has cohered into something more than an amalgam of their increasingly far-flung influences. It's also clear that they've become addicted to the myriad cool noises that can be made with Pro Tools, because nary a second of this album is left without at least half a dozen instruments playing, or some interesting sound filling the gaps between notes. Horns! Strings! Vibraphones! Harmonicas! All over the place! And lest you should think this is a subdued, Mercury Rev-style affair, with busy, semi-orchestral arrangements slowly building, the Starlight Mints keep things moving at a dizzying retro-indie-rock pace, not letting up for a second on songs like the grooving, arpeggio-happy "Pages" or the ominous surf-rock of "Jimmy Cricket." Somehow, it all manages to be as classy (in a whimsical way) as it is cutesy, and if it weren't for the fact that Vest takes a few too many dips in the pool of twitchy spoken vocal lines (think Buildings and Food-era David Byrne), I'd be tempted to call this a must-own. As is, this is still a production masterpiece with an unbeatable first half: with "Black Cat" being followed up by other mini-classics in the form of "Brass Digger," "Goldstar," "Pages," and "Buena Vista," Built on Squares is mostly as hip, clever, and fun as its pseudo-Saul Bass cover art. Dig it. Grade: A-
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Willie's comments: The idea of a bunch of Brits who sometimes sing in French and who have an unquenchable affection for arty German rockers like Can and Neu! might sound a bit confusing. The maddeningly brilliant Stereolab realizes this, and plays off your confusion to allow themselves leeway to indulge in any- or every- musical whim they see fit. Their signature sound- fashioning carbonated pop out of such unlikely elements as taped-down Moog keys and staccato backing vocals- is still rather lumpy with their influences on Peng. In addition to borrowing the aforementioned krautrockers' love for musical notes that last longer than the Autobahn, songwriters Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier also owe a large debt to the Velvet Underground (most audible in the jarringly clangy guitar of "You Little Shits"), and while it's a consistently charming mix, it feels a little lacking in places. Songs like "Super Falling Star" and "Surrealchemist" are a little sketchy, as the band seems too unsure of themselves to even allow drummer Joe Dilworth a place in them. For being in such an embryonic state, though, Stereolab still lands a number of bullseyes that make this album worth investigating: "K-Stars" is a brooding stunner, "Stomach Worm" is an extraordinarily palatable glimpse into the band's self-indulgent side, and "The Seeming and the Meaning," though a touch generic, is still frenetic enough to land a place among the quintessential Stereolab recordings. Definitely not the place to start, but once you get into the band elsewhere, it's worth a little backtrack. Grade: B+
Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements
Willie's comments: On this, their third proper album, the Stereo Lab spits out some of their most rewardingly aggressive work. "Our Trinitone Blast" is a rarity in the world of Stereolab: an actual song (with a chorus and everything!) as opposed to the blessedly cheesy drones that take up most of this and their other albums. "Golden Ball" is similarly memorable, with more feedback and distortion than this rather loungey band usually includes. It doesn't quite add up to an opus of the magnitude of their masterpiece, Emperor Tomato Ketchup, but any album that includes a one-note, 18-minute track ("Jenny Ondioline") that's not just listenable but lovable is worth checking out, no? Grade: B+
Mars Audiac Quintet
Willie's comments: This 1994 effort seems like a step backwards. The songs are, with few exceptions, long, keyboard-based drones based on endless (and I emphasize endless) repetition and polyphonic vocal interactions, with none of the musical diversity or experimentation of their previous album. At times, the band comes across as a happier-sounding Yo La Tengo (if Georgia Hubley had Sadiers practiced, pseudo-accented delivery), and songs like Wow and Flutter can be charmingly hypnotic, but 67 minutes of musical stasis is an awful lot. Grade: B-
Emperor Tomato Ketchup
Willie's comments: This is the masterpiece that Stereolab had previously hinted at but never really seen through. While still employing Krautrock drones and repetitive musical themes to trance-inducing effect, Emperor Tomato Ketchup is when the band started paying attention to their rhythm section. As such, songs like Metronomic Underground and the title track bounce gleefully along on a bed of percussion and bass, painted liberally with Moogs and Sadliers nonsensical lyrics (I hate to see your broken face/ This world would give you anything/ As long as you will want to, she sings on The Noise of Carpet). Theres one good song after another, and best of all, none of them sound like any of the others, really. Grade: A
Dots and Loops
Willie's comments: Not as consistently surprising as Emperor Tomato Ketchup, but just as consistently enjoyable, Dots and Loops boasts some of the most cheerful melodies you'll ever hear (without ever falling prey to the sort of unbearable lounge kitsch that distinguishes the Mike Flowers Pops or Esquivel). True to its title, the album's focus is on amusing percussion just as much as it is on the band's beloved Moogs and tremolo-strangled vibes. "Prisoner of Mars," for example, bops along to the rhythm of electronic crickets, the Volkswagen pitch song "Parsec" is magnificently dinky jungle music, and the two-song suite "Contronatura" features a hypnotic break full of Mouse on Mars-worthy squishing sounds. As I said, the upbeat mood of the album never moves even an inch to the left or right, but unlike Mars Audiac Quintet, this one holds your attention nonetheless. Grade: A
Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night
Willie's comments: Okay, here is where the lounge influences fully take over, prodded along by producers Jim O'Rourke (currently of Sonic Youth) and John McEntire (of Tortoise and the Sea and Cake). Cobra and Phases takes the brave step of pushing the Moogs- which are, let's face it, Stereolab's defining timbre- to the background, and filling in that empty space with strings, horns, and other toys. And then they take another big risk, replacing their famous drones with interesting, polyrhythmic arrangements that intertwine as perfectly as the two snakes on that symbol that everyone thinks stands for the American Medical Association, even though their logo actually has only one snake. So what you get, on great songs like "Blips Drips and Strips," "Infinity Girl," and "Op Hop Detonation," isn't far removed from the cute, muted jazz-pop of someone like Chick Corea, only weirder: complicated, groovy basslines hop around alongside tweeting keyboards and smile-inducing percussion (vibes and marimbas, mostly), while Sadier and second vocalist Mary Hansen sing atop the music in the most beautifully emotionless voices the world has ever heard. At times, it's easy to get the sense that there's less to these songs than meets the ear, since the instrumentation consists of a disproportionate ratio of goofy flourishes to actual themes, but when has Stereolab's music not been a little slight? All that really matters here is that this record has about 50 minutes' worth of fun cocktail music. And then it frustratingly goes on for 25 minutes longer than it needs to. Grade: B
Willie's comments: Following one more lounge-jazz album (the okay Sound-Dust, which I'll get around to reviewing at some point) and Hansen's unfortunate death in a bike accident, Stereolab took a step back in time with Margerine Eclipse. This sounds like the album that an alternate-universe Stereolab would've recorded right after Mars Audiac Quintet, if that Stereolab (we'll call them Stereolab B) had channeled their increased interest in polyrhythmic textures and fuller arrangements back into their synths, instead of piling ever more instruments atop their songs. Buzzy electronic glee reigns supreme here, without any of the lounge-jazz posturing that was ultimately a dead-end on the past couple records. And it's resulted in the happiest sounding album these guys have yet released! The album is dedicated to Hansen, and although the fizzy "Feel and Triple" addresses her death directly- as may some of the French songs; I don't know- it's easy to hear Margerine Eclipse as not an exercise in mourning, but the musical expression of the love and joy the band collectively feels at having known her. The old familiar keyboard drones and chugging guitars are back, amplified with pip-poppity rhythms, effervescent synth comets, and beautiful, upbeat melodies! (Sadier multitracks herself a lot here to fill out the vocal arrangements, and although it's impressive, her grand, throaty voice can't achieve the blissful weightlessness Hansen's did.) "Margerine Melodie" is so glossy that it almost sounds like a MIDI file, while "Margerine Rock" and "Hillbilly Motobike" bounce along like Dr. Seuss contraptions, and "La Demeure," "Dear Marge," and "Cosmic Country Noir" shift rhythms and themes abruptly, but with such cheerful energy that it works. Stereolab has always sounded like Stereolab and really no one else, so how impressive is it that their ninth full-length of variations on this style is one of their best? Grade: A-
THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: KIDS IN THE HALL: BRAIN CANDY SOUNDTRACK; HIGH FIDELITY SOUNDTRACK
SEE ALSO: SNOWPONY
SEE ALSO: UILAB
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: BLUR, TORTOISE; MOUSE ON MARS
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT STEREOLAB
Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State
Willie's comments: I don't know what sort of perception the rest of the world has of Michigan as a whole. Detroit has a reputation for a reliably great hockey team, a couple dozen decent bands every 20 years or so, and lawlessness one step away from anarchy the rest of the time. Ann Arbor is famous for being a liberal college town that's the Midwest's answer to Berkeley. But apart from that, I have no clue what sort of image my home state presents to those who don't live here. Well, let me tell you what it's like: no matter where you travel in Michigan, there's a pervasive, tangible restlessness. My out-of-state friends and relatives comment on it when they visit, and I've never noticed it anywhere else I've travelled. It's not necessarily an urge to flee or a feeling of underachieving; there's just an odd, constant pressure to move that makes things seem hurried even at the most subdued of times. Scrape that away and the state seems strangely hollow. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there's no here here. Luckily, longtime Michigan resident and indie-pop observationalist Sufjan Stevens has bottled that unique discontent for a beautiful, understated album-length meditation that's dedicated to the state, but that should (and has, if the current buzz surrounding him is any indication) move people the world 'round.
Apart from a eulogy for Detroit, Stevens pretty much ignores Michigan's more populous cities, instead focusing on smaller, generally economically depressed areas like "Romulus," "Flint," and "The Upper Peninsula." (I would've gotten some personal satisfaction from "Alas, Another Golf Course in Troy" and "Come Judge a Book By Its Cover [In Royal Oak on Friday Night]," but I suppose those wouldn't be suited to Stevens's gentler touch.) Far from being a Michael Moore-esque exercise in didacticism or a quirky travelogue, however, Greetings uses these modest locales to give voice to more universal expressions of yearning, failure, resignation, and familial connection. "Mourning steps and mourning gallivants/And mourning never shows/No, mourning never slows," Stevens whisper-sings at one point, and it's one of many lines here that's simultaneously so earnest and so vague that it could move you to tears, if you're in the mood to connect the dots for yourself. "For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti" is the clear highlight, with Sufjan and Elin Smith apologetically harmonizing over a truly haunting banjo-and-trumpet arrangement, but the artist's multi-instrumental talents allow the album to slide effortlessly from such spare fare to the literal bells and whistles of "Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!" and the scenic piano-based soundscape "Say Yes! to M!ch!gan!" The music's reliance on repetition and unusual rhythms has earned Stevens comparisons to a more organic Stereolab, but even his sprightliest songs are so fragile and airy that they could just as easily be compared with Belle & Sebastian or Vince Guaraldi's Peanuts scores. Neither excessively heavy-handed nor too twee for its own good, this is simply one of 2003's best records, no matter where you hail from. Grade: A
Willie's comments: Taking a break from his stated project of writing one album for each of the fifty US states (take that, John Linnell!), Sufjan's Seven Swans is an even gentler affair than Michigan, mostly relying on mournful acoustic guitar- and banjo-based arrangements as he contemplates love and spirituality. And that's good: as evidenced by Michigan's "For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti," that stripped-down formula suits Stevens just fine, since the simple, minor-key picking and strumming makes his insecure singing all the more haunting. Seven Swans is another sad album, but it's the sort of sadness that incongruously arises from an overabundance of beauty, and whether he's gently complimenting a lover's spirit ("The Dress Looks Nice on You") or expressing a desire to strengthen his own ("To Be Alone With You"), Stevens sounds so unsure of himself, and expresses his thoughts through such perfectly downcast melodies, that he hits me in the gut nearly every time. The more expansive songs like "Sister" and "In the Devil's Territory" don't fare quite so well in this context as their sweeping structures are a bit overreaching, though they do keep Seven Swans from becoming too samey in an Iron & Wine way. (Nothing against Iron & Wine, mind you: Sam Beam may write the same songs over and over, but they're damn good songs.) Furthermore, even with a few clunkers, there's nothing that can take the glorious sheen off the rest of this humble, addictively well-crafted little treasure. Grade: A-
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: HALF-HANDED CLOUD
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT SUFJAN STEVENS
The Stone Roses
The Stone Roses
Willie's comments: The Stone Roses' debut album is a legendary Britpop document, but the reason that it holds up so well more than ten years after its release is not that it's particularly inventive, but that the band has impeccable melodic sense. The washes of guitars, the housey rhythms, and the album's dreamy melodic tone wouldn't matter for a tinker's cuss if the songs themselves weren't so terrific. If U2 got ahold of them, "Waterfall" and "Made of Stone" could have been immortal arena-rock staples, but Bono & Co. would never have managed the Roses' unpretentious warmth. "Fools Gold" is a charming chunk o' funk, and the chorus to "Bye Bye Badman" will likely take up a happy little residence in your brain. Perhaps it's not as much fun as an album by Supergrass or Blur, but the Stone Roses can churn out anthemic rock nuggets just as well as those who came after them. Grade: A
email@example.com writes: my first comment on this site that i must post regards the first stone roses album. i'm agreeing/disagreeing with many reviews, but that's all objective. but you call the stone roses unpretentious? they were the most cocksure guys around. they declared they'd be as big as the beatles. hell i love this album, my personal #1 all-time, but they were most certainly not modest fellows
THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: NEVER MIND THE MAINSTREAM... THE BEST OF MTV'S 120 MINUTES VOL. 1
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Is This It
Willie's comments: The Strokes' debut album recently arrived in stores as little more than a figurehead attached to the front of a Spanish gallion of hype. For the most part, the hype is ludicrous: how can the "Next Big Thing" label be slapped on a band whose sole interest is cranking out precise re-creations of the sort of glam-derived punk that totally failed to grab the country's attention in the 1970's? (You might as well tout the Apples in Stereo as the next Beatles.) Still, listening to Is This It, it's easy to see where the critics' enthusiasm comes from. We haven't heard this sort of tight-knit guitar rock in awhile, let alone done this well. Vocalist Julian Casablancas has more than a little of Lou Reed in his voice (check out "The Modern Age" for the best VU tribute you'll ever hear), and the band hits all the touchstones from the Buzzcocks ("Someday") to Talking Heads 77 ("When It Started") without ever seeming smug about their rock smarts. Still, if you get tired of playing spot-the-influence, you can simply lay back and hum along to songs like "Trying Your Luck," the title track, and "Alone, Together." The TRL youth of our nation is going to continue buying stupid crap like Puddle of Mudd, of course, but you can add the Strokes to your list of bands that will make you feel like you're the hippest 15-year-old in the world again. Grade: A-
Room on Fire
Willie's comments: Ever since Is This It's release, there has been quite a bit of discussion about how hard it would be for the Strokes to follow that album up. Both people who loved their debut and those who hated it commented on the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't difficulties of creating a sophomore effort that both captured the band's simple, proudly derivative essence and displayed some sort of progression from the last album. And I can respect that- since hype and public expectation have been inextricable from the Strokes' music since their very inception, it must've seemed paralyzing to the band. However, I don't think that making the same album again was the answer. Sure, the songs on Room on Fire feature certain cosmetic differences from their predecessors- drummer Fabrizio Moretti is permitted to mix the rhythms up somewhat, the guitar arrangements are slightly more fleshed-out, Cars-style keyboards make appearances here and there- but the production tweaking is too little to disguise the fact that we heard all these songs two years ago, and this record therefore really doesn't have any reason to exist. Why listen to "Between Love and Hate" when you could listen to the previous album's title track? Why listen to "The End Has No End" when you could listen to "When It Started"? Why listen to "Reptilia" when you could listen to "Take It Or Leave It"? The "new" songs aren't bad, exactly- although only the new wavey "12:51" is grabby enough to make me remember how it goes- they're just redundant. If you have Is This It, you don't need this one. And if you don't have any Strokes records, just get Is This It instead. Grade: C+
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT THE STROKES
Willie's comments: From the jarringly raw guitars that open this soundtrack album (Elasticas awesome cover of Xs "Unheard Music"), its clear that this will be no smooth ride. Grinding guitar aficionados Sonic Youth contribute three new songs, two of which ("Bebes Song" and "Sunday") are vital, while Boss Hog assaults the Kinks "Im Not Like Everybody Else" to horrible, horrible effect. And, while a minute-long Flaming Lips ditty and some difficult buzzsaw stomping from Girls Against Boys probably wont do much for anyone, Becks folky "Feather in Your Cap" and UNKLEs spacey "Berry Meditation" are enough to transform any dull suburban landscape into an indie rock sanctum. Grade: B
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT SUBURBIA
(AKA The London Suede)
Willie's comments: A few albums into their career, neo-glam Britpop band Suede had to change their name- in the United States, at least- to the London Suede, because some little chippy claimed that she had the name first. (Which reminds me: if you know of another band named Disclaimer, we'd appreciate it if you'd tell them to change their name because we got there first. Thank you.) I'm still referring to these guys as Suede, however, because that's how the rest of the world does it. At any rate, Coming Up, their third album, is only as great as the strength of its rockers; too much of the album's brief running time is swallowed by image-conscious, prom-ready slow numbers like "The Chemistry Between Us," "By the Sea," and "Saturday Night." Maybe this sort of stuff gets the girls swaying and weeping in the UK, but in the United States, we already have the Chamber Strings to do that for us, and we like our rock, damn it! (We also seem to like Cameron Diaz a lot. I'm not saying our judgement is unimpeachable.) Luckily, when Suede gets down to the business of punching out an uptempo number, they employ an almost Ramones-like focus to their Bowie-based tunes. Guitarist Richard Oakes serves up one big, juicy hook after another, using a blazing guitar tone that's thoroughly enticing, and singer Brett Anderson's vocal melodies match him blow-for-blow. "Beautiful Ones" is one of the best singles I've ever heard, with an insanely catchy guitar line paired with lyrics decrying the emptiness of youth culture ("Drag acts, drug acts, suicide/In your dad's suits you hide/Staining his name again"), and "Trash" manages to make a simple bent note at the end of a verse seem like an entirely new notion. It's just too bad Suede couldn't maintain this awesome buzz for an additional four songs... Also, my version of Coming Up actually came with two copies of the disc, apparently in a Kasey Chambers-esque "give one to a friend" promotion, which is pretty cool. Grade: B
SEE ALSO: ELASTICA
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT SUEDE
Willie's comments: I certainly don't wish unhappiness upon Bob Mould- he's extremely talented, and, judging from interviews I've read, a very nice guy. However, when he broke up with his boyfriend shortly before recording this album with his band Sugar, Mould produced the most searingly personal, wrenching document of a failed relationship ever committed to tape. The music on Copper Blue is brilliant, catchy, and muscular, ranging from the heavenly pop of "If I Can't Change Your Mind" to the Pixies tribute "A Good Idea" to the scorching rock of "The Act We Act." But Mould's lyrics take the desperation and desolation of the music and amplify it to unbearable, heart-wrenching degrees. Who in the world cannot empathize with lines like "Couldn't you be forgiving too?/ But all you ever think is everything gone wrong" or "If affection holds you back, then what is left to hold?" These songs cut to the bone, laying bare the sadness and grappling that one goes through after the end of a meaningful relationship. For example, the unfinished sentences of "Helpless" ("You make me feel so helpless I") evoke the confused torment of a codependent person who is unsure how to make his lover happy and alleve his own pain. This is an utter masterpiece. I can't recommend this album highly enough. Grade: A+
Willie's comments: Recorded at the same time as Copper Blue but released a year later, this 6-song cycle is unimpressive if you look at the songs individually; only the brutal, blasphemous "JC Auto" and the rollicking "Feeling Better" can stand as great songs on their own. However, as a cathartic mood enhancer, Beaster is much more effective. If you're in a bad mood, pop it in and let the somber "Come Around" drown you in sorrow, while "Tilted," "Judas Cradle," and "JC Auto" grab ahold of you and pull you forcefully into powerful anger. That's a good release, but things start to get lighter, appropriately enough, on "Feeling Better," and it all wraps up with the calm coda "Walking Away," which will leave you feeling cleansed. It's a dense, dark experience, but not unfulfilling. Grade: B
File Under: Easy Listening
Willie's comments: Mould lightened up after Beaster, and, compared to most of his previous work- in Sugar, in Husker Du, and solo- the title of this CD isn't inappropriate. "Your Favorite Thing," "Believe What You're Saying," and "Panama City Motel" are gorgeous pop songs, often bolstered by Mould's beloved 12-string guitar. There are still thrilling moments of bitterness, from the roiling "Explode and Make Up" to the regretful "Gift," but these are leavened with moments of humor in "Granny Cool" and bassist David Barbe's anti-conformity anthem "Company Book." It's all very hummable and enjoyable, and I'm tempted to give it an A+, but that would diminish the accomplishment that is Copper Blue, so just think of this as an extremely high A. Grade: A
Willie's comments: This collection of B-sides (get it?) and rarities marked the end of Sugar's career, sadly. There isn't a whole lot on here that's up to the band's usual standards, except for "Mind is an Island," the instrumental "Clownmaster," and a stunning live version of "The Slim." But it's not a wholly unpleasant ride. The first 5,000 copies (I think) of the album came with a bonus CD of an entire Sugar show that's exhausting, as the band blasts through more delicate material like "Hoover Dam" and "If I Can't Change Your Mind" with the same singleminded fury as they do "Gift," robbing the songs of their melodic souls. Grade for both versions: C+
SEE ALSO: BOB MOULD
SEE ALSO: HUSKER DU
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: AZURE RAY
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT SUGAR
Sunny Day Real Estate
How It Feels to be Something On
Willie's comments: Sunny Day Real Estate's third album often walks a tightrope between the anthemic and the head-scratchingly strange. Occasionally, this division occurs within a single song, as on "Every Shining Time You Arrive," which plows along through an infectious verse, but then the chorus veers off into an unexpected, jarring melodic direction. That's as it should be, too- with a stash of guitar tones so angular that they could scratch glass and Jeremy Enigk's weird tenor, SDRE reinvents prog rock for a punk audience and succeeds, for the most part. The engaging "Prophet" finds Enigk mumbling incomprehensibly for a couple minutes before the song shifts into a more traditional mode, while the energetic "Pillars" is haunting. A few songs are a shade too obtuse or too long, but How It Feels to be Something On deserves credit for being impossible to pin down for most of its running time. Grade: B+
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT SUNNY DAY REAL ESTATE
The Sunshine Fix
Age of the Sun
Willie's comments: I was perhaps disproportionately bummed when the Olivia Tremor Control broke up. After all, their short career was pretty uneven, with a number of divergent singles (collected on the OTC's Singles and Beyond, which throws down the gauntlet to anyone who claims patience as one of his virtues) and two studio albums, one of which was just okay (Dusk at Cubist Castle) and one of which was among the 10 best albums of the '90s (Black Foliage: Animation Music vol. 1). Hardly a consistent track record. Nevertheless, the idea that we'd never get another collection of psychedelic throwbacks as mind-expanding and memorable as Black Foliage disturbed me. Luckily, OTC co-founder Bill Doss has gone on to form the Sunshine Fix, a project which gives his pop instincts the spotlight, instead of constantly breaking them up with the sort of experimental sound collages for which his previous band had an affinity. In fact, Age of the Sun, the Fix's first full album, is at its best when Doss integrates his hallucinatory influences more carefully into his hippie-rock (a tremolo pedal here, an odd noise there), as opposed to using them to intentionally crash the songs into trees. In fact, the portion of the album that consists of "That Ole Sun," "Everything is Waking," and "Digging to China" may be the single most consistently catchy three-song set in Doss's discography so far. Byrds and Beatles comparisons are unavoidable with these songs, but the album also contains nods to Syd Barrett, the Status Quo, and Loaded-era Velvet Underground. The second half of the album spends too much time interpreting the same musical theme in various ways (on "Inside the Nebula," "72 Years," and "A 93 Million Mile Moment," among other tracks) in a misguided attempt to make the album a Black Foliage-esque epic, but by that point, Doss has already given us enough upbeat, shimmery pop to tide us over until his next outing. Grade: A-
SEE ALSO: OLIVIA TREMOR CONTROL
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: OF MONTREAL
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT THE SUNSHINE FIX
Willie's comments: This album is very much a product of 1995, when generic power-pop ruled the day. Super Deluxe plays short, melodic songs that balance their punkish scrappiness with tasteful harmonies, and the band evokes any number of other, more original, bands in the process: Odds, Sloan, the Posies, the Bodeans, etc. Id be tempted to write this off with little more than two sentences and a C- if it werent for one song: She Came On. This song, with its infectious chorus and memorable (though insipid) lyrics, is amazingly archetypal. From the second singer Braden Blake opens the song with She came on like a storm, its instantly familiar; so familiar that I assumed it was a cover of some other song, but the liner notes state that Blake wrote it. Some other band must have covered this song since then, though, because Im sure Ive heard it many times... Anyway, for piquing my curiosity in this way, Im upping the grade a little. Grade: C+
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT SUPER DELUXE
Super Furry Animals
Willie's comments: Waless Super Furry Animals specialize in an odd sort of power-chord glam rock that defies definition and, often times, comprehension. Though they would later find their niche by incorportating elements of electronica and British Invasion rock, they seem like something of an anachronism on this, their debut album. Though the songs are irrefutably catchy- owing more than a little to Bowie, Roxy Music, and the Beatles- SFA don't know when to leave good enough alone, and their pointless experimental jibba jabba pushes "Long Gone," "Frisbee," and "Something 4 the Weekend" into the realm of irritating. Though the great glam rockers were often pompous and hyperkinetic, they didn't usually feel a need to mess with a solid hook. However, there are a number of tracks here that serve as a good warm-up to SFA's later work, like the simple, Simon & Garfunkel-esque "Gathering Moss," the succinct "God! Show Me Magic," and the entertainingly bombastic "Hangin' with Howard Marks." Newcomers are advised to start with Guerrilla and work their way back to this one. Grade: B-
Willie's comments: As on Fuzzy Logic, Super Furry Animals try extra hard to be weird, and it gets a bit self-conscious and irritating on parts of this album, such as the song that contains no vowels (NOTE: I later figured out that this song is in Welsh). And sometimes, they cant seem to leave well enough alone and they ruin a perfectly servicable hook by tacking an extra measure or two onto the end, such as the chorus of "Demons." For the most part, however, the Moog-centric, Bowie-esque charm of songs like "Bass Turned to D.E.A.D." and the truly beautiful "Download" is straight-up fun. Grade: B+
Willie's comments: This is a 13-song collection of B-sides and rarities that the band produced before Radiator came out. Unfortunately, Outspaced is currently available only as an import (though the first U.S. pressings of Radiator came with a free copy of this disc as well!), but it's still the same price as you'd pay for a domestic CD if you order it from CDNow. If you've already bought Guerrilla and Radiator or Mwng, you really should pony up the dough and get ahold of this album. Like most "odds 'n' sods" collections, Outspaced consists mostly of songs that are self-indulgent and baffling, but luckily, Super Furry Animals are at their best when they're being self-indulgent and baffling, so you've got a pretty groovy album here. "The Man Don't Give a Fuck" turns a random Steely Dan sample into a heartstoppingly infectious anthem, "Dim Brys Dim Chwys" is surpisingly squishy ambient space-rock, and things just keep getting weirder and more hilarious from there, until the album comes to an end in an eight-minute section of hypnotic, Flaming Lips-inspired videogame feedback noises. Outspaced is sure to freak out the ininitiated, but it does so in a way that's as lovable as the band's moniker. Grade: A-
Willie's comments: This album is friggin' amazing. 14 songs done in any number of different musical styles, almost all of which are unspeakably catchy, spacey, and as fun as a box full of monkeys. "Do or Die" is a big, stupid rock song, "The Turning Tide" is the sort of song Elvis Costello should be writing (instead of wasting his time pairing up with Burt Bacharach and doing cameos in Austin Powers movies), and "Wherever I Lay My Phone (That's My Home)"... is indescribable. It's ridiculously bouncy, with bizarre sound effects, and, basically, it's the musical equivalent of being at a party hosted by those three-eyed aliens from Toy Story. I'm sure the Super Furry Animals would like that comparison. Get this album- it's awesome. Grade: A
Willie's comments: Well, why not? Less than a year after they blew our minds with Guerrilla, SFA released this modest album full of songs sung entirely in Welsh. This is the only thing that will prevent you from singing along with anthemic numbers like "Dacw Hi" and "Ymaelodi A'r Ymylon." Musically, it's top-notch. Most of the band's joyous, electronic weirdness is gone due to budget restrictions (their European label went under), but their songs are still enthrallingly catchy and off-kilter; most of the songs play like horn-laden punk rock, albeit punk rock written by Martians. "Ysbeidiau Heulog" is XTC on nitrous oxide, while the acoustic "Nythod Cacwn" starts off like a gloomy Sarah McLachlan number, but is then transported to someplace entirely different by Gruff Rhys's bizarre voice. "Y Gwyneb Iau" is a swipe at Chicago (the band), and "Sarn Helen" is a terrific, zither-based, faux movie score. One wishes that SFA still had the money to fully indulge their every whimsical thought, but Mwng is a testament to what great bands can do even on a shoestring. Grade: B+
Rings Around the World
Willie's comments: This may be the Furries' defining moment. With a new record deal and a newly mature musical approach (which isn't to say they're any less playful than before), Rings Around the World announces, once and for all, that they're taking on the Flaming Lips for title of the most simultaneously weird and accessible band in the universe. Melodically, this album is the band's most instantly lovable yet: Rhys is still expanding on his XTC and Elvis Costello obsessions, but he's going further than that. "Juxtaposed with U" is a thrilling bit of soul-pop that finds him singing through the Kid A vocal meat grinder before the chorus lets him belt out the swooning declaration, "I'm not in love with you, but I won't hold that against you." The title track, on the other hand, begs for a new word to be coined to adequately describe the new heights of weightless catchiness it attains; it would seem disposable in the hands of a straight power-pop band like Fountains of Wayne, but it's made essential by SFA's decision to give it an electro-bass bottom and to ratchet up the tension by means of a subtle bed of line noise running throughout the song. Rhys's lyrics are more direct and politically motivated than ever, in an elliptical, Beta Band-esque fashion (with the exception of the regrettably direct Lewinsky diatribe "Presidential Suite": "Honestly, do we need to know if he really came inside her mouth?"), and the addition of a string section on many songs lends them a sense of legitimacy. However, it's a legitimacy that the band is happy to undercut with bursts of sporadic electronica experimentation like "(A) Touch Sensitive," which is a smirky trip-hop instrumental. I know there's no justice in the world (and there never will be if our attorney general has anything to say about it), but please do your part for the side of good anyway and purchase this album. You'll like it, I promise! Grade: A+
Willie's comments: I work with an older guy named Vince, who is a very nice man, but is hilariously cranky about the music that is played on the receiving room stereo while he's working back there. (Vince on Hot Hot Heat: "Phew! Glad that's over with!" Vince on Denali: "Why don't you turn her off for a while, and give her a rest so maybe she'll cheer up a bit?") Bizarrely, however, when I was playing this album, he responded to the steel guitar-tinged "Sex, War & Robots" with the exclamation, "Now this is music!" That's pretty much what you get with Phantom Power. Arguably even more modestly conceived than Mwng, this record finds the Furries relaxing into a rhythm of accessible, unsurprising tunes that are unashamedly borrowed from classic folk-rockers like The Lovin' Spoonful, Simon & Garfunkel, and the Young Rascals. Although you'll instantly recognize the melodies from songs like "Golden Retriever" and "The Piccolo Snare" here, it's nice to hear them recast in Super Furry style, with Rhys's nerdy delivery and the band's well-read cribbing from various ages of rock driving things along. However, without the genre-splicing, digital experimentation, and twitchy energy of their previous work, Phantom Power loses my attention about halfway through. Some wan tunes like "Cityscape Skybaby" and the pair of "Father Father" instrumental interludes- while pretty- don't make up for the relative dearth of memorable riffs and hooks, replacing the band's usual atmosphere of anarchic whimsy with "mature" pop smarts. The first half has its share of must-hears (the aforementioned duo of "The Piccolo Snare" and "Sex, War & Robots" chief among them), but honestly, the only situation I can think of in which you'd prefer this album to the more galvanizing likes of Rings Around the World or Guerrilla would be if you're really hopelessly sick and can't deal with the madcap energy of those records. This one is like Super Furry Animals Lite. Half the calories, but half the nutrients, too. Grade: B
Under the Influence
Willie's comments: In 2005, SFA contributed a mix to the Under the Influence series released by the DMC label, in which bands and artists assemble collections of songs they themselves have been inspired by. Since the Super Furries audibly draw on one of the most diverse influential palettes of just about any active band except Ween, a Cliffs Notes sampling of their favorite tracks is an idea far more justifiable than some of the vanity mixes that have been unleashed elsewhere recently. (The Flaming Lips Late Night Tales comes to mind.) Each member of the band picked three tracks; some of the choices are predictable (the glossy pop excesses of the Beach Boys and ELO), some not so (the blissfully soulful blues-reggae of Dawn Penns You Dont Love Me (No No No), some pretty opera from Jussi Bjoerling), but it almost all works. Not only is it interesting to discover that the bands aural leapfrog is informed by rock as sappy as Dennis Wilson and Rumbos Lady as well as the sweaty sloppiness of the Undertones and the MC5, but its nice to hear these songs next to each other in the first place. One shortcoming: given how amusingly forward-thinking Cian Ciarans electronic contributions to SFA songs like Wherever I Lay My Phone and Receptacle for the Respectable are, you would think the mix might end on a more interesting note than the four repetitive, dated house/drum-and-bass things that are strung together. Otherwise, though, its an eclectic and informative compilation that gives you some idea of where each of the band members is coming from when they work their expansive magic. Grade: A-
Fadeout95 writes: I bought this album in part because of your review and also in part because of the review-for-review offer you made. I had spent a week before this album came out in the U.S. getting introduced to the band by listening to all their albums (except Mwng which I never got around to) and upon first listen to Rings I was kind of let down. It was seriously different than the others I had listened to-none of the punky sillyness I had come to love in songs like "She's Got Spies," "Chupacabras," and "Night Vision" was apparent. The lyrics could still be kind of off-kilter, but not nearly as bizzare as previous effort. The album was less fun, more somber and serious. The album is starting to grow on me tho, as I've found their spontaneity in places--the unexpected IDM freakout in "No Sypmathy," the slamming drum-along breaks in "Sidewalk Serfer Girl," and so forth. These are some of the band's best moments, and I've likewise found anthemic wonder in the choruses of "Run, Christian, Run" and "It's Not the End of the World." And the motown/Kid A/Burt Bacharach stew of "Juxtaposed With U" is almost too much, a blissfully logical extension of Guerrilla's "Northern Lites." I could still perhaps do without "Shoot Doris Day," and after the epic of "Run Chrisitan Run," "Fragile Happiness" is a little anti-climactic, and it is still easy to miss the free-for-all spirit of their earlier albums, but this is easily their most cohesive album and their best since Guerrilla or maybe even Radiator. Plus, if the reflection of the suave, masked raccoon that graced the Radiator cover didn't already own the title, the SpongeBobSquarePants from outerspace illustrations in the liner notes would maybe be the best of the last ten years.
Jugdish writes: Phantom Power > Rings. I have to punish you by taking up your offer (regarding the purchasing of Rings because of your review) so you'll buy an album of my recommendation and review it...
I like Rings because it's among the best produced albums I've ever heard. The production is so good, in fact, it makes up for some so-so songwriting (title track), though the songs are mostly clever and hysterically fun (Sidewalk Serfer Girl, Receptacle for the Respectable--with Macca!).
That should be enough; I ain't a web reviewer, for God's sake. I recommend that you acquire and review Chris Thile's Not All Who Wander Are Lost, so you can tell the rest of these fucks how mind-blowingly good it is.
See, I'm nice: I'm not making you buy Metal Machine Music or some such shit.
firstname.lastname@example.org writes: I bought Rings Around The World due to your reccomendation, so I thought I'd say why I like this album. The reason is because of the fantastic songwriting. I can remembermost all the melodies and some in particular have been stuck in myhead for days before (not that that's a bad thing). (Drawing) RingsAround the World and Juxtaposed With U along with Roman Road from thatbonus disc are especially great. The songs are filled with hooks andare very catchy. So yeah.
Nick Reed writes: Very often I see reviewers talk about how great album X is but they don't put their money where their mouth is like you do...so I did pick up this album and I liked it a whole lot! There is a great sense of weightless pop and Beatles-like experimentation that makes it one of the best pop albums I've heard in a while. My favorite track is "No Sympathy" - a great song especially when it goes nutso at the end - granted the first time I was listening to this it was in the car with a friend of mine and we were having a conversation....needless to say it definitely got my attention!
SEE ALSO: GRUFF RHYS
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: THE BEATLES (you heard me), MOGWAI
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT SUPER FURRY ANIMALS
I Should Coco
Willie's comments: Supergrass is like a distant cousin to Ash, only with a better ear for a catchy tune, a brattier sense of humor, and less of a tendency to take themselves too seriously. Their debut album, I Should Coco, is packed with 13 songs that have about 13 hooks each, and range in style from the Buzzcocks-esque punk of "Lenny" to the laid-back organ symphony of "Sofa (of my Lethargy)." "Alright" is a joyous slice of piano-driven pop (featured in Clueless), while "Time" is vaguely bluesy rock, and the casually superb "She's So Loose" has a fabulous melody. There's really no substance here whatsoever, but holy crap, is it fun! Grade: A+
In It for the Money
Willie's comments: Though the title might suggest this album owes a large debt to the freak-pop of Frank Zappa, Supergrass's sophomore effort is actually a terrific glam-rock album that would've served as a great soundtrack to Velvet Goldmine (if that movie didn't already have its own great soundtrack). The title track has an infectious melody, punctuated with a cute horn section, while "Richard III," "Sun Hits the Sky," and "Going Out" update T. Rex's concise, shimmering pop confections with beefy guitars. It's slightly less fun than I Should Coco, but very entertaining nonetheless. It was originally issued with a 9-song bonus CD that was more in the vein of their debut, and had such goofy, essential songs as "Sex," "20 ft. Halo," and the appropriately-titled "Odd?" Grades: Normal version: B+ Version with bonus CD: A
Willie's comments: On this album, some of the band's glam-rock tendencies are toned down (though by no means absent), making the crispy melodies the focal point. "Your Love" would do Radiohead proud, while "Mama & Papa" is a homesick lament that shows that Supergrass now knows when to abandon the arena-rock bombast. Singer Gaz Coombes has toughened up his voice a bit- on songs like "Moving" and the infectiously poppy "Pumping on Your Stereo," he comes across as an affable alt-rock Mick Jagger rather than just another scrappy pubcrawler. I would've liked the album to have included one or two more lighthearted, I Should Coco-style goofs in place of some of the more overblown fare ("Beautiful People"), but Supergrass is still head and shoulders above most of their Brit-rock peers. Grade: B+
Life on Other Planets
Willie's comments: Life on Other Planets finally perfects the glammy whimsy that the previous two albums never quite nailed. From the chunky, syncopated guitar part on "Brecon Beacons" to the mutant wah-wah solo on "Seen the Light," it's clear that Supergrass has tied together the musical adventurousness of their debut with the more mature songwriting style they seem to have adopted as their unwavering motif since. (Yes, "Evening of the Day" filches its chorus from Spinal Tap- I'm still calling it "mature.") Yeah, it's all British rock 'n' roll when you get right down to it, but the keyboard-splattered arrangements and winning melodies never get tired. These guys are such talented musicians, too, that it's no stretch for them to launch into a hyperactive rave-up ("Never Done Nothing Like That Before"), screech to a halt, plunge ahead into a midtempo number ("Funniest Thing") that happens to have a killer, Cheap Trick-style chorus, and then steal mojo from Bowie and Frank Black on "Grace" and "LA Song," respectively. Eclectic without sounding disjunctive, giggle-inducing without resorting to novelty, and above all, exhibiting songwriting that's consistently thrilling without... uh, not being consistently thrilling, Life on Other Planets doesn't have a single song that's less than infectious. I bought this as an import just a couple months before its domestic release, unbeknownst to me, and it's solid enough that I don't feel the slightest bit gypped about paying the extra duties and tariffs that go along with un-American records. So there's a recommendation for ya. Grade: A
THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: CLUELESS SOUNDTRACK
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Willie's comments: Critics irritatingly use this album as the yardstick against which all of Sweet's other work is measured. However, apart from the energetic, mandolin-powered "Thought I Knew You" and the crisp power pop of "Holy War," Girlfriend is split between overlong ballads and bluesy rockers that sound like sloppy seconds from the Odds. Sweet's lyrics are also pretty scattershot- while "Your Sweet Voice" is touching enough, "Does She Talk?" is stupidly macho, and the title track finds the singer audibly trying to sing the words "somebody to love" without sounding like he ripped off Jefferson Airplane. Maybe you'll find something in this that I missed, but this album just bores me. Grade: C+
Willie's comments: As much fun as a good game of Skee-Ball, and twice as catchy, Matthew Sweets fifth album is the apotheosis of power-pop, as far as Im concerned. Matching appetizingly crunchy guitars with simple hooks and lyrical, R.E.M.-informed melodies, Sweet fashions instant classics like Sick of Myself and Super Baby seemingly effortlessly. The Elvis Costello/Richard Thompson-esque contemplations of loves slippery nature are top-notch, as well, driving songs like Not When I Need It and Were the Same into the hearts of anyone whos ever had love problems. And it all draws to a close with the stunningly beautiful Smog Moon, which is one of those pessimistically hopeful songs that never fail to affect me. AMUSING TRIVIA: The title is a cheeky reference to Kurt Cobain's suicide note. Grade: A
Willie's comments: This album kicks off with three of the best songs in Sweet's repertoire: "Millennium Blues," "If Time Permits," and "Beware My Love," all of which flow seamlessly into one another and contain some of the most original, unique melodies Sweet has ever written, married to the distinctive power-pop boogies he's famous for. Thereafter, In Reverse is a little bit of a letdown, if only because the first three songs are so astronomically brilliant and most of the other tracks are the sorts of things that Sweet could write while in a coma: ballads with summery Beach Boys harmonies, generic power-chord stompers, etc. That's not to say that In Reverse is totally bereft of highlights after that opening trio; "Write Your Own Song" is one of the best anti-sellout rock songs I've ever heard, and "Faith in You" is pretty dang catchy as well. It's not 100% Fun, but the album nevertheless holds steady at around 89 percent. Grade: B+
Rich Bunnell writes: Well, these are the two albums by Sweet that I currently own, so it seems like a fitting time to throw in my opinions. Regarding "Girlfriend"...what the hell? My gripe with your review isn't that you don't like the album, it's more that you act like the album only has two good songs. A complete dismissal of "Evangeline," "I've Been Waiting" and the title track?? (If you're going to write off the whole song just because of an alleged ripoff of one completely generic line, then I guess the Beatles "With A Little Help From My Friends" sucks too, because Ringo sings "I need somebody to love!" in that song. And "Sgt. Peppers" came out four months after "Surrealistic Pillow".) That's just screwed up! The rest of the album I can take or leave (for the most part, I choose "take") - probably a B+. What's with the last three songs, though? Are they CD bonus tracks? Sweet recorded the CD so that after track 6 it sounds like a record is being flipped over, and after track 12 it sounds like the needle is being lifted off of the vinyl for the last time. And on the back cover and CD art, the last three songs are slightly spaced apart from the other twelve. But it doesn't say anything about it in the liner notes! What's going on? I'm confused!
"100% Fun" is a better album, admittedly -- in fact, that one might even be an A+ in my book, and definitely at least an A. The coolest thing about the album is how Sweet is able to take melodies and lyrics which are admittedly kind of generic ("Super Baby" especially) but still propel them into the upper echelons of enjoyitude because he does it all so WELL! He sounds like he's really having a good time, and the fun isn't lost on the listener. The best song is the compact "Come To Love"(which has one of the most perfect choral hooks I've ever heard) but "We're The Same" is very close to that level too. By the way, if you like that song, how can you ignore "I've Been Waiting"??? There we go again!!! </RAMBLE>
Awesome guy. He seems to think that he's cooler than he actually is, but his whole shiny pop attitude is pretty cool in itself.
Trevor e.y. writes: Hey, i totally agree with you on Girlfriend. Altered Beast and 100% are a zillion times better, and frankly Girlfriend just sucks and is verrry boring. I Love Matthew Sweet though!
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: THE GOLDEN PALOMINOS
THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: KIDS IN THE HALL: BRAIN CANDY SOUNDTRACK; SATURDAY MORNING CARTOONS' GREATEST HITS; THAT ALBUM OF SONGS FROM THE CONAN O'BRIEN SHOW; NO ALTERNATIVE; AUSTIN POWERS SOUNDTRACK; KINKS TRIBUTE ALBUM
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Counting the Beat (AKA Practical Jokers)
Willie's comments: After splitting from Split Enz, Phil Judd brought his strange, preternaturally high singing voice (imagine the spawn of Geddy Lee and Perry Farrell) to Swingers, a new wave band that produced music that's more straightforward than Judd's hyperkinetic work with the Enz, but by no means traditional. Many of these songs have great choruses- the archetypal anthem of "Lovesick" or the hilarious chanting of "Ayatollah"- but the jerky guitar work wears thin pretty quick, and some of the songs are bludgeoningly irritating (none more than "Distortion"). Like the Presidents of the United States of America, the Swingers require an almost deleriously good mood to be enjoyable. Grade: B-
SEE ALSO: SPLIT ENZ
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