disclaimer is not a toy


Tahiti 80

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Puzzle

Willie's comments: This is an astounding musical debut. If someone put Air, Fountains of Wayne, Belle & Sebastian, Sean Lennon, Weezer, Stereolab, and Travis into a very large blender and hit "Liquefy," they might get something like the first album from France's Tahiti 80. The songs are relentlessly catchy, poppy, and upbeat, with loungey guitars and electronic effects never distracting from the life-affirming beauty of Xavier Boyer's melodies. It's been a long time since I've heard a song as unself-consciously sappy as "Heartbeat," in which Boyer croons in his charming accent, "Can you feel my heartbeat when it's close to you?" The best song, however, is the infectious "Swimming Suit," which utilizes the Cher vocal machine (which I'm always a sucker for) and applies it to a song that is superlative in the first place, catapulting it to the upper echelon of new indie rock classics. For all the playful sweetness on display here, Tahiti 80 is too savvy to ever let it become cloying- "Revolutions 80" hints at their rougher edge, and the songs are never so bludgeoningly perky as to evoke the Presidents of the USA. Puzzle is a feel-good proclamation of intent for one of the most promising indie rock acts in recent memory. Grade: A+

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Wallpaper for the Soul

Willie's comments: Taking a cue from their countrymen Rinocerose, the 80s delve merrily into the '70s on their sophomore effort. String and brass sections that would make Bobby Womack swoon, soulful melodies that suggest a shyer Stevie Wonder, and beats that graze the shoulder of disco abound here, but with enough modern electronic touches to make this record sound great in any decade. The title track kicks things off with an uncharacteristically somber (though immediately gripping) theme, but the album promptly launches into ludicrous speed with "1000 Times," a piece of indie-soul-pop that's so joyous it sounds like it could cause a flock of cheerful little doves to fly right out of your speakers. Though there really aren't as many specific hooks this time around, Wallpaper delivers even more of an unrelentingly weightless mood than on Puzzle, with lyrics that entreat the listener to cheer up and smile and enjoy the beauty of life (or at least try to imagine it) on tracks like "Get Yourself Together." Boyer's voice has become even more supple as well, now sporting a falsetto that makes his optimistic singing sound like the Bizarro Thom Yorke. Joie de vivre is usually an attribute that I tolerate rather than encourage, but crimony, it's just impossible to not feel at least a little bit perky when you're listening to these guys! Grade: A-

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE

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Talking Heads

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Talking Heads 77

Willie's comments: My mom tells me that, when this album came out, it was seen as bizarre and a little creepy, which I cannot fathom. How could anyone have any reaction to the Heads’ gorgeous, happy-faced new wave except complete adoration? Listen to the elated energy in David Byrne’s voice! Listen to the feel-good rhythms and steel drums of “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town”! Listen to lyrics like “I wish I could meet everyone/ Meet them all over again/ Bring them up to my room/ Meet them all over again/ Everyone’s up in my room!” Even “Psycho Killer” isn’t so much ominous as it is interesting. The twin-guitar attack of Byrne and Jerry Harrison wraps its arms around you and gives you a big hug through the whole album- It’s pure musical bliss. Grade: A

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More Songs About Buildings and Food

Willie's comments: The Talking Heads paired up with Brian Eno for three albums starting here, and this was around the time that Eno was still a big fan of DEVO and XTC’s more mechanical work, so he evidently tried to strip the Heads’ music of any emotion whatsoever. Byrne’s vocal yelps during songs like “The Big Country” and “Take Me to the River” carry enough emotion to make up for the deadened music, and his lyrics are top-notch (particularly on the aesthete-mocking “Artists Only”), but comparatively tuneless numbers like “Found a Job” and “The Girls Want to Be With the Girls” are more the rule than the exception. It’s not as irritatingly cold as, say, XTC’s Go2, but I can’t imagine More Songs getting much airplay in anyone’s stereo. Grade: B-

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Fear of Music

Willie's comments: Eno was still sucking most of the warmth out of the music on this album, which doesn’t help potentially catchy numbers like “Paper” and “Electric Guitar,” but Byrne evidently decided to go along with Eno’s studio trickery by writing foreboding-sounding numbers that would benefit from the airless production. “Memories Can’t Wait” is probably the band’s spookiest moment, while “Animals” has Byrne chanting hilariously deranged lines like “They think they know what’s best/ They like to laugh at people,” and “Drugs” is exactly the bad trip Byrne intended it to be. At the other end of the spectrum, though, no producer could take the gorgeous, plaintive humanity out of songs like “Heaven” and “Air.” Fear of Music has more than a few great moments, but I wish Eno would’ve made it prettier. Grade: B

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Remain in Light

Willie's comments: This is one of the best albums ever recorded. Eno finally figured out how to handle the Heads, stuffing their songs with polyrhythmic textures and brilliantly confusing arrangements. The entire band wrote the music here, instead of just Byrne, and everyone plays their part perfectly: Harrison and Byrne’s guitars appear and vanish in strange patterns, while Chris Frantz drums in previously unknown meters, and Tina Weymouth brings everything together with her infectiously funky bass playing. “Born Under Punches” and the classic “Once in a Lifetime” give Byrne a chance to do his manical evangelist ranting which is always stunning, while he actually raps on “Crosseyed and Painless,” and “The Overload” is a stirring drone that sounds like a split-second of calm before the apocalypse. It’s pure genius. It makes up for More Songs About Buildings and Food and Fear of Music and then some! Grade: A+

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The Name of This Band is Talking Heads

Willie's comments: This is a cassette- and vinyl-only double album (or was, when I wrote this review; it's now on CD with a bunch of bonus tracks, so you have no excuse for not owning it) of live performances spanning the band’s entire career up through the Remain in Light tour, and it’s totally worth picking up, if you can find it. The versions of songs from the Heads’ second and third albums contain all the feeling and energy that was missing from the studio versions (most notably “Stay Hungry” and “Artists Only”), while songs like “The Great Curve” and “Psycho Killer” are superb. It’s not quite Stop Making Sense-caliber, but it’s still great listening. Grade: A

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Speaking In Tongues

Willie's comments: The Talking Heads retained the expanded lineup of Remain in Light for this album, while returning to more recognizably catchy melodies. This results in a lot of great, twisted pop like “Burning Down the House” and the transcendently beautiful “This Must be the Place (Naive Melody)” (which was subsequently butchered by Shawn Colvin). “Moon Rocks” and “I Get Wild/Wild Gravity” are similarly neat, though “Girlfriend is Better” and “Slippery People” sound a tad wan when you stand them up against the Stop Making Sense versions. No matter- Speaking in Tongues is still a gem. Grade: A-

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Stop Making Sense

Willie's comments: If at all possible, you should just go ahead and buy the home video of Johnathan Demme’s terrific Heads concert film, because the performances are as inspired visually as they are aurally. However, this soundtrack album should suffice for the casual fan. It was recently rereleased at about double its original length (making me feel stupid for purchasing the nine-song one six years ago), and it contains the definitive versions of “Girlfriend is Better,” “Life During Wartime,” and “Take Me to the River,” among others, along with a totally reworked version of “Psycho Killer” that is arguably better than the original. For those of us who never got to see the Heads live, this is the next best thing. Well, seeing David Byrne live is a kick, too, but... Well, Stop Making Sense is still a masterpiece. Grade: A+

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Little Creatures

Willie's comments: Returning to a four-piece-band format, Little Creatures is full of catchy little ditties that are even simpler than Speaking in Tongues’ straightforward pop. “And She Was,” “The Lady Don’t Mind,” and “Give Me Back My Name” are lighthearted and they massage your addled brain, rather than fighting it like Remain in Light did. Byrne’s lyrics sometimes veer too far to the goofy end of things (particularly on the new baby tale of “Stay Up Late”), but he makes up for any missteps with the affecting, unassuming “Road to Nowhere,” which is a disarmingly optimistic look at the end of the world that benefits from a full choir and an accordion. This was also Byrne’s last true work of genius until his self-titled solo album came out ten years later. Grade: A-

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True Stories

Willie's comments: This is an album of the Talking Heads performing songs that they wrote for Byrne’s feature-film directorial debut, True Stories (which is definitely worth a rental), but it’s not the soundtrack album, sadly. The true soundtrack album has most of these songs performed by the actors who sang them in the movie, and the Heads’ versions seem relatively stiff behind Byrne’s voice. The countrified “People Like Us” sounded much more powerful and convincing being bellowed by John Goodman, for example, and, pretty as the Heads’ version of “Dream Operator” is, it’s not nearly as affecting as the movie’s version. Worse still, the songwriting is just weak on songs like “Radio Head” (which someone named a band after) and “Hey Now.” The songs that the Heads themselves performed in the movie are great, though: “Love for Sale” is a scathing critique of the advertising industry, “City of Dreams” is an elegy for the Native Americans, and “Wild Wild Life” is a peerlessly catchy boogie. If you can find the movie’s soundtrack, though, splurge for that. (Bear in mind, however, that I’ve never been able to confirm the actual soundtrack’s existence.) Grade: C+

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Naked

Willie's comments: When the Talking Heads experimented with ethnic rhythms and textures on Remain in Light, it came across as fascinating, and a natural progression for them. When they once again decided to delve into African and Latin rhythms on Naked, it comes across as forced and pretentious. Whether this was because the band was fragmenting or simply a lack of good ideas is debatable, but this album is a big mess. “Totally Nude” and “Mommy Daddy You and I” are unbearably cutesy, while other songs are just boring. “(Nothing But) Flowers” is the one truly great song, with its ebullient guitar hooks and Byrne singing happily about nature overtaking civilization, but you can get this song- along with the other two good songs here, “Blind” and “Mr. Jones”- on Sand in the Vaseline, so don’t bother with Naked. Grade: C-

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Sand in the Vaseline: Popular Favorites

Willie's comments: Since the Talking Heads had already created the best live album and concert film of all time (not to mention the best album of the '80s with Remain in Light), it seems natural that they would also come up with the best “greatest hits” album, which they did with this 2-CD set. Generously packaged with liner notes from all four band members as well as six songs that don’t appear on any Heads album, Sand in the Vaseline is not just useful for Heads neophytes, but for the die-hard fan as well. The band has unfailingly selected their best songs from all their albums (save for the exclusion of “The Lady Don’t Mind” in favor of “Stay Up Late”), and it’s nice to hear the evolution of their sound from the stripped-down new-wave of “No Compassion” to the baroque orchestration of songs like “Blind.” Of the new songs, “Lifetime Piling Up” is easily the best- it should’ve been a single in its own right- but they’re all amusing in their own way. This is the perfect end to a nearly perfect career. Grade: A+

READER COMMENTS:

erfinagerfin@hotmail.com writes: Actually, The Name of This Band is Talking Heads isn't cassette and vinyl-only anymore, Rhino recently released it with a zillion extra tracks, making it a great package. I think that Stop Making Sense is great, but this is better as a whole...of course, the movie trumps it all, but that live album is maybe the best Talking Heads purchase you can make if you can only buy one.

Damien Browning writes: I love true stories, it's so great. but you know, its not their best

SEE ALSO: DAVID BYRNE

SEE ALSO: TOM TOM CLUB

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD SOUNDTRACK

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: BRIAN ENO, CREEPER LAGOON

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Television Personalities

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They Could Have Been Bigger Than the Beatles

Willie's comments: Regarding the title of this album, it says in the liner notes: "People laugh at the title. What a wacky bunch! I don’t think Daniel [Treacy, TVP frontman]’s joking. He more than realizes the potential of his songs." I agree. Like a more tuneful version of The Fall, the Television Personalities fashion beautifully catchy songs that fall somewhere between glam rock and Renaissance festival music. Lo-fi Brit-pop singalongs like "14th Floor" and "The Boy in the Paisley Shirt" are utterly charming, and in yearning songs like "Three Wishes" and "Flowers for Abigail," the band wrings dozens of emotions from a simple keyboard hook. They Could Have Been is a buried treasure. Grade: A-

SEE ALSO: BOO RADLEYS

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They Might Be Giants

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They Might Be Giants

Willie's comments: TMBG’s auspicious debut is sometimes a bit heavy on stream-of-consciousness silliness (as opposed to the hilariously clever lyrics they’d produce later on), but it’s also heavy on songwriting. Every song except "The Day" has an instantly likeable hook, and the quirky arrangements of songs like "32 Footsteps" and "Boat of Car" show more creativity in three minutes than most bands exhibit in an entire career. Keyboardist John Linnell’s tunes are the most well-thought-out, but guitarist John Flansburgh’s are the most fun. The music sounds like nothing else you've ever heard: complex yet catchy, accordion-based yet loyal to the punk ethic, etc. If the CBGB crowd of the late '70s was in any way whimsical, we might have had a whole movement of music like this. Instead, you're left with one great, inimitable band, and three-minute masterpieces like "Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head" and the minor hit "Don't Let's Start." Grade: A-

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Lincoln

Willie's comments: The new creed of Flans and Linnell seems to be "Maturity before Whimsy," and that’s evident on Lincoln from the very second the album begins. "Ana Ng" roars off with stomping guitars and doesn’t let up, as Linnell detachedly spins an elliptical tale of unrequited love and the World’s Fair. Elsewhere, he turns in the ingratiatingly weird anthem "Pencil Rain" (absurd as it is, the line "The thunderous clatter of splintering wood and lives that are claimed" is actually quite powerful) and the impossibly catchy "Mr. Me," as well as "They’ll Need a Crane," a thoughtful breakup song. Flansburgh is still fond of flightier songs, but he counters this with the addiction song "Lie Still, Little Bottle." This album is like a nice juicy steak for your brain. Musically, it's still a grab-bag, from the slick pop of "Where Your Eyes Don't Go" to the (literally) boingy "Cage and Aquarium" to the abrasive free jazz of "You'll Miss Me." And it's all good! Grade: A+

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Flood

Willie's comments: Flood is the album everyone starts with, because it contains the ever-popular "Particle Man" and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" as seen on Tiny Toons. And, while die-hard TMBG fans do tend to scoff at those who know only songs from this album, Flood is just as solid as anything else they’ve ever done. At first listen, keyboard-drenched songs like "Someone Keeps Moving My Chair" and "Birdhouse in My Soul" seem like mere novelty songs, calculatedly filled with non-sequiturs, albeit catchy ones. But on subsequent listens, it becomes clear that lyrics like "Before he can talk to the Ugliness Men, there’s some horrible business left for him to attend to/ Something unpleasant has spilled on his brain" do have meaning, and they’re not only insightful, but funny too! A good starting point, but one that holds up remarkably well even as you get farther into TMBG’s oeuvre. Grade: A

Istanbul (Not Constantinople) EP

Willie's comments: This now out-of-print CD single contains two versions of the title track, the original, keyboard-driven version of "James K. Polk" that is far superior to the one that finally wound up on Factory Showroom, and two great otherwise-unreleased tracks, "Stormy Pinkness" and "Ant." 20 minutes of fun. Grade: A

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Miscellaneous T

Willie's comments: A collection of B-sides from TMBG’s first two albums, Miscellaneous T’s title suits it well. It’s basically a grab bag of musical experiments- some successful (the bitter drones of "I’ll Sink Manhattan," the fascinatingly dense "Hey Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had a Deal"), some failed ("Hello Radio," "The Biggest One"). It’s exhausting to listen to it all at once, but ditties like "The Famous Polka" and the hilariously trippy "Mr. Klaw" are must-hears. Grade: B

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Apollo 18

Willie's comments: Once again, Linnell takes the challenging, intellectual road, and Flansburgh takes the zestful, weightless road, but their two writing styles interact brilliantly on this most unusual of TMBG albums. While Linnell plays word games in "I Palindrome I" and gives a beautiful science lecture in "Mammal," Flans pilfers treasures from rock history. He samples a Ramones song for "See the Constellation" (he samples Dee Dee’s four-count from the start of "Commando," if you care) and rewrites "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" for the Space Age in "The Guitar." And when the two Johns work together, their creativity can be jaw-droppingly wonderful. The Japanese B-movie summary "Spider," and the K-Tel collection of song snippets on "Fingertips" are brilliant beyond words. It should go without saying by this point that the music is unique, weird, brilliant, and catchy enough to make the Beatles sound like John Cage. Grade: A+

The Guitar EP

Willie's comments: Three wan remixes of "The Guitar" won’t do much for any Giants fan, but three superb new studio tracks surely will. "Welcome to the Jungle" isn’t a cover of the Guns ‘N’ Roses tune, but rather an engagingly choppy song about love and insects. "I Blame You" is a bittersweet folk-pop tune, and Flansburgh’s "Moving to the Sun" spins the most complex bass line I’ve ever heard into musical gold. Grade: B

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Why Does the Sun Shine? EP

Willie's comments: Once Linnell and Flans got a full band together (as opposed to a simple drum machine and programmed bass), they slapped together this one-off collection of three covers and a previously unreleased tune called "Spy," which later appeared on John Henry. The title track is a cover of a kids’ science tune from the early 60s which is immeasurably enlivened by Brian Doherty’s glockenspiel work, and then they zip through a truncated version of the Allman Brothers’ "Jessica" and then cool things down with a mellow, bass-and-saxophone version of the Meat Puppets’ "Whirlpool" (which probably won’t greatly impress fans of the original). Infectious. Grade: A+

Back to Skull EP

Willie's comments: A few weeks before John Henry came out, TMBG whetted their fans’ palate with this EP. It contains two versions of "Snail Shell" from the aforementioned album (including a Dust Brothers remix which is pretty much garbage), but also three amazing new songs! "She Was a Hotel Detective" is a charming, Barry White-esque stab at cocktail funk; "Ondine" is another of Flansburgh’s tales of fractured love among some unpleasant people; and "Mrs. Train" is a hysterical pop song that starts off draggingly slow, but slowly chugs to full speed (like a train). That never would’ve been possible before TMBG acquired a full band, and their enthusiasm for this new format is contagious. Grade: A-

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John Henry

Willie's comments: Actually, the Johns’ enthusiasm for playing with a full band was apparently so great that they were too excited to write actual songs for awhile. There’s a disproportionate amount of filler on this album: Flansburgh’s "Out of Jail" is kind of irritating, and Linnell has unfortunately made a habit out of writing songs about inanimate objects, which is okay on the nerd-punk of "Stomp Box" (about a distortion pedal), but becomes a grueling ordeal on "Thermostat." Still, when TMBG are inspired, they can’t be beat. Flans’s "Sleeping in the Flowers" and "Meet James Ensor" are thoughtful and catchy, while Linnell’s "I Should be Allowed to Think" and "No One Knows My Plan" rank with his best. And "The End of the Tour" could actually move you to tears if you really thought about the lyrics (despite the fact that it was the closing theme for Cartoon Planet on TBS). Grade: B+

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Factory Showroom

Willie's comments: Paring things down to a mere 14 songs (counting "Token Back to Brooklyn"), TMBG go off for another round of the genre-switching pop that they sort of neglected in favor of alt-rock power on John Henry. "S-E-X-X-Y" is an amusing funk workout, "Metal Detector" is one of those songs that’s so perfectly singable that I wouldn’t care if it lasted for an hour, and "Exquisite Dead Guy" is indescribably bizarre. Flansburgh’s "Pet Name" is too Squeeze-ish for its own good, but he redeems himself with a rousing cover of Cub’s "New York City," and "How Can I Sing Like a Girl?" is a great endorsement of individuality. I really like the opening lines to Linnell’s "Till My Head Falls Off," too ("There were 87 Advil in the bottle, now there’s 30 left/ I ate 47, so what happened to the other 10?"). Grade: A

S-E-X-X-Y EP

Willie's comments: If there’s one thing we didn’t need, it’s a remix of "S-E-X-X-Y" in which the title letters are repeated over and over for a good hour. Sadly, we get it on this EP, along with a hokey country-pop tune from Flans. Linnell tries valiently to save the day with "Sensurround" and "We’ve Got a World That Swings" (the latter of which is refreshingly straightforward for Linnell), but it’s not enough to justify this one’s release. Grade: C

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Then: The Earlier Years

Willie's comments: For sheer economical reasons, this 2-CD set is a great deal. You get TMBG’s self-titled album, Lincoln, and Miscellaneous T, as well as 19 previously unreleased tracks, all the album art from the aforementioned 3 albums, and detailed liner notes from John and John. The unreleased tracks are unfailingly wonderful (it’s worth buying just to hear Linnell sing Flansburgh’s "Number 3" in Greek), and, well, you know how I feel about the rest of the work represented on here. Grade: A+

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Severe Tire Damage

Willie's comments: TMBG aren’t too fond of touring, and that comes through on this collection of live recordings. While the band turns in top-notch versions of "She’s Actual Size," "S-E-X-X-Y," and "Meet James Ensor," they sleepwalk through "Particle Man," "Ana Ng," and many others. A pseudo-punk version of "Why Does the Sun Shine?" unfortunately winds up sounding like "Weird Al" Yankovic, and "Dr. Worm," which was immensely enjoyable as a 30-second song snippet on the band's website, is smashed by overproduction here. Lastly, while the improvised, Planet of the Apes-themed songs at the end of the CD are a lot of fun in concert, on an album, they quickly become as irritating as Jar Jar Binks. Grade: C

Long Tall Weekend

Willie's comments: Irritatingly enough, this album is available only in MP3 format, to be downloaded from emusic.com and played on your computer. I know lots of people like the MP3s, but I consider it a big pain to not be able just to plunk an album in my stereo and turn it on. By now, we know TMBG love cutting-edge technology, but I wish they would’ve issued a hard copy... Anyway, as for Long Tall Weekend’s content, it’s reasonably good for a collection of one-offs. Any die-hard TMBG fan probably already knows most of these songs, from concert favorites like “Certain People I Could Name” and “Older” to “Token Back to Brooklyn,” which is included here in the exact same version that appeared on Factory Showroom. So there aren’t many surprises. More irritating is the lack of effort which was put into some songs- Linnell’s “On Earth My Nina” is gratingly a capella (and apparently intended to be played backwards), and he mumbles his way through a slow, repetitive version of “They Got Lost.” However, there are enough essential songs to keep the listener reasonably happy (“Rat Patrol” is brilliantly catchy, Flansburgh’s “Operators are Standing By” is hilarious, and “Edison Museum” is nice and witty). Grade: B-

Working Undercover for the Man EP

Willie's comments: Okay, it's getting old now. The year is 2000, and it has been four years since TMBG have put out a proper album. I'm getting really tired of them mucking around with solo albums (Linnell), side projects (Flans's Mono Puff), live albums, compilations, songs for movies (the theme to Austin Powers: The Spy who Shagged Me), soundtracks to TV shows (Malcolm in the Middle and that ABC newsmagazine), and most of all, throwaway MP3 releases! This EP, like Long Tall Weekend, is available only in MP3 form through Emusic.com, and also like its predecessor, it's woefully undeveloped. However, the Working Undercover EP is unique among TMBG's catalog in that it does not have a single worthwhile song on it. Not one. The title track seems to be building toward a spiffy arena rock chorus, but instead spurts out a wimpy "Sha-la-la" refrain. Linnell's "I am a Human Head" suffers from a similar lack of energy, while his "Rest Awhile" is simply formless. "Empty Bottle Collector" is an instrumental toss-off that Spanish Fly would disown, "On the Drag" is merely unremarkable, and "Robot Parade" is an impossibly irritating nerd-metal song. In addition, they tack on three brief commercials for their web-based "TMBG Radio." Pointless, maddening, despicable. Grade: F

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Mink Car

Willie's comments: Finally. A new studio album! Is it worth the five-year wait? Well, yes and no. Mostly yes, though. "Man, It's So Loud in Here," for example, is the wittiest piece of ear candy you'll hear in 2001. Backed by an arrangement that boasts all the hallmarks of a generic hi-NRG hit (hyperactive sequencers, bludgeoning percussion, electronically treated backing vocals), keyboardist John Linnell plays the role of an oldster who doesn't understand the mainstream electronica that is suddenly everywhere- hence the song's title. Musically, it's as naggingly catchy (and disposable) as anything on your local dance station, but like all of TMBG's best work, the song is also effective as postmodern cultural commentary; in this case, it's a stinging parody of relics like Cher and Madonna who attempt to revitalize their careers by co-opting the youth culture of the moment. That song simply would not have been possible three or four years ago. However, age seems to have wilted TMBG's yen to experiment on other tracks, specifically Linnell's. His songs "Hovering Sombrero," "Finished with Lies," and the impossibly annoying "Hopeless Bleak Despair" not only show no evidence of Linnell's superhuman gift for pop hooks, but the arrangements stick to a generic guitar-bass-drums-keyboard setup that's all but unprecedented in the band's history.

Luckily, Flansburgh saves the day; all of his songs (with the exception of "Working Undercover for the Man," which you know I have problems with) are as tight and catchy as anything he's written since the debut album. "Drink!" is a pub rocker that's (intentionally) as pathetic and depressing as a bowling alley bar, "Cyclops Rock" injects a welcome bit of abrasiveness into the album, and "Another First Kiss" emits an unexpected sweetness. And you also get three terrific songs that go in the "leftover" pile: "Yeh Yeh," which is an insanely poppy cover tune, "Wicked Little Critta," which is a two-minute joke about Boston accents, and "Mr. Xcitement," which finds ex-Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty doing his nonsense thing over a rhythm track ("Protrude into the hoobalicious scoff the extra aden!"). All in all, TMBG have matured too much to continue being as engagingly off-kilter as we've come to expect, but even after seven albums, they're still the only band in the world that would dare to make a pop song out of a paralyzed man's Cartesean dilemma ("My Man"). That's got to count for something. Grade: B

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No!

Willie's comments: No! was an inspired stroke on TMBG's part. Since their deviously catchy songs have always appealed to little kids nearly as much as their college-age siblings (Jen's 8-year-old brother Cody spent most of his toddler years singing "Particle Man," thanks to us), Linnell and Flansburgh have released this album specifically for the kiddies. And pity the poor parents who purchase this record to keep their tykes out of their hair, because they're going to be hearing these songs a lot, I have a feeling, at the top of their offspring's lungs. Though the music and lyrics are obviously not as sophisticated here as the band's best work, nearly the entire album is a mischievous, short-attention-span delight. The songs range from a bizarre reworking of "Robot Parade" (Flansburgh sounds downright ominous when his vocals are run through a harmonizer) to the gleefully annoying "The House at the Top of the Tree," which is a stream-of-consciousness take on repetitive kids' stories like There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly or The House that Jack Built. Even cooler are the disc's multimedia features, which let kids mess around with colorful, semi-interactive Flash animations that accompany almost all of the songs. (A few of the songs don't make a lick of sense without watching the animations, truth be told- particularly the portion of "Violin" that describes George Washington's head being broken into fractions.)

True, TMBG fans who no longer wear Pull-Ups might not have much use for most of the songs. "Where Do They Make Balloons?" (sung by bassist Danny Weinkauf) is a catchy slice of sissy-pop, and "Lazyhead and Sleepybones" is probably the most gorgeous song Flansburgh has ever penned, but there's little else here to add to the band's list of classics. One big disappointment, in fact, is the song "Sleepwalkers," which re-uses the music from Linnell's great, unreleased tune "Two People in Love," and probably indicates that the latter will never see daylight. However, if you're a music fan who's unpretentious enough to get into things on a childlike level, you can have a blast with No! Personally, I giggled hysterically through the entire album, at songs like the stomping "Bed Bed Bed," which purports to be a sleep aid for kids, but will probably wind them up further with its atonal horn breaks and cow sound effects. There really is a lot of fun to be had here, if you're up for it. To put it bluntly, if you're the sort of parent- or childless art lover- who really gets into kid's entertainment (i.e., if you can count yourself a fan of Toy Story, Bob the Builder, Captain Underpants, or Rugrats), you'll love this. If you're the sort of parent who views kids' entertainment as a babysitter, you probably shouldn't have had kids in the first place. Grade: A-

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The Spine

Willie's comments: There was a time when you could count on even TMBG's minor, fillery tracks to be minor gems in their own right. Ostensible throwaways like "Boat of Car," "Mr. Klaw," and "Stand on Your Own Head," while hardly highlights of their catalog, still boasted melodies and arrangements clever enough to be worth clearing off a little shelf in your brain on which to display them proudly. On The Spine, lamentably, the songwriting has disintegrated to the point that even the supposed singles ("Experimental Film," "Prevenge," and "Damn Good Times," according to a sticker on the CD wrapper) are generic, if not entirely hookless. I never thought I'd see the day when the Johns released an album on which nearly every song sounded exactly like every other song, but The Spine is mostly an unrewarding stack of midtempo guitar pop tunes drizzled with the occasional vocal effect or horn section. The vocoderized "Bastard Wants to Hit Me" is a lot of fun, as is the brief XTC parody "Spine," and Flansburgh's "Memo to Human Resources" is a heartfelt resignation from life, but that adds up to less than five minutes of truly great music on The Spine. The rest is just unremarkable: Flans does a couple unnecessary rewrites of Flood's "Twisting," Linnell half-asses theoretically quirky lyrics about David Bowie, and none of it would ever bear a mention outside of a review setting. When it comes to a point that a band who was once one of the most mind-explodingly creative acts in indie-pop has resorted to blatantly cribbing from the Magnetic Fields ("The World Before Later On"), Camper Van Beethoven (the second half of "Damn Good Times") and the Pernice Brothers ("I Can't Hide from My Mind"), I think it's time to pack it in. As for you disillusioned TMBG fans out there, I suggest you pick up Of Montreal's Satanic Panic in the Attic, which is a nonchalant success of too-many-ideas whimsy, just like you like. Let's pretend that this album doesn't exist. Grade: C-

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The Else

Willie's comments: Album number twelve (according to some inter-band accounting that I can't figure out) is a return to the uneven but listenable standard of diminished expectations set by Mink Car. The arrangements are still relatively homogenous (many featuring impersonal production by The Dust Brothers), but Flansburgh and Linnell at least seem halfway interested in their songwriting this time around, with halfway successful results. For every labored "goodtime" rocker like "Take Out the Trash" or "The Cap'm," there's a genuinely single-worthy one like "Climbing the Walls" or "Feign Amnesia." For every bit of forced intellectualism like "Contrecoup," there's an unpretentious game like "The Mesopotamians," which is a Linnellized version of "(Theme From) The Monkees" that basks in lines of archaeological silliness like "This is my last stick of gum/I'm going to cut it up so everybody else gets some/Except for Ashurbanipal, who says my haircut makes me look like a Mohenjo-Daren." So The Else is a net gain for the Johns' discography, but barely. I wish even one of these songs were as catchy, concise, and witty as TMBG's "Fritalian" jingle from that Dunkin' Donuts commercial, but as a fanboy who grew up with the band and has resigned himself to purchasing everything they ever release regardless of quality, I'll gladly take an album like this, with a handful of clever ideas and some melodies I'm glad I've heard, over the detached snore that was The Spine. (NOTE: The first run of The Else came packaged with Cast Your Pod to the Wind, a collection of toss-offs that actually runs longer than The Else itself. It's all cute, since none of these songs suffers from the sort of overthinking that has hampered their recent studio work, but if you missed the first pressing, it's not a loss worth rending your garments over or anything. Only three or four of its whimsical sketches are really worth more than one listen.) Grade: B-

READER COMMENTS:

James Petix writes: On TMBG themselves.. I only really had to say anything about John Henry. This albulm I know think could have been the leading cause for a year of depression in 10th grade. This was the first full album to be released after I joined the rank of Giant Head (shortly after Apollo 18) and I was excited. I got Back to Skull while while on vacation up north. It had just come in and the clerk let us play it in the store cause we didn't have a CD player there. I happen to love the new Hotel Detective, it has a real Carmen Sandiago film noir kind of feel. It was my favorite TMBG song for quite a while.

I didn't really like or find a point to Thermostat until I had to share a small room with an air conditioner with my roommate. Each of us are constantly changing the thermostat up and down. The song makes a good point of how people have complete control over their environment (for example the climate) and still aren't happy. They're cold so they turn the thermostat way up, then it gets to hot and they put it way way down. If they'd just set it to 72 degrees all would be great, they would have found the Middle Way, reached Nirvana and forever be at peace with the universe. But people are to interested in instant gratification that they don't see the big picture.

Dirt Bike is an interesting little number not of a dirt bike but of a religious cult that sweeps up everyone in a small town, Linnel's equivilent to The Bells are Ringing.

Destination Moon is another simple narritive, this time of someone (like a mother or friend) that keeps thinking their friend is sick when they're really not. They just make out everything to be really bad and either things really do get bad or she just sees it as getting that way.

I don't think you even mentioned Sleeping in the Flowers, which I think is a great Flans song. I love the line "I got a crush, copy shop clerk, but she won't look up at me, don't want to be known as the freak, that just comes around to catch her eye." I can just picture the poor girl at Kinko's..

Rich Bunnell writes: I only have a couple of comments, though I do think it's really great that your page actually -compliments- TMBG and acknowledges that the last three albums are every bit as good as the first three-- every other page in existence treats Lincoln and Flood like they're heavenly gifts sent from god, and "They lost it at Apollo 18 and don't even MENTION John Henry or Factory Showroom!"

My main disagreements with you lie in Severe Tire Damage-- not so much about the quality of the live album itself (I'd give it a similar grade) but in a couple of specific parts of the review. First off, the new version of Why Does The Sun Shine "unfortunately" sounds like Weird Al? Ahhhh, screw you! And "Doctor Worm" I actually felt improved in its new studio version. Yes, I loved the tmbg.com version, it was nice and homely, but this one's just as wonderful! Big, bubbly, exuberant ear candy, sort of like one of their early songs played with a horn section.

Still, excellent, detailed reviews. I've always felt that "S-E-X-X-Y" has been pretty under-rated ever since its release, however.

On 9/16/00, Rich added: I agree with you about all of this side project junk -- I'm getting sick of this crap. I mean, I got into TMBG at the time of Factory Showroom's release in the 8th grade. I am now beginning my high school senior year AND THEY STILL HAVEN'T RELEASED ANOTHER FULL ALBUM!! Still, at any rate, [the Working Undercover] EP contains two indispensible songs - "Rest Awhile" and "On The Drag" are really catchy, if simple rockers. The title track would've been better if Flans had gone with the song's original configuration - as a sunny '60s-ish pop song - instead of turning it into lifeless, hook-deprived disco. I really wish that instead of releasing this stuff as thinly-produced music through Emusic the band would just save it for THEIR REAL ALBUMS! They really need to end these side projects. I mean, the band's releasing a freaking children's album! Why??????? The music on here isn't all bad, maybe C-level, but I agree that conceptually it's an F - this has got to end. "Robot Parade" is pretty funny if you've heard the original kiddie-music-box version, though.

Phillip writes: while I dont agree with you on your comments on BNL you redeemed you self by your positive comments on TMBG I started out with flood which I had heard the songs on tiny toons but I didnt buy the album till recently and from that moment on I was hooked to their obscure style and with in 4months i had all their albums but alot of people dont understand the large amout of symbolism that is involved and I think that John Flansburgh is definately one of the greatest guitar players preforming today jsut listen to the guitar solo in End of the tour then try to play it if you play guitar you will then understand what might make them "Giant" but as for linnell he has some good catchy beats on his solo album but i think he belongs with Flans I think TMBG has inspired alot of artist that you see preforming today but I dont think any of the those groups will ever live up to there specter

Steve writes: Contrary to your review, Long Tall Weekend (AND Working Undercover For The Man for that matter) were indeed released on CD's, not just MP3's. Finding a copy of them on a CD, however....Long Tall Weekend was complete with a full-color booklet and everything (not just in a little plastic sleeve like a lot of giveaways are), and the CD was (apparently) much better quality than its MP3 counterpart. Neither of the two CD's were ever released in stores, just as promos.

Ben writes: Hi there,

I was reading your TMBG reviews to see how they compared to my own, and noticed you said THe Else was album 12 "by some inter-band accounting I can't figure out." The real reason is because Here Come the ABC's is counted as album 11 to make the chronology:

1. TMBG
2. Lincoln
3. Flood
4. Apollo 18
5. John Henry
6. Factory Showroom
7. Long Tall Weekend
8. Mink Car
9. No!
10. The Spine
11. Here Come the ABC's
12. The Else
13. Here Come the 123's (coming in February 2008)

That's all. I did enjoy reading your reviews, but I won't get into what I agree and disagree on, and just wanted to point out the 2nd kids album to you.

SEE ALSO: JOHN LINNELL

SEE ALSO: MONO PUFF

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: KIDS IN THE HALL: BRAIN CANDY SOUNDTRACK; NEVERMIND THE MAINSTREAM... THE BEST OF MTV'S 120 MINUTES VOL. 1; XTC TRIBUTE ALBUM

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE; BRIAN DEWAN; AMY ALLISON AND THE MAUDLINS; PETER STAMPFEL; LAURA CANTRELL; LINCOLN; SOUL COUGHING

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Chris Thile

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Not All Who Wander Are Lost

Willie's comments: It's hard to think of a topic sentence to begin a review of an album by a mandolin soloist whose third album leaps from countrified bluegrass pickin' ("Eureka!") to gorgeous, sad Celtic folkisms (the first half of "Big Sam Thompson") to jazzy improvisation ("Club G.R.O.S.S."). Or at least it's hard when you're stupid and lazy. But Chris Thile is neither of those things, so maybe I should just have him come up with a topic sentence for me, since he seems to be talented at any other thing he puts his mind to, judging from this thoroughly emotional, engaging, and above all instrumental record! I know it's hard for a lot of people to get tremendously excited about instrumental music, myself included (I admittedly would probably have never taken a chance on this album if Jugdish hadn't demanded it as part of my Super Furry Animals Rings Around the World offer), but Thile's picking is so versatile, and his backing arrangements so enjoyably eclectic, that I can't imagine anyone's attention wandering very far from these jubilant melodic explorations. So much beauty... I was going to compare Thile to Bela Fleck, in fact, but it turns out that Fleck contributes his own Steve-Vai-of-the-banjo virtuosity here anyway- check out "Eureka!" for a great duet between the two musicians- so that would seem redundant. The best way I can prepare you for Not All Who Wander, then, is to say that it sounds, in large part, like it should accompany a revelatory scene in some film where a city slicker is forced to move to a peaceful, sunny, rural location and discovers the beauty of non-city life (think Local Hero or Under the Tuscan Sun, only not irritating). Even in its saddest moments ("Sinai to Canaan, pt. 1," for instance), there's no real cynicism or darkness in this music, and Thile knows when to step aside and let the mandolin take a backseat to a violin, a slide guitar, a banjo, or any of the other ingredients in his soothing musical recipes. It's obviously not the album you're going to want to throw on if you're in the mood for a Ramonesy slice of catchy rock, but if you're feeling patient enough to handle something chewier, you'll dig this. Grade: A-

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Thinking Fellers Union Local 282

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Mother of All Saints

Willie's comments: This is a really ugly album. No two ways about it. Songs don’t take the traditional form of Melody + Rhythm so much as they take the form of odd noises rubbing up against one another in ways that cause ridiculous amounts of friction. It’s all very poorly recorded and it gets pretty irritating after awhile (especially "Tuning Notes," but that one’s pretty funny, too), but there are a few keepers in this long list of songs. "Hornet’s Heart" is grotesquely catchy for all its odd voices and Chinese-sounding breaks, and "Tell Me" is almost straightforward. It’s interesting, but not in a way that you can listen to over and over. Grade: C

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Strangers From the Universe

Willie's comments: The Thinking Fellers have, on this album, applied the anarchic songwriting instincts they let run wild on Mother of All Saints to more conventional pop songs, and that results in a Camper Van Beethoven-esque plethora of satisfyingly weird songs that are singable, too! "Hundreds of Years" is a beautiful, introspective song that integrates churning, Stravinsky-like chords at inopportune moments, as well as a trippy bridge of chattering voices. "My Pal the Tortoise" is bouncy rock that incorporates such hilarious lines as "What about the cut of his gib?/ I think it’s the finest cut you’ll ever find/ What does he file at the Hall of Records?/ A proclamation of tortoise intent." Grade: A

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I Hope It Lands

Willie's comments: When I first heard this album, I thought it was merely a homely cross between Mother of All Saints and Strangers from the Universe- potentially hooky songs rendered useless by the band's penchant for chaotic noisemaking. However, now that I've listened to it a few more times, I've come to the conclusion that it's an unstable work of genius. The hooks really are there in songs like "Elgin Miller" and "Triple X," and once you locate them, the squalling guitars that sit atop them cease to be off-putting. In a way, I Hope It Lands is a distant cousin of Frank Black's Teenager of the Year in that the songs never seem to go where you'd expect them to, but they're somehow more satisfying for the journey. The album peaks early, with the hillbilly joke "The Poem" ("Roses is plants/ Flowers is too/ My cow, he went to the moon/ My pig's headed there purty soon"), two great Anne Eickelberg songs: "A Lamb's Lullaby" and "Empty Cup," and the psychotic hoedown "Lizard's Dream." But it's all strangely engrossing. Grade: A-

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This Perfect Day

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This Perfect Day

Willie's comments: Remember Teenage Fanclub? This Perfect Day does. With their agreeably crispy guitars, sweet harmonies, and summery choruses, This Perfect Day begs to be described as Bandwagonesque-esque. Reasonably catchy though songs like “Teenage Monster” and “Headache” are, though, they never quite capture Teenage Fanclub’s knack for anthemic songs or their amiable hedonism. In fact, This Perfect Day’s lyrical attempts to be devil-may-care often come across as calculated, given their more religious overtones. It makes for a mighty unfocused album when it contains the lyrics “You have Jesus on your side/ I hope he makes you smile/ I hope he makes you see the light” as well as the lyrics “We can go swimming in the park/ Or fuck like angels in the dark.” It’s all worth it, though, for “Everybody Knows,” a scorchingly affecting song about a girl pressured into sex. Grade: B-

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Richard and Linda Thompson

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Shoot Out the Lights

Willie's comments: Richard Thompson’s folk-based approach to rock has a strong fan base among alt-rock heroes, and with good reason: His intelligent, lovelorn lyrics tug at the heart while his songs are undeniably catchy (if occasionally corny). This album is the one must-own, because he and co-vocalist Linda Thompson were going through a messy divorce as the album was written and recorded, imbuing numbers like the title track and “Wall of Death” with a sublime bitterness. The folky songs like “A Man in Need” and “Backstreet Slide” will probably appeal more to your parents than to you, but take my word for it, you’ll adore “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” It’s music to seethe to. Grade: B+

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: MITCHELL FROOM; GOLDEN PALOMINOS; CROWDED HOUSE

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Beat the Retreat- Richard Thompson tribute album

Willie's comments: Roughly half of the contributions to this album are perfect, and those are all by the bands you would expect to contribute perfect covers of Thompson’s jovially spiteful tunes. R.E.M.’s “Wall of Death” is stunningly beautiful, while Bob Mould and Dinosaur Jr. tear the lids off “Turning of the Tide” and “I Misunderstood,” respectively. David Byrne funks up “Just the Motion,” and X’s “Shoot Out the Lights” is nice and punky. If only the whole album had been such high-profile acts (I, for one, would’ve liked to hear Matthew Sweet on here). Alas, obscure artists like Beausoleil and boring folkster June Tabor turn Thompson’s music into lackluster pop. And why was Syd Straw allowed to sing “For Shame of Doing Wrong” instead of including Yo La Tengo’s transcendent drone-pop version?! Grade: B-

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Tibetan Freedom Concert album (3 CDs)

Willie's comments: Let me first state that the Tibetan Freedom Concerts, organized by the Beastie Boys’ MCA, are a very good cause (though ultimately a futile one- no matter how much MCA and pals raise for their fund, it's really up to the Chinese leaders whether Tibet gets freed or not). If you believe in freeing Tibet as much as the artists represented here do, you may as well go ahead and buy this album because it’s like making a donation to the cause, only you get 3 CDs for your trouble. That said, I checked this live collection out of the library and dubbed the songs onto tapes, so I will be critiquing it based on musical quality rather than social value. And it really is a mixed bag. For every great artist (Beck, Bjork, Radiohead, etc.), there’s a crappy one (Alanis Morissette, Biz Markie, etc.). For every act that turns in an inspired, lively rendition of a song (Lee "Scratch" Perry’s transcendently weird "Heads of Government," or Sonic Youth’s awesome "Wildflower"), there’s a band that seems content to provide a limp run-through of their songs (the Beasties’ "Root Down," for example. Or Cibo Matto’s "Birthday Cake," which lacks the propulsive beats of the studio version). There are enough winners here to make it worth buying, given its philanthropic purpose, but enough dross to keep your fast-forward button in shape. Grade: C+

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Tied & Tickled Trio

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EA1 EA2

Willie's comments: Another side project of the German band The Notwist (besides the superb Ms. John Soda), the Tied & Tickled Trio cranks out a unique mixture of jazz and electronica that sometimes all melds into a logical mixture and sometimes sounds like a four-year-old girl bashing her Barbie and Ken dolls' heads together to make them kiss, but it's utterly fascinating and brilliant either way. Even though the stylistic approaches to the songs veer wildly from the squeaky free jazz-and-tribal rhythms of "4 Pole" to the minimalistic, pulsating dub of "Sevastopol" to the sexy, accessible noir of "Octant," the six-member Trio manages to maintain a consistent tone of smoldering suaveness for the entire length of the disc. Most of the songs take a programmed rhythm track and a selection of horns, with an upright bass splitting the difference between the two, and the resultant music can be spontaneous or mechanically hypnotic, but it's never off-putting even when it doesn't totally make sense. EA1 EA2 is far too brief at only a half hour (especially considering that a couple tracks, like "Octant" and the wonderful piano theme "Yolanda," beg to be explored for a few minutes longer), but if you like your jazz to have the structured, slinky rhythms of trip-hop, you will love this. Grade: A-

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Electric Avenue Tapes

Willie's comments: Try not to let the album title get that horrible Eddy Grant song stuck in your head. And then try not to let that song subsequently manage to get Was (Not Was)'s even worse song "Walk the Dinosaur" stuck in your head, since those two songs are inexplicably inextricable in your mind, assuming your synapses are as frustratingly wired as mine. Anyway, this album is another great electronic/future-jazz concoction, this time apparently recorded live in the studio (i.e., no overdubs), and even though it includes two songs that we've already heard on EA1 EA2 ("Van Brunt" and "Sevastopol"), there's a fresh energy to the performances that keeps them from being redundant in any way. Though there are plenty of satisfying, dub-based moments of rhythmic hypnosis (the driving "Tusovska Dub Version" basically just consists of the Acher brothers- Markus on drums and Micha on bass- running about in a growling, loose funk groove), the Electric Avenue Tapes are most effective when the electronics and drum loops keep things steady while the songs heat up and then there's an explosion of horns, flailing-but-disciplined rhythm, and cozy/dark atmospherics. Check out how the 13-minute "United World Elevator" slowly builds from a metronomic, soothing programmed-drums-and-piano smoothie into an invigorating miasma of improvised saxophone squeaking (excellent, expressive work from Ulrich Wangenheim) and jazzy drum madness in a completely organic fashion, never succumbing to awkwardness in the transition. The "Van Brunt/Van Ness" suite pulls off the same trick equally well. You can practically feel the giddy excitement with which the band members put down one instrument once its part in the song has passed and run across the studio to pick up another and carry on. I know next to nothing about jazz, so I can't really give you a great comparison to any other artist in the genre, but I will say that the album frequently reminds me of Frank Zappa's excellent Hot Rats, if Zappa had grounded his wilder, jazzy bits in the rhythms of minimal, electronic krautrock instead of rock 'n' roll. If the comparatively mellow EA1 EA2 is a good album to accompany a nighttime cruise to a nightclub, this is the one to put on while you and a new friend are doing the wild thing with reckless abandon. (Yes, I generally listen to it while editing math reviews at work. What's your point?) Grade: A

SEE ALSO: MS. JOHN SODA

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Tindersticks

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Tindersticks (1993 album)

Willie's comments: A wonderful little oddity. If you combined Yo La Tengo's drone-rock side with Camper Van Beethoven's darker, more avant-garde side, and had Nick Cave front the band, you might have something that sounded like the Tindersticks. Their debut album is packed with songs that are built around hypnotic repetition rather than verse/chorus formula, and boosted with scraping violins and sewer-voiced vocals, resulting in a brilliantly weird-but-listenable opus. The overriding mood of the album is a dank one, though the music doesn't always bear that out. "The Watt Blues" and "The Not Knowing" make use of a circus organ and a woodwind ensemble, respectively, while "Raindrops" is a gorgeous, piano-driven downer. "Piano Song," on the other hand, has nothing even resembling a piano on it, relying on angular, Velvets-ish guitars. Stuart Staples's lyrics are blue-collar pastiches that are evocative but forgettable; however, the pitch-black, indie-rock bliss of "Nectar," "Jism," and "City Sickness" will ooze into your pores given the slightest chance. Like Yo La Tengo, there's not much here that could be described as instantly catchy, but the songs are so well-formed and creatively thought-out that Tindersticks is wholly compelling from the first listen. It'll have you at "Hello." Grade: A+

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Tindersticks (1995 album)

Willie's comments: The Tindersticks have the uncanny ability to make any instrument seem sinister. An acoustic guitar, a vibraphone, a string section- it doesn't matter how innately pretty or cheerful their sounds might be. Staples and his cohorts know how to summon the sounds of tormented souls to possess their equipment, and the band members slowly, methodically attack their instruments as though they're about to make you run for your life. Thing of it is, the songs on their second self-titled album are even more gorgeously boozy than those of the first, even with the increasingly creepy vibe the band is giving off. "Talk to Me," for example, is a typically low-key, muted monologue by Staples, but it's backed by an orchestra that seems to be performing the most suspenseful score Mancini ever penned, before it finally lunges for your throat by the song's end. This album is as unsettling as it is bewitching, from the mournful "Cherry Blossoms" to the fever dream-ish "Vertrauen II," and makes an equally perfect soundtrack to a romantic dinner as it does to a lonely, gloomy night of reading Edgar Allen Poe. (If I dock it a couple points, it's only because the acoustic guitar on "Seaweed" thrashes around with no regard for rhythm and really irritates me. Don't let that dissuade you from picking this up the moment you see it.) Grade: A

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Curtains

Willie's comments: Another album, another lengthy set of the Tindersticks' perfected moping, right? Sort of. Sure, you still get a bunch of songs like "Another Night In," which basically sound like minor-key variations on Lou Reed's "Perfect Day," but the 'Sticks actually manage to brighten things up on a song or two. "Buried Bones," for example, is a cheery romantic duet that could almost have been unearthed from Motown Records' basement. ("A Marriage Made in Heaven" is a failed attempt at same- not a bad song, but the Zsa Zsa Gabor-voiced guest singer quickly gets old.) Even the songs that stick to the band's tested formula yield a couple surprises: "Desperate Man" is a cowboy dirge, "I Was Your Man" is a surprisingly sweet tune in which Staples tries to seduce a woman "with a smile that never reaches [her] eyes," and he compares his sex life to the surfeit of a "tired, hungry bear" in the empty-sounding "Bearsuit." If anyone needed any further proof that the Tindersticks are one of the most talented musical communes in all the world, Curtains should suffice; though it's still not as awe-inspiring as their first album, this one is evidence that they can keep their signature sound intact while sidestepping the trap of simply recording the same album over and over again. (Hear that, Elton John?) Grade: A

READER COMMENTS:

HB writes: i can't believe it. a tindersticks review! these guys are one of my favorite bands.check out their second album "tindersticks" it is an aural vacation.listen to "my sister" it has to be one of the creepiest songs ever written. i enjoy your website you have turned me on to some of my coolest discs.thanks

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Toad the Wet Sprocket

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Fear

Willie's comments: Toad the Wet Sprocket’s third album is crammed full of the great hooks and gorgeous melodies that their first two albums (the dreary, dull Bread & Circus and the similarly uneventful Pale, neither of which I'm going to bother reviewing because I've just said everything that needs to be said about them) never even hinted at. It’s tempting to brand Toad as an R.E.M. wannabe, with their jangly guitars and Glen Phillips’s plaintive vocals- the undiluted ugliness of “Hold Her Down” does owe more than a little bit to “The One I Love”- but Toad has a more jaunty sensibility than Stipe & Co. Take a listen to the adorable, accordion-propelled chanty “Something to Say” or the uplifting “Nightengale Song,” and it becomes apparent that Toad’s sincere happiness is no act, despite drearier (though equally pretty) songs like “Stories I Tell” and “Pray Your Gods.” “All I Want” was a big hit, of course, but Fear holds up better than most other albums from 1993. Grade: A-

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Dulcinea

Ginny's comments: Toad sounds a lot like about 9 million other bands, so to compare them to one of them would be comparing them to all of them. The difference is that Toad is intelligent and the music reflects that. "Somethings Always Wrong" is a deservedly successful little folk-pop ditty about a crumbling relationship, and though that subject's a path well-worn, it's probably the most successful of its kind and the best track on the album. From the "Call me Al"-esque "Fly From Heaven" to the humorous "Stupid," it's an excellent, catchy, and solid album in and out. "Begin" is pretty irritating, and though it's tolerable, seems like a song most comfortable as a B-side. They aren't as unusual and fun as, say, Beck or REM, but for straightforward lonely-man-with-his-guitar, Toad is creme de la creme. Grade: A

Willie's comments: The two extremes of music on Fear- elated pop noodling and dismal dirges- are combined into one creature on the nearly perfect Dulcinea. Most of the songs are folksy little alt-rock tunes that have a tremendous current of sadness flowing beneath their placid, catchy surfaces; a trait that is personified best by “Something’s Always Wrong.” “Crowing,” “Fly from Heaven,” and “Inside” all should’ve been hits, but were probably too nakedly honest for mainstream consumption. Still, Dulcinea does have a few happy places- “Nanci” is a funny, bluegrass-inflected tune that name-drops Uri Geller, and “Stupid” lightens the mood, too. Except for the grating closer “Reincarnation Song,” Dulcinea is a mellow, tremendously satisfying listen. Grade: A

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In Light Syrup

Willie's comments: This collection of B-sides and rarities is as slight as the title suggests, but it presents Toad’s more eclectic aspiratons, and they’re revealed to be as enjoyable as their mature alt-rock. The funky “Janitor” sounds like Toad brought Soul Coughing’s rhythm section on board, while “Hobbit on the Rocks” is a cute tribute to XTC, and “Are We Afraid” is ambient pop to die for. In a more traditional Toad vein, “Good Intentions” is enjoyably catchy, and “Brother” is a sweet ballad enlivened by a Hammond organ. It’s good rock fun that won’t ruffle anyone’s feathers. Grade: A-

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Coil

Willie's comments: Well, about this time, Toad’s bag of hooks ran out, so they crapped out this final album and called it quits. Good thing, too, because the songs here actually earn the “uninspired R.E.M.-lite” image that had dogged the band throughout their career. “Come Down” is as trite and unlistenable as the Bush song of the same name, and most of the other songs just drift by unnoticed. The two keepers are “Whatever I Fear,” which is uncharacteristically full of beats, and “Crazy Life,” a beautiful, sorrowful tale of infidelity that originally appeared (in a slightly superior version) on the Empire Records soundtrack. Come to think of it, you might be better off to buy the Empire Records soundtrack than this album- it has a good Coyote Shivers song on it. Grade: C

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: SO I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER SOUNDTRACK

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Tommy Boy soundtrack album

Willie's comments: This soundtrack album from the only good movie Chris Farley ever did is fairly random and unenjoyable. The cheesy but catchy Replacements rip-off "My Hallucination" (by Shaw-Blades) is good fun, but similar plundering of the 'Mats style is maddening in efforts from the Goo Goo Dolls and Smoking Popes. Oh- and speaking of the Replacements, Paul Westerberg turns in a horrid, Bob Seger-esque "Silver Naked Ladies." The contributions from Soul Coughing, the Carpenters, and R.E.M. are all great, but they are also readily available on better albums by those bands, and who among us needs to hear Dexy's Midnight Runners' "Come on Eileen" again? Grade: C-

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Tom Tom Club

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Dark Sneak Love Action

Willie's comments: It's a cruel twist of fate that the Tom Tom Club is probably not going to be remembered in the eyes of history as an inventive dance/funk outfit or even an ambitious Talking Heads side project, but rather as the band who recorded "Genius of Love," the song that the creatively empty Mariah Carey sampled for two horrible singles ("Butterflies" and that one recent one that sounds just like "Butterflies"). This album- which is not the one that includes "Genius of Love"- is full of strange, danceable, often sexy white funk that has the sort of exotic melodic sense that could only come from the rhythm section of the Talking Heads. Bassist Tina Weymouth reveals herself as an alluring frontwoman for a dance band on songs like "Sunshine and Ecstasy" and "Innocent Sex Kiss," with her breathy, clipped delivery that often sounds like she's trying to approximate a Japanese accent. Admittedly, some songs like "Irresistible Party Dip" are really stupid, but stupid in a fun way, and the infectious synth-reggae of "Who Wants an Ugly Girl?" should've been a hit. Scour your local cutout bins for this one. Grade: B+

SEE ALSO: TALKING HEADS

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To Rococo Rot

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Cd.

Willie's comments: German brothers Robert and Ronald Lippock and bassist Stefan Schneider are To Rococo Rot, the palindromically-named (try it!) group that makes some of the best spacious, ambient-based electronic music around, often by eschewing actual electronics in favor of "live" instruments. You wouldn't know it from their debut, though, which is as unambitious as its title and about half as memorable. Organic lugubriousness like "Parabola" (six brain-sucking minutes of scraped guitar strings) and "Veramon" (which fails to construct a groove out of brush-and-cymbal percussion, timid bass, and feedback) would earn the group the "post-rock" label and inapt comparisons to Tortoise that stuck around long after they left that genre behind, but Cd. isn't that interesting even for die-hard TRR archaeologists. The duo of "Tour de Repechage" and "Testfeld" does point the way to better things, with tight polyrhythms and looped hooks holding a steady, pulsing Krautrock vibe as the elements take turns being phased in and out of the mix. Mostly, though, this disc boasts a bunch of mellow rhythms free from creative embellishment. During "Kabine," for instance, I actually found myself leaning my ear against a speaker, trying to determine whether there was anything going on in the mix that I wasn't picking up on. (Apparently, I'm unfamiliar with volume control.) There's being minimal and then there's being unnoticeable, and thankfully, To Rococo Rot figured out the distinction before making another record. Grade: C

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Veiculo

Willie's comments: In seemingly very short order, Schneider has become an extraordinarily resourceful bass player, and his skills have emboldened TRR to find their low-key niche. With the exception of Yo La Tengo's James McNew and The Fall's Steve Hanley, I cannot think of anyone who has coaxed so many memorable and distinct parts from his bass while maintaining such a low different-notes-per-song average. It not only provides a comforting foundation for the songs, it gives the Lippock brothers space to mess around with interesting, interlocking polyrhythms (often, live percussion cruising in a different meter from the simultaneous chirrup of drum machines), assorted synth gewgaws, and loopy noise, all without raising the songs' temperature higher than a softly bubbling Jacuzzi. If you want to simply bask in the electronic textures of songs like "Micromanaged" and "He Loves Me," you can do that, but the sounds are smart and layered enough to reward active attention. (Though a couple lax, Cd.-style arrangements do crop up as Veiculo winds down, such as "Lips" and "Allover Dezent," their more inspired neighbors render them inoffensive.) There's so much relaxing repetition here, it's like they bottled one of those blessed, trancey moments when a display of battery-operated desk toys is so transfixing that you're able to block out the sensory overload that's bombarding you from the rest of the Spencer Gifts store. ... My similes are just getting less relatable by the day, huh? Grade: A-

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The Amateur View

Willie's comments: The third album in TRR's discography is the perky ambient album that I've been in search of for years. I know that it's become nearly impossible to review an electronica album of this sort without throwing around the names Can and Eno, but To Rococo Rot actually emerges from underneath the huge shadows cast by their predecessors. The songs on The Amateur View are minimal but never meandering, hypnotic but never overbearing. The first four songs in particular are like staring at an aquarium, with slow, synthesized bass parts waving back and forth like seaweed, electronic sonar blips, and tempered drum machines moving things along like friendly bubbles emerging from the mouths of fish. From that point on, the percussion becomes a bit more pronounced, and the melodies (such as they are) a bit choppier, but never to the point of breaking your trancey mood. The penultimate track, "Die Dinge des Lebens," would probably be the best ambient song I've ever heard... if the second track, the gorgeous "Telema," didn't hold the title. Grade: A

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Music is a Hungry Ghost (with I-Sound)

Willie's comments: Music is a Hungry Ghost is far darker than The Amateur View, with mechanical hums and loops upstaging the hypnotic bass and synth bits (perhaps due to collaborator I-Sound?), but despite the fact that this deceptively complex album recalls the dehumanized work of Pan Sonic or Pan American more than their own previous stuff, To Rococo Rot's fourth disc has slowly crept its way up my list of favorite albums and is now resting comfortably in the top 50. For even though "A Number of Things" kicks off the album with static, feedback, and voices that have all been dashed to bits and rhythmically reassembled, and what follows makes awe-inspiring slow-motion glitchtronica from sounds you wouldn't ordinarily think of as the least bit musical ("Koko," for instance, is a synth solo in which the clacking of the instrument's keys renders the actual notes secondary), everything is so ethereally, subtly agreeable that it never turns elusive. There's always a melodic theme to drive things, whether it's as obvious as the keyboard layers in "Pantone" or as unnoticeably effective as a couple repeated notes beneath the assembly-line buzzing of "Your Secrets, a Few Words" or the plaintive violin that swims through "From Dream to Daylight" like a browsing eel. The percussive noises seem to have fallen into place by happy accident; rather than punishing their machines like so many industrial bands do, To Rococo Rot makes them sound playful- even frivolous. Beats like those of "Along the Route" suggest dot matrix printers cheerfully popping bubble-wrap and shuffling cards before a crackling digital fire. Chill, dub-infused beauty abounds here, but the way it's all surrounded by efficient hollow noise makes Music is a Hungry Ghost sound like a text message from your subconscious, assuring you that everything is under control. Grade: A

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Kolner Brett

Willie's comments: I don't think you're even supposed to notice this album exists. Yet I review it. It consists of twelve untitled tracks, each of which runs three minutes and two seconds. Evidently, these songs were originally recorded for an architectural exhibition, as a musical representation of the titular building (which is made up of twelve equally-sized units) and the workaday routines of its inhabitants as well. Working within a proscribed running time, TRR tends to treat the songs in this collection as wind-up toys, setting up a handful of entertainingly rhythmic loops and letting them go until they wear down or time runs out, occasionally nudging them back onto the track but not intervening to a degree that would qualify as musical development. Though tracks two and seven do integrate splashes of organic, folksy guitar to liven up the place, more typical is the opening number, which finds a sequencer and a couple drum machines simply going about their business with the casual determination of Doozers. Further, track six evinces no motion whatsoever; it's simply twitchy, hollow noise that suggests a click beetle trapped on its back and rather demoralized by its situation. (What that says about the occupant of the represented apartment is unclear. Heroin addict, maybe?) The project has a lot of scaled-down appeal, but I'll admit that I found this album slightly too slight until I learned that it was composed as the audio component to an exhibition; without at least knowing the backstory, Kolner Brett really does feel almost like it's missing an entire sensory dimension that would explain it. Grade: B+

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: BJORK

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Tortoise

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Millions Now Living Will Never Die

Willie's comments: My parrot loves this album. The five-man collective of Tortoise use quite a few vibraphones on this landmark album, and whenever they appear, Bucky (my parrot) bobs her head appreciatively in time with the music. But will humans enjoy Millions Now Living Will Never Die? They should. Tortoise are interested in making rhythm-based instrumental music, but lest you should think this album is full of tribal rhythms and tuneless drum-circle excursions, they also liberally spread melodic organs, vibes, and sporadic guitars atop their songs. All the while, they channel-surf from musical style to musical style. The epic "Djed," for example, goes through no less than five permutations: It starts off as shuffling, haunted house music before morphing into an ebullient, Stereolab-esque drone. It then takes on a hummable tune which it quickly abandons in favor of a pulsating, record-skipping noise. Vibraphones join, and the effect is similar to the American Beauty theme song, but it then all collapses into a reverb-happy symphony of programmed hollow noise. The rest of the album explores similar territories, but, like the Coctails, Tortoise never sacrifice listenability to experimentation. Instead, they strike a brilliant balance between the two. Grade: A

SEE ALSO: THE SEA AND CAKE

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: YO LA TENGO; STEREOLAB; SLINT

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Touch Me Zoo

Wonderwear Music

Willie's comments: The Dead Milkmen’s guitarist, Joe Jack Talcum, and his buddy Seven Morris collaborated for this homemade two-man curiosity. Employing an 8-track machine and a collection of acoustic guitars and keyboards, the first side of Wonderwear Music plays like Belle & Sebastian on acid. Amusing folk-based songs like "Drunk... Now I’m Okay" and "Where Are They Going?" are weirded up by sped-up vocals and hooks that go beyond simple. The wonderful "Twenty-Three Cents" sounds like a space pirate’s chanty, while "Wasted by the Pool" is a poignantly nostalgaic memory of spending summer days lazing about and smoking pot that beats the crap out of that "Summer of 69" song. The second side of the tape, however, is given over to unlistenable experimental garbage that, when it’s not transparently derivative of Ween ("Hello... Goodbye" is an unfunny ripoff of Gene & Dean’s "Pollo Asado"), is just irritating. However, the first side is near-perfect, and 45 minutes of near-perfect music is more than you get on most albums anyway. Grade: B

Moon Dog Will Die

Willie's comments: Joe & Seven have been joined by a full-time drummer and bassist for this album, which highlight’s Joe’s increasingly affecting lovesick lyrics (which nicely compliment his shy-little-kid-as-rock-star whine). "Pop Song 92" is catchy, breezy power-pop, while "Bingo Hand Job" is a fun, starstruck tribute to R.E.M. And if TMZ tends toward the sophomoric end of the lyrical pool a bit too often (on "Snot" and "Drug Sniffin’ Dog"), that’s made up for by the heart-wrenching "Call Me Back." When Joe sings, "I suppose I could write a letter, but it’d take about a week to get there/ And I need you now," it’s a moment to reduce the lovesick teenager in all of us to tears (regardless of the fact that Joe is now 36). Grade: A+

Lawn King

Willie's comments: If Moon Dog was Touch Me Zoo’s R.E.M. album, Lawn King is their Pixies album. Songs like "Pipe Bomb" and "Fuses Blown" crawl along quietly during the verses, and explode into distortion and Joe’s wailing in the choruses, just like Black Francis’s best concoctions. "Murder" is one of the five catchiest songs ever written, in my book, while "Candyland" is satisfyingly trippy and sedate. Be sure to listen to the beginning of side B, too, for an unlisted, hilarious (and probably illegal) deconstruction of Michael Jackson’s "Beat It." Grade: A

Blow Up Your Stereo

Willie's comments: Strapped for cash (yet again), Joe and company decided to produce this tape of Touch Me Zoo rarities- as if the albums themselves weren’t rare enough. Uniformly awful, Blow Up Your Stereo isn’t even worth talking about except to say these sonic experiments are either painfully noisy or boring or both. Grade: F

READER COMMENTS:

senorlettuce@aol.com writes: You know, I have never seen a good review for Touch Me Zoo's "Blow Up Your Stereo," so I asked Joe for a copy. He told me "you'll probably hate it." Needless to say, a copy was delivered to me via our wonderful postal service, and I decided to see just how bad it is.

Upon hearing "Blow up your Stereo Pt. 1," I knew that I had just found an experimental gem. I would compare this to Ween's "The Pod" for pure experimental value. Experiments in music, as well as drugs. Besides the experimental tracks, there are also some genuinely great songs, such as "Dryer," and "Love is Everywhere."

Were TMZ able to get along (Seven never liked any of the bass players), they might still be around today, and may have received the recognition that they deserved.

Seven Morris writes: Somehow I always seem to get blamed for the reason TMZ broke up because I didn't like the bass players. First of all, I would say "dislike" is too strong a word. However, I did have problems with some that I feel were legitimate. Allow me to indulge myself for a moment...

First bass player: Great musician and performer, fit the TMZ mold well, but he became untrustworthy. I'd rather leave it at that. Second bass player: Great guy but just didn't quite fit. He was sort of a rebound guy. I don't think I made him leave though. It just happened. Third bass player: Gigantic ego. Here's an interesting excerpt from an article concerning said subject: "Hasson returned (to Seattle) so he could finish school, but within two weeks of graduation he moved to Philadelphia and started the band Touch Me Zoo with (Joe Jack) Talcum. After a series of cassette releases, one LP for Restless Records, and a string of dates on the 1995 Lollapalooza side stage, Touch Me Zoo disbanded..." (entire article is located at http://www.thestranger.com/2001-09-27/music2.html). No self-respecting interviewer could screw the facts up that much, not unless that's what they were told by the interviewee. Fourth guy: I believe would have gotten much further along on our road to creative satisfaction had we started with him in the first place. Unfortunately, TMZ was already breathing it's last when he showed up. Shame, really...

SEE ALSO: THE DEAD MILKMEN

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Tragically Hip

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Trouble at the Henhouse

Willie's comments: While they're not as groundbreaking a band as their legions of fans might have you believe, Canada's Tragically Hip are nonetheless a nifty little band. Basically, they meld the musical sensibilities of Neil Young with those of R.E.M., and sometimes throw a little slow funk in for good measure. Trouble at the Henhouse is never particularly exciting to listen to, per se, but it's a very solid album, packed with anthemic choruses ("Ahead by a Century"), infectious guitar-rock ("Let's Stay Engaged"), and at least one masterpiece. That song, "Put It Off," is built around a slow, hypnotic, three-note bassline that is repeated ad nauseum as the song crescendos and decrescendos several times over the course of five minutes (and it gives a shout-out to Eric's Trip). "Apartment Song" and "Coconut Cream" unwisely forego the tunefulness of their other songs in favor of guitar skronk, but they're exceptions in a transcendentally moody album. Grade: B+

READER COMMENTS:

Trevor Evans-Young writes: The Hip are one of the greatest bands ever, simply put. I'm from Alabama, not near Canada, and there is still not one other band i would rather hear for good, meaningful, and unique rock 'n roll. My favorite Albums are Fully Completly and Day for Night, but Up to Here and Music @ Work are equally as good. I would consider them one of the top 10 best bands ever, and they STILL rule. (I just wish they would release a live DVD or something, since they never tour in America!)

Matthew Milne-Smith writes: I agree with your B+ for "Trouble at the Henhouse", but that's maybe their 4th best album. If you want to see why Canadians are so crazy about this band, check out Up To Here, Day for Night or Road Apples. Fully Completely is also worthwhile. They have severely tailed off in recent years (I would put "Trouble" into that category quite frankly) but their early stuff is worthy of the hype.

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: KIDS IN THE HALL: BRAIN CANDY SOUNDTRACK ALBUM

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: ODDS

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Trainspotting soundtrack

Willie's comments: Every song you remember getting pumped up to in the movie is on this album, and, yes, they’re just as great even without Ewan McGregor and friends. Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” is a kick, while Underworld’s “Born Slippy (NUXX)” is a thrilling slice of drum-and-bass that launched their careers. The songs you might not recall are wonderful, too: Brian Eno’s typically becalming ambient tune “Deep Blue Day,” the funky trip-hop of Primal Scream’s “Trainspotting,” Elastica’s zippy “2:1,” and so on. All this, AND you get the best song Lou Reed ever wrote: the unguarded “Perfect Day.” One of the best soundtracks of all time, along with Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy and Velvet Goldmine. Grade: A-

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Trans Am

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Red Line

Willie's comments: Eclectic, experimental, iconoclastic, and ultimately too lazy for their own good, Trans Am can be pigeonholed as a lo-fi parody of an electronica group. Like early Devo, this D.C. trio is galvanized by the noises that can be made with a simple synth and a set of real drums (along with guitars and, on "Shady Groove," a disoriented saxaphone), and they stake their claim early on in the album with the masterful "I Want It All." The song bears down on you like a rampaging CGI buffalo, with a determined beat and a simple, hooky synth line charging alongside paranoid vocals fed through an amped-up vocoder. As the loosely-defined genre of "post-rock" goes, "I Want It All" is a brilliant slice of it. Sadly, that's the only song on Red Line that really lifts you out of your chair and hurls you to the ground. Though the album is always clever and often quite funny in its deconstruction of rock history (check out "Polizei [Zu Spat]" for a Spinal Tap-esque take on krautrock), the actual songs are staggered as far apart as landmarks in Montana, separated by a tundra of filler. The rhythmic clicking of "Talk You All Tight," for example, is as faintly interesting as the more inert bits on Kraftwerk's Radio-Activity, but is it necessary? At least Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 usually put a fully-formed song after every third or fourth track of arty noodling; Trans Am can go six or seven! Maybe if "I Want It All" hadn't impressed me so mightily and made me hunger for more of Trans Am's great rock numbers, I'd be more impressed by, say, the enjoyable ambient mess of "Village in Bubbles," but as it stands, Red Line just feels bloated. Grade: B-

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Travis

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The Man Who

Willie's comments: Let's get it out of the way first: Yes, Travis has more than a passing resemblance to rock demigods Radiohead on this album. Fran Healy's slurred falsetto sounds a lot like Thom Yorke's; folksy mood pieces like "She's So Strange" and "Driftwood" sound like calmer outtakes from The Bends; and The Man Who's producer, Nigel Godrich, also produced OK Computer (though the crisp, acoustic tone of the album is more similar to the work he did on Beck's Mutations).

However, Travis's songs are both prettier and less memorable than most of Radiohead's. Healy's lyrics are moody and inconsequential (referring more than once to Oasis's "Wonderwall"), and, often times, so is the music. In fact, after the album is done playing, it's likely that the only song that sticks in your head will be the heavenly, melancholic "Why Does It Always Rain On Me?" That song incorporates a string section, an indelible melody, and Healy's most piercing lyrics ("Why does it always rain on me?/ Is it because I lied when I was 17?") and comes up with yummy ear candy. But it also underscores the dearth of hooks on the rest of the album. I don't want to say that Travis is overrated to the extent of other Britpop bands like Gay Dad or the Manic Street Preachers, because The Man Who is especially effective on a rainy afternoon, if it's a mood you're after. However, after the critical applause they received for this album, the songs themselves might seem like they could do with a bit of an overhaul. Grade: B

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Trembling Blue Stars

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Lips That Taste of Tears

Willie's comments: Before you start reading the Trembling Blue Stars reviews here, let me open with one of the increasingly common caveats that I've sprinkled around the site. Having originally reviewed these albums in a smug state of romantic bliss, I spent quite a bit of time mocking the band's heartbroken anthems, or at least making arrogant and judgemental remarks about how unhealthy Robert Wratten's obsession was with his ex. Well, in one of those delicious turns of poetic justice that the cosmos doles out on occasion, I myself have since been flung from my high horse and reduced to a quivering, heartbroken lump of poop. One of the many advantages of being in this utterly crushed state is that I'm now able to listen to TBS's music from a similar point of view to that of the songs' narrator, and I've gotta say, Wratten is a master at capturing the hopelessness, neediness, and desperation that comes with a particularly unjust and wrenching breakup. I still think he takes things too far on many occasions, allowing his aching pleas to border on delusional scariness, but apart from those moments, he is completely on-target. So as you read on, bear that in mind.

Here's the story behind Trembling Blue Stars: Robert Wratten used to be in an okay jangle-pop band called the Field Mice with his girlfriend, Annemari Davies. Then the two of them broke up, and Robert was, to judge from the evidence, totally devastated by this development. So he formed a new band, Trembling Blue Stars, and dedicated his musical career to writing songs pining for Annemari with titles like "Never Loved You More," "You've Done Nothing Wrong Really," and "Made for Each Other." If it sounds kind of sad, you don't know the half of it. Wratten's lyrics make him sound like the world's most polite stalker: "Go ahead and hate me/ I know I promised I would leave it/ But a troublemaker's what you've made me/ Can't you see we're worth it?" Even creepier is the song "The Rainbow," on which he actually gets Annemari to sing, "I am the girl from your dream." So Lips That Taste of Tears gets docked several million points for emotional health, but the fact is, it's utterly fascinating to listen to. Despite the somewhat unsettling nature of the lyrics on this album, there's no denying that they're memorable. Plus, Wratten is a terrific tunesmith, writing infectious indie-pop songs that seem instantly familiar when you hear them the first time. This is especially true of "Letter Never Sent," which is not a cover of the R.E.M. song, but is rather one of the catchiest songs I've ever heard. Sometimes he digresses into lo-fi techno songs like "Never Loved You More 2" which, while effectively moody, go on too long, but at the end of "Farewell to Forever," when he sings, "I don't know what my future is/ I just know who it isn't with," all is forgiven. Grade: A

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Broken by Whispers

Willie's comments: The good news about Wratten's emotional state is that Broken by Whispers contains two songs which are not explicitly about his relationship with Davies: "Snow Showers" and "Sleep," which are still not exactly paragons of self-esteem, but at least signal the happy development that Annemari is not involved in every single thought that crosses Wratten's mind. Not to worry, though, Trembling Blue Stars fans; the other nine songs on this album consist of more top-notch torch-carrying. The world needs more songs like "She Just Couldn't Stay" and "Sometimes I Still Feel the Bruise," quite frankly. They're utterly perfect pop songs with lyrics that touch on beauty as much as self-pity, and melodies that straddle the line between dejection and hope. "Fragile" is particularly wrenching- Wratten replaces his glossy, Magnetic Fields-esque style of bittersweet folk-pop with a stark arrangement which is mostly built around drums and his own bummed voice ("All I want in the world is to be held"). "To Leave It Now" could do without the pretentious French chanteuse, but apart from that, Broken by Whispers further proves that Wratten's music is the best voyeuristic gaze you'll ever get into a broken heart. Grade: A-

READER COMMENTS:

Bobby's girlfriend writes: It always amazes me how people assume (wrongly) that all of Bobby's songs (and it's Bobby, not Rob) were about Annemari. Believe it or not, he had/has other girlfriends. The reviews would be more entertaining if they were educated, even if they were negative. The one that gets me is the review of "Alive to Every Smile" where you even QUOTE songs that aren't even to do with Annemari!!!

Bobby's a fantastic person and a wonderful boyfriend, and i'd be pretty safe in trusting him "around your daughter" or whatever the hell you said.

If you're going to write about people's private lives and not the actual music, at least do your homework before you start spouting rubbish man. [WILLIE'S NOTE: I've deleted the Alive to Every Smile review. Upon reflection, that one in particular really was an egregiously unfair review full of speculation about a life I know nothing about, and very little about the--generally very good--music. These comments are entirely correct.]

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Turin Brakes

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The Optimist LP

Willie's comments: I always thought it was corny when I'd be watching a video of a band practicing in the studio, and one of the band's members would shut his eyes tightly, bite his lip, and shake his head in time with the music, as though he was really feeling the groove. I thought it was corny, that is, until I found myself doing the same thing to the song "Emergency 72" on this full-length debut from the hilariously named duo Turin Brakes (so named because one of them really likes Turin, the Italian city, and the other one really likes brakes). The song is a mid-tempo, acoustic rock song with subtle bluesy overtones, and it's one of those tunes whose simplicity works its way into your brain and builds a happy little nest. Much of The Optimist LP proceeds in a similar fashion: overtly British melodies wedded to gorgeous, understated guitar lines and serviceable lyrics belted out in a soulful, androgynous voice. The album also features sporadic slide guitar work which gives the songs a grubby, rootsy feel (like a slicker Gomez), and "Starship" is a suitably trippy acoustic tidal wave, but mostly what you get are superb folk rockers like "Feeling Oblivion" and "The Road." Turin Brakes might not do anything particularly original within the burgeoning quiet-rock movement, but it's impressive that they manage to distinguish themselves among such well-known contemporaries as Badly Drawn Boy, Coldplay, and Travis. Grade: A-

READER COMMENTS:

Hugues writes: I think this duo is the most promising band of all the current quiet-rock movement. I take the best and the bets. :o)

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TV on the Radio

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Young Liars EP

Willie's comments: The debut EP from TV on the Radio is bookended by two slices of where-the-hell-did-THAT-come-from? perfection. It opens with "Satellite," on which four bars of crispy drums and growling synth-bass are the infinitely looped backdrop for an infectious, slow-building cataclysm of squalling guitars, flutes, and Tunde Adebimpe's uniquely soulful vocals and harmonies. The EP ends with an inspired unlisted track: four minutes of Adebimpe performing a truly strange a capella version of the Pixies' "Mr. Grieves" that sounds like some postmodern fusion of Rockapella and the Ink Spots. The three songs sandwiched in between- "Staring at the Sun," "Blind," and "Young Liars"- don't quite reach the same addictively original peaks, but that's not really a criticism considering how superbly moody they are in their own right. The arrangements throughout the EP- with Adebimpe handling the vocals and David Andrew Sitek doing most of the music- are based largely around idiosyncratic R&B-derived melodies and minimal, droning backings, but the empty space in the songs allows plenty of other elements to drift in and out almost subliminally. It's not really rock, it's not really electronic, it's not really R&B... it's not really anything except what it is: the best genre-defying supernova of an indie debut since Soul Coughing's Ruby VroomGrade: A-

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Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes

Willie's comments: The first full-length is a dark, dark album. But not dark in the sense of "evil" or even specifically "foreboding" most of the time; just dark the way nighttime is dark. Like staring out the window of a dimly-lit urban apartment into the blackness: you feel safe but a little exposed at the same time. Even with the addition of second vocalist/guitarist Kyp Malone, TV on the Radio doesn't expand much on the sound of Young Liars, but rather seems to subtract everything but the essentials from the mix. Sure, sometimes, as on "The Wrong Way," those essentials include several tracks' worth of saxaphones, but things never feel cramped or even energetic enough to shock the album out of its stoned, spare trance. Simple drum loops chug along and noisy guitars are buried beneath intimate bass and strange vocal arrangements (Adebimpe's never off-key, but also doesn't have as slick a voice as you'd expect for such full harmonies, so it's something like Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips multitracking himself to perform all the parts of a Boyz II Men song), but there's an effective undercurrent of latent hostility that takes the music out of soothing, Yo La Tengo territory. You're never worried that the songs are going to fly off the handle and suckerpunch you, but there's a chilliness that runs throughout- not just on songs like the perfect, slowly swarming "Don't Love You" or the growling "Dreams," but even on the otherwise sweet a capella "Ambulance"- that keeps things just a little too edgy to fade into the background. Just enough to make the songs' mood stick with you, like a disturbing dream that you can't shake all day. The band doesn't always hit their mark, mind you: "Poppy" and "Wear You Out" never manage to hit a groove. (Plus, they inexplicably pad things with the Young Liars track "Staring At the Sun.") However, Desperate Youth is mostly an absorbingly discontent tract of bitter, woozy electro-soul-rock. Grade: B+

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: YEAH YEAH YEAHS

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12 Rods

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Separation Anxieties

Willie's comments: A really smart band in a really generic band's clothing (Incubus T-shirts), 12 Rods' music is obviously the product of rock geeks who are enamored of the idea of having a big hit song, but are too creative to be content with adhering to a straight top 40 formula. When these contradictory impulses find a happy medium, the songs that result have just the right mixture of catchiness and weirdness to make you want to listen to them over and over, and Separation Anxieties (their third album) contains at least three or four such tunes. At heart, "Marionette" is a big, stupid Jimmy Eat World "pop/punk" song, but frontman Ryan Olcott and producer Todd Rundgren(!) deviously tack on a Vaudevillian toy piano intro that's got more cheek and intelligence than Blink-182's entire catalog. "You Gotta Go" is even stranger, with an angsty, distorted hook that's surrounded by gentle keyboard work, glints of techno percussion, and a new wave-based chorus, and 12 Rods do an amusing impression of the Cure's poppier moments on "Repeat." Best of all, "Astrogimp" should have been a huge hit, with a stadium-sized riff that's cleverly supported by once-edgy-but-now-ancient synth sounds straight out of the score to A Clockwork Orange or Apocalypse Now. (Keyboardist Ev steals the show on this album, frankly, with a bottomless well of interesting noises and musical flavors.) 

Even the sprightly inventiveness of Rundgren's production can't help matters when Olcott decides to slow his songs down to a crawl, though, and that happens way too often here. I'm not sure if the overreliance on bland moments of somnambulance is Olcott's attempt to show that he has talent beyond clever barre-chord rock, or if he just has a frustrating fondness for songs with absolutely no energy, but during these songs, Separation Anxieties can make the listener feel as impatient as an emergency vehicle that has to stop to let a field trip cross the street in front of it. I assume, for instance, that the cricket noises that provide ambience in the tedious "Your Secret's Safe With Me" are a reference to the crowd's bored response when this song is trotted out during a live performance... Indie-rock oxymorons abound here, with a nearly equal number of unqualified successes and head-scratching failures, but if 12 Rods keeps this up, look for an indispensable greatest hits compilation in six or seven years. Grade: B-

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Twink

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Supercute!

Willie's comments: Some of the greatest minds in the public eye know the importance of having a soundbite-ready gimmick to make their wares palatable. David Mamet's secret to directing a good film? "Keep it simple, stupid." James Carville's formula for running a successful political campaign? "It's the economy, stupid." Mike Langlie's recipe for his band Twink? "A toy surprise in every song!" (I assume the "stupid" is implied.) In the case of Twink, however, such a reductive description does Langlie a bit of a disservice, because although his second album will satisfy those who are looking for music as cuddly and goofy as its cover and title suggest- his instrument of choice is a toy piano, though he gets plenty of help from other musicians throughout- Supercute! is nowhere near as unbearably cloying as you might think. Even at his silliest, Langlie never lets the childish connotation of his jingly sounds supercede the songs' respective identities. "Barnstorming," for instance, backs his toy piano with samples of farm animals serving as percussion, but rather than choking on its own calculated whimsy like, say, The Music Tapes, the song really is carefully assembled, with the animal noises looped and layered with the precision of a Prefuse 73 beat, and with two distinct, hooky sections no less (the latter of which is actually kind of haunting)! Elsewhere, "Knick Knack" packs enough of a synthesized punch to recall Holiday-era Magnetic Fields, "Cobweb Collector" is a surprisingly dark ambient interlude, and "Rubbernecker" is a lo-fi faux raga that suggests a charmed collaboration between Camper Van Beethoven and Raymond Scott. (I should also emphasize that the toy piano doesn't ground all the tracks here; I'd say it plays a prominent role in roughly half the songs, unless it's so strangely manipulated that I can't even identify the instrument on those other songs. And the exceptions, like the delicate flute-and-cello piece "Runaway Shadow," are every bit as enticing.) The point I'm trying to make is that although the presence of so many toy instruments may make Twink sound like a toss-off novelty act on paper, Supercute! is just proof (like Self's similarly impressive Gizmodgery) that great musicians can coax eclectic, emotional, and fun beauty from anything that makes noise, if you're open to hearing it. And Twink's particular brand of complex cartoon electronica really is a wonderfully unique listening experience. Grade: A

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The Broken Record

Willie's comments: Once again, Mr. Langlie puts the "twee" in Tweenk (as pronounced by Speedy Gonzales), but apart from his uncompromisingly innocent/silly approach, there's very little about The Broken Record to suggest that it was made by the same guy who made Supercute! Rather than a sculpture of toy instrument pop, this one consists of 23 slice-and-dice collages assembled almost entirely from old children's records, expertly rendered in styles ranging from wordless Soul Coughing/Mr. Scruff-style cartoon breakbeat (e.g., "Yippee Skippee") to calm musical ponds backing dada mishmashes of dialogue and narration (e.g., the hilarious "Three Wishes," which transforms a traditional fairy tale into something Terry Gilliam might've animated on Monty Python). Might sound like an easy feat to blend children's songs together- after all, songs calculated to be pleasing to kids' "unsophisticated" tastes are going to necessarily be pretty basic- but rarely does the album settle for nursery-rhyme simplicity, using those snippets' often annoyingly catchy elements as individual Tinkertoys in lovingly complex structures. "Monkeyshines" starts out with the first three lines of "Pop Goes the Weasel" looped over and over without the titular resolution, but just before you start to feel like you're stuck in a particularly whimsical insane asylum, the song blooms into a grin-inducing wedding between accordions and beats that you can still skank to, and "Hot Diggety" is one of many that make a "genuine" electronic dance track from the typical woodwinds and percussion instruments that score these records. Likewise, the inherent humor of the enterprise isn't what you'd expect. A less inspired musician might've tried to wring the obvious laughs from chopped-up renditions of the ABC song ("Alphabent") by spelling out profanities, or the dozens of songs about cats that are blended into "Pussy Cat," but in Langlie's hands, the former becomes a bizarre audition of illiterate singers and the latter becomes a spectacular, thematically-focused bit of jazz that would've fit right into a classic Looney Tunes piece like "The Three Little Bops." The Broken Record is not for everyone, and the more-or-less constant spoken samples- though very funny- occasionally overwhelm the compositions, but if you're one of the "adventurous grown-ups" identified in Twink's press material as the album's ideal audience, you'll gladly give yourself over to Langlie's peerlessly smart cross-pollenation between Kid Koala turntablism and Sesame Street hooks. Grade: A

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Ice Cream Truckin'

Willie's comments: For this album, Langlie recorded a bunch of Supercute-style toy piano melodies and handed them over to a passel of desktop DJs for electronic refurbishment, for a collection of cheerfully streamlined technotreats that generally hew to the Twink credo despite their diversity. I'm not familiar with any of the nineteen contributors, but some have certainly piqued my interest. Ralph Muha ("Lemon Sublime"), for instance, who turns in the spacious sounds of a Sega Genesis game's soundtrack, or Mochipet, who chews up "Rocket Pop" and spits out the sounds of programmed misanthropy in a manner as unsettling as Venetian Snares or Datach'i. Replace the toy piano's infectious, searching theme with Neil Tennant's voice, and Milk Monster's "Slush Bunny" could be the best song the Pet Shop Boys recorded in a decade, while the distorted bass and splutteringly fast beats of Evan Morris's "Plastic Spoon" sound like an Aphex Twin approximation of a tweaker's nursery rhyme. Genially eclectic as it is, though, Truckin' suffers somewhat from having so many different remix artists jockeying to make their respective tracks stand out. The effort leaves little room for atmospheric downtime, making the whole endeavor a bit exhausting in its entirety. Taken in single-scoop shifts, though, it's as goofy and uplifting as we've come to expect from Mr. Twink, filtered through a prism of unpredictable interpretations. Grade: B+

READER COMMENTS:

Mike Langlie writes: Hi there, Thanks for the nice review about my new album (Twink: Supercute!), it made my day! :)

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2 Many DJ's

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As Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt. 2

Willie's comments: Remember those word games you'd occasionally see as a kid, where the object was to get from a four-letter word like "CORN" to a four-letter word like "LARD" by inserting three other four-letter words in the middle, changing one letter each time? (CORN, BORN, BARN, BARD, LARD.) Not everyone was a word nerd like me, eh? Anyway, that's nonetheless the principle at play when Steve and David Dewaele, of the decent Dutch band Soulwax, get together for one of their 2 Many DJ's sessions, in which they spend an hour gleefully plundering the history of popular music to connect the dots between as many disparate tunes as possible, resulting in head-spinningly precise dance mixes that are as sure to thrill rock geeks as club rats. As of this writing, the duo has put together 30 of these collections, but only number two has seen proper release, presumably due to licensing headaches. (I should note that the other sessions are easy enough to find on your preferred file-sharing service. The songs featured in each set do overlap quite a bit--2 Many DJ's seems particularly fond of the Detroit Grand Pubahs' "Sandwiches" for some reason--but each of the dozen or so I've heard has something unique to recommend it.) Luckily, Pt. 2 may well be the best of the bunch. It's not enough for the Dewaeles to spin a disorientingly eclectic selection of their faves, from Adult. and Lords of Acid to the Electric Six, the Stooges, Nena, and the Cramps; no no. Nothing is included that doesn't flow directly from the previous song and into the next one. Thus, Radio Soulwax is a feat not only of programming, but of beat-matching, mash-ups, and every other skill you'd need to prove that Peaches's hysterically nasty "Fuck the Pain Away" is the perfect bridge between Mancini's "Peter Gunn Theme" and The Velvet Underground's "I'm Waitin' for the Man." Or that the vocals of Destiny's Child's "Independent Women Pt. 1" sound entirely at home layered atop instrumental backings from both 10cc's "Dreadlock Holiday" and Dolly Parton's "9 to 5." You could keep pinpointing all the vertical and horizontal juxtapositions long after the disc has stopped, really, because it's just so terrifically dense, but the best part of all is that Radio Soulwax Pt. 2 is simply the most energetic, intelligent, inventive soundtrack to a dance party you'll ever hear. Grade: A+

READER COMMENTS:

Nick Reed writes: I picked this up on your suggestion. Luckily I belong to a site that has copies of ALL these "As Heard On Radio Soulwax" albums. They're all friggin brilliant and I can't thank you enough for leading me there. This is the way a DJ mix SHOULD be!!

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