disclaimer is not a toy


Rufus Wainwright

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Rufus Wainwright

Willie's comments: It’s a mystery to me why the “New Elton John” label was slapped on the scruffy likes of Ben Folds Five when Rufus Wainwright is clearly the heir to Sir Elton’s throne of slick balladry. Crooning like a practiced Vegas lounge singer (with a vibrato fetish) on his debut album, Wainwright crafts gorgeous melodies that sidle right up to you and sexily twirl your hair, even when his non-sequitur lyrics sing of you being “struck down by a hammer” (on the terrific single “April Fools”). However, not only are Wainwright’s vocal melodies beautiful, he surrounds them with unusual arrangements (courtesy of Jon Brion, Producer Extraordinaire) that could’ve come in from a They Might Be Giants album, particularly on the xylophone-dotted “Matinee Idol.” It’s never as sappy-sounding as, say, Paula Cole (thankfully), but if lightweight, cerebral pop is what you’re looking for, you should come away from this album happy. Grade: B+

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: DAVID BYRNE

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The Walkmen

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Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone

Willie's comments: A few months ago, I saw that cute Saturn Ion commercial where the three attractive young people are driving their car through a suburban neighborhood overflowing with kids on swingsets and playing in the yards, all to the accompaniment of a pretty, piano-driven song that sounded vaguely like the Strokes, only without the annoying walkie-talkie filter on the singer's voice. (I gather that commercial is part of a series, since the "Now leaving childhood" installment was followed by something like "Now leaving adolescence" and "Now leaving college." So I suspect these commercials are going to get pretty depressing in short order, once they hit "Now leaving your viability as a desired consumer demographic" and "Now leaving bladder control.") The song impressed me mightily, so I looked up the title, and it turned out to be "We've Been Had" by the Walkmen. That's odd, I thought. I've had the Walkmen's debut album, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone, for months now, and I can't remember ever having heard that song before. So I stuck that CD into my stereo and quickly realized why "We've Been Had" was so unfamiliar to me: I'd never made it to that song (track eight) because at least half the album is composed of big, boring duds.

Recorded in the band's enormous rehearsal space/studio in Harlem, using a weird production technique that generally shoves the guitars and piano far into the distance while focusing on Matt Barrick's sluggish drum beats and Hamilton Leithauser's self-conscious, CBGB's-ready vocals, the Walkmen are hard to define. The "garage rock" label isn't entirely accurate, despite the fact that the huge amounts of reverb on everything sound as though they actually were recording in a giant parking garage; they're more concerned with their foggy sound than writing easily-digested rock songs. Which is fine, when it works. "Rue the Day," for example, takes its time weaving a booming rhythm and a minimal, scratchy guitar line into a creepy, atmospheric rock tapestry that sounds like no one else, and then it launches into a boppy piano bounce briefly, cuts out again, and so on. Interesting song. "French Vacation," the title track, and "Wake Up" achieve similarly weird feats, but they're not enough to make up for the endless stretches of playing time where absolutely nothing happens except for some far-off instrumental tinklings. Honestly, if these guys had a more interesting singer, like Jon Thor Birgisson from Sigur Ros, ambient-rock experiments like "Stop Talking" or "Roll Down the Line" might've gelled into something approaching atmospheric brilliance, but Leithauser's snotty, generic caterwauling overpowers the fuzzy musical spiderwebs that the rest of the band weaves. I'd like to say, "At least they're not another band trying to pass off the same retro-rock cliches as something 'new'- they actually are doing something new!" but honestly, I'd rather a band do interesting things with a tried-and-true formula than be an original-sounding mess. So I'll just say they've got potential, but they need someone who can actually sing. But then, Pearl Jam never took my advice to that end either, did they? Grade: C

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Bows + Arrows

Willie's comments: Ugh. There is really nothing to like about this band on their sophomore effort. I know this album has gotten a lot of praise even from critics who rightly dismissed Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me, but don't believe them. The Walkmen have transcended being merely boring and are now actively annoying. Bows + Arrows is recorded and arranged in a more traditional and accessible fashion than their debut, but by removing the songs' quirky emptiness, the band shoots themselves in the foot by taking away their only original attribute. What's left, then? Unfocused, droney arrangements and Leithauser's flailing non-melodies that now sound like Bob Dylan at his most tuneless. Guitars ring the same chords over and over, synths play notes that are held forever, the drums plod along, and the music goes nowhere even on faster numbers like "Little House of Savages." These guys aren't smart enough to be charming in their minimalism like early Stereolab, nor do they conjure a mood interesting enough to make up for the dearth of hooks. Rather, Bows + Arrows is full of songs that are just flat-out stillborn. (Proponents of the Walkmen cite the awkward pacing as somehow groundbreaking, but with songs so underwritten, there's no scenery here to admire.) The only memorable track is "The Rat," whose watery bluster possesses the vibrancy that all their other songs frustratingly lack, but even that one is marred by an unnecessary breakdown in the middle. Listening to this album is like being stuck behind an old woman doing 45 miles per hour on the highway. These guys can have their hipster following; I'm done. Fool me once, shame on the Walkmen. Fool me twice... shame on... shame on... won't get fooled again. Grade: D

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Wedding Singer soundtrack albums

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Volume 1

Willie's comments: While The Wedding Singer the film was full of 80s references that were occasionally a little too obvious (the guy with the Flock of Seagulls haircut, for example), the soundtrack album does a good job of incorporating seldom-heard new wave classics like New Order’s “Blue Monday” and the Smiths’ “How Soon is Now?” with more popular fare like Thompson Twins’ supremely affecting “Hold Me Now” (you heard me), while avoiding ridiculously easy inclusions like “Whip It” or “Everybody Have Fun Tonight.” Special bonuses are Adam Sandler’s funny “Somebody Kill Me” and the Presidents of the USA’s enjoyably literal reading of the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Grade: A-

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Volume 2

Willie's comments: Since the first Wedding Singer soundtrack was such a cash cow, the filmmakers followed in the footsteps of Dirty Dancing, Trainspotting, and Grosse Pointe Blank to create a second volume of songs that either appeared in or are related to the movie. There are still enough terrific songs here to make it worthwhile, such as Kajagoogoo's "Too Shy," Depeche Mode's "Just Can't Get Enough," and Dead or Alive's contagious "You Spend Me Round (Like a Record)," but there are nevertheless a few clinkers. The Flying Lizards' Zsa-Zsa Gabor-esque cover of "Money (That's What I Want)" is grating, as is the Cars' "It's All I Can Do." Sandler's "Grow Old with You," though cute in the movie, comes across as stupidly sappy here, too. As sequels to soundtracks go, however, this is in the upper echelon. Grade: B

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Weddings Parties Anything

Difficult Loves

Willie's comments: This Australian band takes a more unique approach to alt-country than bands like Uncle Tupelo or the Jayhawks. By incorporating accordions and wistful harmonicas into their songs, and writing unusual- though catchy- melodies, they use their countrified tendencies to evoke the expansiveness of the Australian landscape, and often come across sounding like a Kiwi version of the Refreshments. At their best, on songs like “Old Ronny” or the superb title track, WPA’s songwriting is pensive and beautiful enough to resemble an outtake from R.E.M.’s Lifes Rich Pageant. And when it’s not, it’s still a chunk of stompin’ fun. Yee-ha! Grade: B+

They Were Better Live

Willie's comments: Beery and bawdy, this 2-CD live document from WPA's final string of performances is surprisingly involving and satisfying. Whether they're indulging in Melloncamp-esque roots stomping, Celtic-inflected folk-rock, out-and-out ravers, or profane, a capella crowd singalongs, frontman Mick Thomas and his cohorts paint a happy face on blue-collar drudgery. Infectious songs like "Laughing Boy," "Scorn of the Women," and "Sisters of Mercy" are made poignant by an undercurrent of despair that is all the more effective for being so subtle (unlike, say, the iconoclastic bombast of Midnight Oil). The heart-wrenching "Father's Day," on the other hand, makes being a divorced single father seem like the most gratifying thing in the world. However, lest you think that this is a set of mopey, introspective numbers, the gruesome "A Tale They Won't Believe" is a Ten Little Indians-esque tale of murder and cannibalism, while "Jolly Old Christmas Time" is a hilarious holiday rant ("I stagger over to the comfy chair/ I'm watching a show about a magical bear"). Some of the songs are actual Aussie folk numbers, but the rest of Thomas's compositions could pass for the same- particularly the rousing anthem "Women of Ireland." If ever there was an album that truly captured the camaraderie and catharsis of a joyous night at the pub, this is it. It'll make you feel that the screaming blokes in the audience are the luckiest people in the world. Grade: A

READER COMMENTS:

Peter writes: I just came upon your reviews and they are really enjoyable. I am so pleased to see someone give WPA their due as they are among my all time fave bands. It's criminal that they were merely a small, cult band. Also, glad to see that you raised your review of The Clash 1st album though I'd give it an A+ as I feel it is simply the greatest recording ever made by human beings (period!)

You should review Mick Thomas' Dust on my Shoes as well as stuff by Australia's OTHER great singer/Songwriter, Paul Kelly. He, too, is criminally neglected in the States.

Paul Bishop writes: I miss them so :(

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Ween

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God Ween Satan- The Oneness

Willie's comments: This debut album from the most talented weirdo duo in the world (Gene and Dean Ween, two guys from Pennsylvania who've made a career of making bizarre, annoying, yet addictive and melodic rock from the shards of a million shattered genres) is the slightest bit overrated. Not to the extent that, say, Soundgarden's Superunknown is, but about half of these 26 songs are just obnoxious screaming hardcore "parodies," which are admittedly kind of funny- particularly the lyrical jackhammer "You Fucked Up"- but after a few listens, the joke gets old on tunes like "Bumblebee" and "Old Queen Cole." The other half of the tunes, however, are listenable and marvelous! "Don't Laugh (I Love You)" is a sappy, happy love tune that degenerates into hilarious babbling jibber-jabber, for example, and you can decide for yourself whether "L.M.L.Y.P." is a ridiculous, sophomoric piece of trash or a clever satire of Prince's sexual explicitness. (Answer: the latter.) If you like the hardcore and the punk and the early Beastie Boys, you'll prolly like this a lot, but those who joined Ween later might find it hard to get into. It took me about three years, actually, but once you've got your mind around the reliance on shrieking and self-indulgence, it's a trip. Grade: B+

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The Pod

Willie's comments: Many casual Ween fans don't care for this one, because there are a lot of slow, quiet songs that aren't particularly funny and only two or three harder-rock songs, but I think it's great. "Dr. Rock" sounds like a guitar-based DEVO, and everyone in the world loves the Mexican fast-food restaurant dialogue of "Pollo Asado" (I particularly like the math skills of the cashier. It'll make sense when you listen to it). A lot of The Pod works more as ambient music than anything else- "Don't Sweat It," "Laura," and "Boing" are excellent come-down songs that slowly wash over you like cozy warm lava, and the hiccupping industrial pounding of "Molly" is proof, in case anyone needed it, that Ween can make juvenile noise experimentation fascinating in a way no one else can. Furthermore, semi-straightforward pop songs like "Pork Roll Egg & Cheese" and "Oh My Dear (Falling in Love)" are enough to guide the listener through some of the druggy murk. It takes a few listens to get into, but it's rewarding. Grade: B+

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Pure Guava

Willie's comments: For the first six songs, this is the best album ever made. "Little Birdy" through "Going Gets Tough From the Getgo" are as bizarre, infectious, and fascinating as anything ever put down on tape. Especially "Big Jilm," which is the sort of low-end, lo-fi funk Willi One Blood can only dream of (Jenny hates this song, though. I was playing it in the car one day and she said that if we were on our first date, it would be over as soon as that song came on). From there, it's a choppy ride, with every idea the boys had during these sessions documented. You have more than enough gems to justify purchasing this album (the dreamy Britpop of "Don't Get 2 Close [2 My Fantasy]" is reason enough, really), but there was really no reason for Gene and Dean to release amelodic duds like "Morning Glory," "Hey Fat Boy (Asshole)," or "Play It Legit." Grade: B

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Chocolate and Cheese

Willie's comments: This is one of my top ten favorite albums of all time. Why? There's not any one song on here that sounds like any other (if there's one thing that bores me stupid, it's pop albums that stick to the same sound throughout. Unless it's a really interesting sound to begin with, like Pet Shop Boys). It evokes any number of emotions- "Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)" is deeply scary, "Baby Bitch" is a kiss-off to an ex-girlfriend that's simultaneously eloquent and crude, and the trippy "Mister, Would You Please Help My Pony?" is the funniest song I've ever heard. Ween's playing has significantly improved, and their arrangements are fleshed out with a full band on many songs (as opposed to their usual four-track fiddling), yielding strange songs that are never less than dazzling. And something tells me there's even a really smart joke somewhere underneath "HIV Song" (a carnival number with smarmy British accents). Buy it now. Grade: A+

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12 Golden Country Greats

Willie's comments: I once read an interview with Trey Parker, describing the orchestral recording sessions for the South Park movie soundtrack. Apparently, following the recording of "Uncle Fukka," one member of the orchestra was heard to mutter something like, "I spent seven years at the conservatory for this?" There's something oddly hilarious about recruiting properly-trained musicians to provide a lush backing for smart-yet-juvenile songs like that, and Ween took a similar approach with 12 Golden Country Greats, which features a dozen renowned Nashville session players backing the Ween boys for a series of songs that are a half-serious/half-parodic tribute to both types of music: country and western. Musically, there aren't a lot of the band's usual left-field experiments (save for a pitch-changed guitar solo on "Piss Up a Rope"); it's all fairly straight-faced country music, but the good kind of country. Johnny Cash/Hank Williams-style country, not the syrupy, bland, abrasive Garth Brooks crossover kind. Steel guitars and fiddling abound, in a tastefully fun way that shouldn't be off-putting even to people who usually compare country music unfavorably to pouring rubbing alcohol into their eyes. "I Don't Wanna Leave You on the Farm" and "Help Me Scrape the Mucus Off My Brain" feature simple arrangements, but the duo's unique melodic sense turns the songs into instant repeat-listeners. Same goes for the hysterically funny "Piss Up a Rope," which is a shitkicker that mocks the genre's occasional misogyny with a gleefully dumb, below-the-belt nastiness. ("You ride my ass like a horse in a saddle/Now you're up Shit's Creek with a turd for a paddle," to quote just one line. And here's some trivia: apparently, Tea Leoni refused to agree to marry David Duchovny unless he found the song as hilarious as she did.) Apart from that and the quick gay joke "Mister Richard Smoker," though, a silly sweetness pervades the album, making clear that there's more going on here than simple redneck jokes. If you're used to Ween's typical forty-albums-in-one flipbook approach to songwriting, you might need to run through this album a few times to let its brilliance sink in, but your patience will be rewarded. Yee-haw. Grade: A

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The Mollusk

Willie's comments: Every bit as good as Chocolate and Cheese, this collection of odd sea chanties and drinking songs probably holds the record for most consecutive spins on my stereo. All the songs are Ween originals, except for the actual Chinese folk song "Cold Blows the Wind" and possibly the dizzying ragtime ditty "I'm Dancing in the Show Tonight," but they could just as easily have originated on the high seas or in a quaint Scottish tavern somewhere. Except for the speedy pop/punk of "I'll Be Your Jonny on the Spot" and the impossibly catchy "Waving My Dick in the Wind," that is. "Buckingham Green" is the most technically remarkable song (I count five musical genres over the course of this prog parody), but "Ocean Man" and "Mutilated Lips" are my favorites. Grade: A+

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Paintin’ the Town Brown

Willie's comments: This two-disc set compiles eight years’ worth of live, often drunken Weenness, and it yields some nice surprises. "I Can’t Put My Finger on It" is transformed into a nine-minute Indian/Arabic jamboree, "I Saw Gener Crying in His Sleep" gets a full Nashville reworking, and there’s a brilliantly trippy "Mountain Dew" from an early tour. Despite lots of self-indulgence, Paintin’ does a pretty good job of representing all of Ween’s canon (though any material from The Mollusk was perplexingly eschewed in favor of a 26-minute version of "Poop Ship Destroyer"), and previously unreleased songs like "Ode to Rene" and "Cover It with Gas and Set It on Fire" don’t disappoint. Grade: B

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White Pepper

Willie's comments: For the tiny bit of chaff on Ween's seventh studio album, there is still more than enough greatness to reassure you that they haven't lost it; however, they've nonetheless gotten a bit lazy. The cowpunk thrashing of "Stroker Ace," the generic grunge of "The Grobe," and the grating lounge jazz of "Pandy Fackler" are all poorly executed and quickly become annoying. However, the good news is that, by this point, Ween write better psychedelic melodies than anyone in the business: "Exactly Where I'm At," "Flutes of Chi," and the spacious "Back to Basom" are trippy rock gems that will stay with you for weeks (I assume- the album just came out four days ago). Ween also let their sensitive side come out to play more often than on previous albums, which is always welcome. Whereas the tropical "Bananas and Blow" is a nasty swipe at Jimmy Buffett, "Stay Forever" is a transcendently sweet love song, "Even if You Don't" is a beseeching ode to a self-destructive friend, and "Falling Out" is a chronicle of two failed relationships which is set to a tune that is basically a cheeky, countrified rip-off of "Secret Agent Man." So White Pepper is definitely worth purchasing, but it's still the tiniest bit underwhelming after The Mollusk and Chocolate and Cheese. Grade: A-

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Live at Stubb's, 7/2000

Willie's comments: A disappointingly limited release on Ween's Chocodog label (though when I was in Louisville over Thanksgiving, I snagged a copy at Ear X-Tacy, who had like five copies left), this is a three-disc set that consists of 31 songs taken from the boys' two nights in Austin, Texas in July of 2000. Dean describes it in the liner notes as "a rowdy, drunken, Texas-style party," and that's pretty much what you get here. It's Ween at the height of their bombastic rock-star machoness, replacing the stoner noise manipulation and rock-geek production flourishes of their studio work with noisy power chords, thundering tempos, and Deaner's increasingly interesting and nimble guitar solos. In addition to pulling out lots of their harder numbers like "Sketches of Winkle" and "Wayne's Pet Youngin'," they cheerfully butcher the sutblety- such as it is- of songs like "HIV Song," "Waving My Dick in the Wind," and "Captain Fantasy," souping them up with the power of a redneck's prized pickup truck. That's not to say that the whole set is full of nothing but blasts of cock-rock guitar work, though; just that there's a consistently fun determination to bring the house down even when they're grinding through a melting, psychedelic version of "Little Birdy" or turning "L.M.L.Y.P." into a slow, 40-minute bed of greasy raunch. (I don't know if I'll listen to that one all the way through again, honestly, but it's still more entertaining than any 40-minute song has a right to be. Much better is a ten-minute run-through of "Voodoo Lady" that explodes into layers of fascinating, cascading noise.) Whereas Paintin' the Town Brown was a fairly amusing overview of the band's live career that never quite cohered as a stand-alone listening experience, the Stubb's package is a great snapshot of what happens when these guys are having a ball making their songs sound bigger. Grade: A-

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quebec

Willie's comments: Despite the fact that White Pepper was easily the most accessible and commercial album Ween ever made, and songs like "Stay Forever" could conceivably have been hits if Elektra had bothered only to promote them a little, the label instead decided to end their ten-year relationship with the band after that album. The corresponding reduction in recording money that goes with moving back to a tiny label (Sanctuary Records, in this case) hasn't stunted Ween's continued creative growth, however, as quebec is more ambitious and eclectic than anything they've done since Chocolate and Cheese, and weirder than anything since Pure Guava. Apart from "The Fucked Jam" (three gleefully snarky minutes of fun garbled noise and droning bass), in fact, a stunning amount of care is evident in the construction of the tunes here. It's most immediately noticeable on mind-boggling songs like "Happy Colored Marbles"- a curious and unsettling fusion of keyboard-heavy bounce-pop and grinding industrial guitars- but even the charmingly chintzy "Hey There Fancypants" and "Zoloft" (on which Gene proudly exalts that he's "no longer pissed") feature great melodies and subtle production touches reflective of Ween's finely honed songwriting skills, regardless of what genre they're tackling.

The record's closing three tracks actually make up a space-rock-art-pop trilogy as haunting and atmospheric as anything off Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here: "Alcan Road" is a minimal, minor-key wisp of a song that recalls and improves upon The Pod's more ethereal moments, "The Argus" is a truly brilliant slice of faux-proggy drama grounded by great guitar work by Dean and one of Gene's most emotional melodies ever, and "If You Could Save Yourself, You'd Save Us All" is an anthemic piano ballad that details a breakup in one huge, five-minute crescendo that ends the album in a wash of true beauty. And the highlights don't stop there! "It's Gonna be a Long Night" (iron-melting hard rock), "Transdermal Celebration" (Oasis's entire catalog squashed into a single song and then defeated in the catchiness department), "Tried & True" (a half-serious tribute to Love that manages to make the line "Could you smell my whole [pregnant pause]... life?" somehow as sweet as it is funny): all among the best, catchiest, and smartest songs you'll hear this year. If you haven't yet fallen under the spell of Ween's thoroughly original refractions of rock, quebec is yet another great place to start. Grade: A

All Request Live

Willie's comments: This is another limited Chocodog release that consists of a webcast concert Ween put on in the summer of 2003, from a studio in New Jersey. The trackist was voted on by fans, so if it's confusingly stacked with odd non-songs like "Pollo Asado," "Reggaejunkiejew," and "Awesome Sound," it's because die-hard Ween fans are weird little puppies. (Don't bother making yourself a "Don't blame me- I voted for 'Baby Bitch'" bumper sticker. What's done is done. And, come to think of it, that might lead your fellow motorists to mistake you for an embittered supporter of Dick Posthumus's 2002 gubernatorial campaign. Zing!) The good news is that you do get to hear a bunch of songs that Ween rarely plays live, and even if they're not remarkably different from the studio versions in most cases, they're performed with a spontaneous enthusiasm that generally makes them sound more immediate. "Mononucleosis" and "Demon Sweat" in particular sound superior to the cloudy, distant Pod versions, and it helps that it was recorded in a studio, because the sound is impeccable. The main draw for fans, though, will probably be the consecutive performance of all five parts of the "Stallion" series. Ween seems to realize the relative pointlessness of attempting to re-create the messy, tossed-off rambling of the first two parts (again from The Pod- that really is a strange album), but they're game anyway, and they make up for that with the kick-ass rock smarts of parts four and five, which were previously unreleased. Oh- there's also a hilarious, five-minute version of their infamous rejected Pizza Hut jingle "Where'd the Cheese Go?" Again, the song selection is rather slight, but this was never meant for anyone but true fans anyway, and it'll be a treat for all of them. Grade: B+

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Live in Chicago

Willie's comments: Still more live Ween shenanigans might seem a little unnecessary at this point, but once again, they prove to be a band that's devoted to giving their fans something new each time out (as opposed to, oh, the Ramones, whose live albums are mostly interchangeable). This time, in addition to a live CD, the package includes a two-hour DVD on which you can watch Ween perform 26 songs over two nights at the Vic Theatre in Chicago. The film is no Stop Making Sense, but it's a gimmick-free presentation of a group that has become a live phenomenon due to their practiced interplay and sets that are tight and energetic even at their most amusingly self-indulgent. Standout numbers include a trippy "Zoloft," a smooth "All of My Love"- a Led Zeppelin cover, I guess- and a monstrously silly "Big Jilm," but it's entertaining throughout, and they hit a few songs from all their albums except 12 Golden Country Greats. Backup players Claude Coleman, Dave Dreiwitz, and Glenn McClelland show themselves to be as playful as they are gifted, and it's fun to see Gener traipsing through the songs like a dazed frog prince, with his pseudo-royal vocalizing and bug-eyed expressions, while Deaner attacks his guitar with a priceless, smartass "you know you love it" smirk on his face. (There's also a neat animated video for "Transdermal Celebration.") The CD itself is fine- it includes 17 of the songs on the DVD and is notable mostly for the quebec songs that haven't appeared on any previous live disc- but the DVD is the prize here. It's no substitute for actual attendance of a Ween show, but if you live in some unfortunate geographical location that precludes that possibility, Live in Chicago should suit your needs nicely. Grade: A

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Shinola, Vol. 1

Willie's comments: Another limited release on the band's Chocodog imprint, the first volume in the Shinola series (with more tantalizingly promised) is a dumping ground- all connotations intended- for some of Ween's many songs and studio experiments that have never before seen the light of day. Although the unreleased tracks that have graced their live albums have largely been insubstantial affairs like "Cover It With Gas and Set It on Fire" and "Booze Me Up and Get Me High," any diminished expectations created by rarities discs will be shredded upon listening to this amazingly consistent collection. Any expectations at all will be shredded, really: even if you're a Ween completist and think you've got a handle on all their tricks, Shinola is going to surprise you at some turn because it's easily the oddest crack baby of a disc they've created since Pure Guava. Fully-formed songs sit athwart snot-nosed genre parodies, superpowered hooks lay akimbo among layers of Dean's intentionally ugly guitar antics, and every two or three songs, there's an unclassifiable wad of something like "Israel," in which the duo hysterically attempts to re-create a sermon from any synagogue that's convinced its band is "rockin'" (nothing I say can prepare you for how funny Gener's delivery is). I'd have to do one of those loathsome track-by-track reviews to describe everything here, but Ween's smartass eclecticism may never have been put on better display: they bounce cheerfully from "Boys' Club," which simultaneously takes a swipe at white soul and takes "Y.M.C.A." to its logical extreme, to the grumbling tape manipulation of "Big Fat Fuck" to the it-has-no-right-to-be-so-catchy smooth jazz of "Transitions" to the Prince-in-a-nutshell of "Monique the Freak," and there's not a wasted moment. Sadly, there are no liner notes to explain where these songs came from (this is pure speculation, but the only reason I can imagine for the outstanding, spacey "Did You See Me?" to have been held off an actual album would be that it sprang from the already Pink Floyd-heavy quebec sessions), but even without any sort of context, these are great songs, juxtaposed in a way that makes no sense whatsoever, for a listening experience that could only have come from Ween. Grade: A

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The Friends EP

Willie's comments: Ween reportedly recorded upwards of 50 songs while putting together their quebec follow-up, La Cucaracha, and five of those disparate creations landed on this teaser EP. There's no experimental brownness here; just a demo reel of the band's stylistic diversity, as the EP approaches five distinct and far-flung genres with Chocolate and Cheese-style whimsy. I may as well name them all, in descending order of my preference: The title track mocks the vapidity of trance music with equally vapid, funny lyrics ("A friend's a friend who knows what being a friend is") while still being almost embarrassingly lovable, and "King Billy" is a six-minute reggae song whose silly accents and gross synth solo are seemingly designed to get under the skin of Ween's alarmingly large contingent of hippie fans. "Slow Down Boy" does for Spandau Ballet's New Romantic chestnut "True" what "Boys' Club" did for "Y.M.C.A.," "Light Me Up" is a celebratory take on Latin music that manages to sound more authentic than anything Santana has done in years, and finally, "I Got to Put the Hammer Down" is Ween's millionth, and probably weakest, tribute to Prince, but it's not bad as a B-side. There you have it. Amusingly, it's a safe bet that the EP portends absolutely nothing about what their next proper album will sound like, because its only consistent theme is that you cannot know what you're going to get when you pick up a new Ween release. Grade: B+

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La Cucaracha

Willie's comments: The ninth studio album has been technically available for a week (though it leaked over a month ago), and it's already proven to be a divisive little bugger, with its supporters and detractors laying into one another with equal vigor. While I personally don't feel it's a disappointment, I'll grant that it contains only a couple career highlights. The slightly lesser of the two would be "Sweetheart," a flowery, old-school soul number that can stand up to anything off Gnarls Barkley's St. Elsewhere. Elsewhere, iconic saxaphonist David Sanborn guests on "Your Party," a beautiful smooth-jazz approximation of the soundtrack to a sleazy key party attended by would-be sophisticates. It's a ridiculously catchy song in its own right, but it's also one of the few songs on the album with any of the layered depth (musically or humorously) that the band has been developing since Chocolate and Cheese. There's an alternate take of "Friends" which loses a lot of the EP's accuracy in skewering Scatman John/Eiffel 65-style dance production, a country stomper ("Learnin' to Love") that rejects 12 Golden Country Greats' studied delicacy in favor of inbred nonsense, and more macho bloviating from Deaner ("With My Own Bare Hands") that doesn't have much new to offer beyond some really funny lines like "She's gonna be my cock professor, studying my dick/She's gonna get her master's degree in fucking me." None of these is a bad song, mind you, but it's been a long time since Ween has released a collection so simplistic- songs that don't really have the potential to grow beyond your first impression- so I can see how it would lead some fans to dismiss La Cucaracha as (in my friend Mike's words) "just a bunch of retarded novelty crap." Personally, I went with the vibe and am enjoying the pants off stunted-growth concoctions like "Shamemaker" (snotty Dead Milkmen kiddie punk) and "Blue Balloon" (slinky, dinky, poncy Britpop). Despite its tossed-off sensibility, La Cucaracha is still one of the only albums I've heard this year whose every song- be they awesome or merely pretty good- has stuck with me long after I've finished playing it. Even better, despite the fact that I won't feel a need to return to every single song on a regular basis, it's not an album that I'll be finished playing anytime soon. Grade: B+

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: THE X-FILES: THE MOVIE SOUNDTRACK; CHEF AID: THE SOUTH PARK ALBUM; SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK ROCKS!; THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE SOUNDTRACK

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Weezer

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Weezer (the Blue Album)

Willie's comments: Was there ever a song as affably cheesy, clever, and catchy as "Buddy Holly"? Well, "Popular" by Nada Surf, but that's basically a rip-off of "Undone-The Sweater Song" from this self-titled debut by Weezer. More influential than you might think (Fountains of Wayne wouldn't be possible without this record), this album contains some of the most singalong-ready melodies, tragicomic loser lyrics, and fun that I've ever heard. Yeah, the album does do a pretty sharp nosedive in its latter half (apart from the wrenching "In the Garage"), but songs like "My Name is Jonas" and lyrics like "I've got an electric guitar/ I play my stupid songs/ I write these stupid words and I love every one" will stand the test of time. Just you wait. Grade: B+

Buddy Holly EP

Willie's comments: This might be a collector's item, for all I know (I should check to see what it's going for on eBay), but unless you're a Weezer completist, you don't need this single. "Buddy Holly" is an amazing song, but a couple live songs and a previously unreleased (and forgettable- I just realized I don't know the name of it and I'm too lazy to look it up) studio track aren't going to make anyone's pulse quicken at the prospect of purchasing this EP. Grade: C

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Pinkerton

Willie's comments: Whereas Ric Ocasek produced Weezer (and rather well, I might add), the band themselves produced this follow-up, which is much more subtly ingratiating than their debut. Pinkerton is sloppy in parts, which allows for some infectious goofing among the band members ("El Scorcho"), but doesn't help songs like "Tired of Sex," which need to be tighter than they are (and some of Ocasek's keyboards wouldn't hurt). On first listen, this album is almost a disappointment, but the more I listen to it, the better it gets. Bonus points for the wonderful anti-love chorus of "Why Bother?": "Why bother?/ It's gonna hurt me/ It's gonna kill when you desert me." Grade: B+

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Weezer (the Green Album)

Willie's comments: For the four years following Pinkerton (an album that frontman Rivers Cuomo now disowns), the world didn't hear much out of Weezer. This is evidently attributable to the fact that, judging from recent interviews I've read, Cuomo is an insufferable, dictatorial jerk. Their amazingly devoted- and huge- legion of fans never gave up on them, however, and the band came back in 2001 with their second self-titled album, in a welcome attempt to recapture the sunny, Ric Ocasek-bolstered infectiousness of their first record. In our current musical climate of Fred Durst-ian faux millionaire angst and Christina Aguilera's ear-pummelling vocal acrobatics, Weezer's easygoing, anthemic pop still goes down as easy as a glass of water.

Unfortunately, it's just as memorable as a glass of water this time around. After listening to the Green Album several times, the only songs I have any recollection of are the effervescent pop smoothie "Island in the Sun" and the stomping single "Hash Pipe" (the latter only because it's a ripoff of Moistboyz' awesome "OG Simpson"). The great thing about Weezer's first two albums was the way the band straddled the line between pure pop indulgence and the rawness of both Cuomo's honesty and the band's indie-rocker guitar stylings. That tension is gone on this album, with Ocasek's pop instincts and Cuomo's rock-star aspirations steering the whole exercise into the realm of simplistic. Too often, the vocal melodies simply follow along with the guitar lines. Songs like "Smile" and "Photograph" sound great while they're on, but there's no "Buddy Holly" here, or even chewy deep cuts like "The World has Turned and Left Me Here." Weezer has always been instantly accessible, but never before have they sounded disposable. Grade: B-

READER COMMENTS:

An Anonymous Reader writes: First off, these guys are one of pop-rock's best bands. With so many bands that just blend in with the crowd, these guy's sound has yet to be reproduced. With obvious references to "The Cars" and 50's and 60's pop, they have formed a new modern pop rock that is unmistakable with other bands. The First album is A-, but I think Pinkerton is an A+. It was a commercial failure sure, but when has commercialism ever known what is good? It is filled which much more of River's emotions and the hooks are still there, they are harder to find and just take a few more listens. It has more of an edge and a few less harmonies which killed the chance of commercial success, but from a musical standpoint it blows the first album away. You haven't reviewed the new "Green Album" yet but I'll give it an b+ for 1 reason. It seems they were just fed up from "Pinkerton" and went back to the original harmonies and pop 3 fold, which I think they overdid a little.

carrett@uclink.berkeley.edu writes: Weezer rocked until the green album. All the songs sound the same and aren’t even that good. I HATE people who like “Island in the Sun.” Maladroit’s sort of ok, but what happened to the good old stuff? FUCK YOU RIVERS FOR A) writing good songs and then abruptly stopping at your peak and B) working with limp bizkit. FUCKIN’ ‘ELL.

soul_crusher77@hotmail.com writes: The Blue album was probably about the second rock album I'd bought (in between just listening to whatever the parents put on the stereo and then, I'd listened to mostly top 40, but that was fortunately a brief period that only resulted in a few embarrassing purchases such as Totally Krossed Out by Kriss Kross and the cassingle of "The Sign" by Ace Of Base), so I probably overrate it a bit as it's part of my adolescence. Still it's a really good, goofily charming power pop album that holds up pretty damn well today. The songs that stand out at first are the singles (although I'm more of a fan of "Say It Ain't So" than "Undone"), but the album tracks are all at least almost as good, in particular "My Name Is Jonas" is a great opener with it's frantic harmonica (!) solo and triumphant sounding "The workers are going home!" ending, and "The World Has Turned And Left Me Here" is a great jangly tale of unrequited love with that great "do you believe what I sing now" bit. I don't even really think it dips in quality that much on the second side, "Say It Ain't So", "Holiday" (especially that acapella bridge), and "Only In Dreams" make up 3 of those last 5 songs, and they are among my favorite Weezer songs ever.

Pinkerton takes some getting used to because it's not as straightforwardly catchy and the almost Steve Albini-ish production, while neat, is hard to listen to when you're too used to the much slicker Blue Album, but it's a grower and has some of Rivers' best lyrical and musical moments. I too love the band's goofing around in "El Scorcho", especially Matt Sharp's over-enthusiastic almost muppet-ish exclamation of "EL SCORCHO! ROCK N' ROLL!!!" (Um, I think that's what he says anyway) in the beginning. The stand outs for me are "Tired Of Sex" (which I think is just sloppy enough), "Across The Sea", and "The Good Life".

After this, Weezer definitely lose something unfortunately. Maybe it was the lengthy hiatus, maybe it's the loss of Matt Sharp (who actually sued the band for not getting as much writing credit as he deserved, so I guess it's possible he had more to do with the songs than you'd think), but while nowhere near terrible, the last 2 albums have been nowhere near as good as the first 2. The Green album is catchy, but also cheesy and simplistic as hell, and "Island In The Sun" and "Hashpipe" are the only real standouts, primarily because they're the only two songs that don't quite follow the exact same formula (intro guitar melody later reused as bridge melody, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, guitar solo that's the exact same notes of the verse, chorus). This is the first time I've heard the Moistboyz song brought up, but "Hashpipe" has been called a ripoff of at least 2 other songs (there's been a persistent rumor that Rivers stole it from "He Shot Himself Up" by boston band The Shods while one of the band's members were serving in his pre-full-comeback live act The Rivers Cuomo Band, and Cuomo himself has half-jokingly brought up similarities to the "Peter Gunn" theme), so I guess it's just not a particularly original riff. Maladroit is a bit better because it's a little less obviously formulaic and at least "brings the rock" a bit more, albeit in an unabashedly Van Halen worshipping kind of way (and "Fall Together" and "Take Control" do rock pretty well, even if the latter is really obviously based around T Rex's "Children Of the Revolution" riff), but it still seems sort of, well, stupid. Still, "Keep Fishin" is among the catchiest songs they've ever written, "Slave" is a damn good ballad-type thing, even if the over-dramatic intro makes me half expect a Creed song or something, and "Burndt Jamb" has a surprisingly subtle jazzy groove to it. I don't understand why they finally decided to print lyrics at the exact point in time when their lyrics got the worst they've ever been though (well ok, maybe not entirely, "Crab" isn't on here after all). The next album is going to be produced by Rick Rubin (who admittedly has probably produced as many shit albums as he has good ones, but the good ones tend to be really good), and some of the material the band themselves have leaked out seems refreshingly more mature than the past few efforts, so hopefully things are only going to get better from here.

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When

Svartedauen

Willie's comments: Norwegian recording artist Lars Pedersen, who records under the moniker When, would wind up releasing one of the most likable albums of 2007, Trippy Happy, but fifteen years earlier, he released something... else. Svartedauen is a 38-minute tape-and-sample collage that aims to evoke the outbreak and effects of the bubonic plague in the 1300s (the title translates to "the black death"), but don't immediately dismiss it as the sort of trite, interminable "art" project that most psychedelic bands at least have the courtesy to surround with actual songs, because this one is genuinely fascinating and worth more than one listen. In fact, the lovingly layered cacophony- in which cartoon sound effects find a niche as easily as the sounds of clomping horses and knives being sharpened- is closer in spirit to Frank Zappa's Kafka-inspired and detail-oriented "The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny" than to moderately-interesting-but-formless sound pieces like the Beatles' "Revolution 9" or The Olivia Tremor Control's "The Bark and Below It." Throughout, Pedersen offers teasing glimpses of ear-friendly melodies amid the found-sound decay, but never to such a degree that you forget the story. Snippets of folk music are slowly, sickeningly detuned as they proceed, or else are employed to drown out the sounds of the dying (perhaps embodying the party from Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death"?). Cellos and keyboards straddle the line between composition and ambient noise as masterfully as Godspeed! You! Black! Emperor!'s finest work. The closest thing Svartedauen comes to a refrain is a rhythmic mouth harp sample that shows up a couple times, and when it does return, its ominous parody of the Jaws theme is far from comforting. (It is a little funny, though, and if you're in the mood to see it, the whole endeavor is slightly brightened by its sideways homage to the "Bring out your dead!" scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) If you've ever wanted to make your neighborhood PTA's list of houses that are off-limits to trick-or-treaters, try heralding the arrival of Halloween by blasting this puppy from your porch on an annual basis. That would probably work with any holiday, come to think of it. This album is beyond creepy, is what I'm saying. Grade: A-

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Jim White

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Wrong-Eyed Jesus!

Willie's comments: I really want you to buy this record. Yes, you. So whether you have to imagine this review is written in big neon letters, or being delivered subliminally, or being spoken to you in a sexy voice by Neko Case, remember and believe what I say here. Jim White is a brilliant weirdo songwriter whose debut album (exec-produced by David Byrne for extra quirk) traverses miles of swampy, acoustic roots-folk-rock terrain, with Southern religious imagery being the only consistent signpost along the way. Many of his songs weave a seductive, ether-soaked tapestry of loosely arranged acoustic guitars, grounded by a captivating rhythm section and memorably uncertain melodies; "Burn the River Dry" and "A Perfect Day to Chase Tornados," for instance, sound like Neil Finn on a somewhat bluesy bender. Even better, "Still Waters" is an eerie folk number worthy of X-Files, featuring a great, growling bassline that sounds like it's losing a fight with some quicksand. However, White changes up his formula quite a bit here. "Wordmule" and "When Jesus Gets a Brand-New Name" are faithful and funny re-creations of Tom Waits's blaring hillbilly jazz-rock (and the latter contains the deadpan observational gem, "I see a TV show through the window: there's lawyers riding in a speedboat! They're solving cases on the ocean!"), "The Road That Leads to Heaven" is a gorgeous, cello-based confessional, and "Sleepy Town" and "Angel-Land" show glints of bluegrass gospel influences. It all holds together mighty well, though. In fact, only the upbeat Van Morrison tribute "Heaven of My Heart" breaks Wrong-Eyed Jesus's spell; it's a fine song, but too blunt to fit in here. Nevertheless, White's lyrics are stunning throughout, and the religious imagery is expertly handled. Regardless of whether he's telling an obtuse ghost story or involved in a more traditional description of heartbreak, the entire album is shot through with themes of redemption, damnation, and the terror that comes from realizing how fuzzy the line is between the two. Tuneful, contemplative, spooky, funny, and beautiful, get ahold of this any way you can. Grade: A

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No Such Place

Willie's comments: Heavy on the misty, mystical atmosphere that made Wrong-Eyed Jesus! so compelling, but somewhat spottier on the songwriting front, White's sophomore effort expends most of its energy way too early. In the first five songs, we get three great numbers produced by trip-hopsters Morcheeba: "Handcuffed to a Fence in Mississippi" and "10 Miles to Go on a 9 Mile Road" are Beck-esque breakbeat country, and "The Wound That Never Heals" is a moving, sympathetic tale of a female serial killer that's presented as greasy, slow funk. However, No Such Place otherwise consists largely of shapeless mood pieces that blandly blend together after awhile. Though it's easy to lose yourself in the wispy ambient noise swirling about in the poetic "Corvair" ("It hasn't run in 15 years/It's a home for the birds now/It's no longer a car"), or the hypnotic rhythmic bed of "Ghost-Town of My Brain," the tracklist is padded by dull, overlong dirges like "Christmas Day" and "The Wrong Kind of Love" that don't give you much to latch onto. White's lyrics retain his unique, cheeky balance of dark eccentricity and humor throughout ("God was drunk when He made me, but that's okay 'cause I forgive Him"), and the songs still conjure a fascinating backwater vibe, but at times, it seems like he's trying so hard to be subtle that he's afraid to anchor them with any memorable melodies or hooks. Even if Wrong-Eyed Jesus! blew your mind the way it should, this might be rough goin'. Grade: C+

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Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See

Willie's comments: Less splintered than No Such Place but only marginally better, this album (what a great title!) is grounded largely in haptephobic acoustic-chamber-folk: White's songs are so whisper-quiet and intimate sounding by now that he suggests a Deep South version of Sparklehorse. "That Girl from Brownsville Texas," to name just one, would sound at home cruising down an otherwise deserted stretch of kudzu-lined road in the middle of the night; it's a nice mood. However, although it starts fairly strong- Aimee Mann lends her piercing deadpan to the nevertheless overlong "Static on the Radio" and the haunting "Bluebird" is the one true keeper here- Substrate quickly becomes draining. It never falls to an unacceptably low level of listenability except on the crossover-country-ish "Alabama Chrome" (a horribly conceived collaboration with the Barenaked Ladies), but nearly every song is marred by bloated running time, underdeveloped structures and melodies, and/or an unbecoming tweeness. This latter quality is particularly disappointing, because the two tiny, jazz/funk excursions would actually be really interesting if they weren't as strained as the titles "Combing My Hair in a Brand New Style" and "If Jesus Drove a Motor Home" suggest. I suppose it would be fine background music, because as I said, it's hard to find the overall air of unhurried, rural coziness disagreeable, but if you give it your full attention, Substrate is ultimately too uneventful to matter much. Like Lambchop's similarly stultifying Is a Woman, this is an instance of mistaking lifelessness for pensive Southern charm. Grade: B-

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Transnormal Skiperoo

Willie's comments: Not just a return to form, White's fourth album retains a lot of his strengths but also highlights an introspective maturity that he's gained in the decade since his debut. His fondness for Pentecostal hymns and the deliberate pace of the South endures, and Transnormal Skiperoo is still populated by souls living, dead, and curious points in-between, all searching for peace and guidance with varying degrees of success, but the album is a ways away from the spiritual confusion and hauntings of Wrong-Eyed Jesus! Maybe it's just that White himself exudes a Zenlike (or at least David Byrne-like) acceptance of the absurd, whether he's musing on the pathos of a plywood Superman ("He never saves nobody from nothing/He just leans against the wall looking sad") or the dark humor inherent in a spiderweb spun between the hands of a statue of the Virgin Mary. The production, mostly by Joe Pernice and his frequent collaborator Michael Deming, is both imaginative and disciplined; they don't stop White from wandering in his usual enthusiastic fashion, but they keep him from getting tangled in musical briars as he has been known to do. This makes for a fairly diverse layout of treats: the sweet "A Town Called Amen" is a sprightly folk number that sounds like Mason Jennings at his catchiest, "Take Me Away" is an old-school country stomper, and the superb, mystical "Counting Numbers in the Air" drifts by on a breeze of halting guitar picking and a recorder whose slight flatness seems like a precise choice. Even when White gets silly ("Turquoise House") or semi-rowdy ("Crash Into the Sun"), it doesn't bust the atmosphere so much as reaffirm the open-hearted support of life's untameability. Cynics might miss the way he used to use brimstone as a spice, but Skiperoo is nevertheless all aglow. Grade: A-

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: DAVID BYRNE; AIMEE MANN; BARENAKED LADIES; PERNICE BROTHERS

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Wilco

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Being There

Willie's comments: It was a smart move for Wilco to package this 1996 album as a 19-song, 2-CD set instead of simply making it a 70-minute album as some bands would have done (Beastie Boys come to mind). Listened to all at once, the genial Being There becomes incredibly irksome after about 40 minutes, but if you take it one CD at a time, it can be a decent diversion. The entire album is ballad-based; there are no "Can't Stand It" alt-rockers to be found, which is a bit of a letdown considering how generic many of these songs are. Sometimes, on songs like "Red-Eyed and Blue" and the gorgeous "The Lonely 1," Wilco gets the proportions of country to rock exactly right, and the group sounds pleasantly like a south-of-the-border Pavement. More often, though, they simply come across as an above-average bar band who should be playing "Stand by Your Man" behind some chicken wire. Grade: B-

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Summer Teeth

Willie's comments: I caught Wilco live a few summers back, when they were opening for R.E.M., and they just made me feel sad. I really wanted to like them- they were personable and funny and obviously trying very hard to put on an enjoyable show, but they didn't hold my attention at all. I felt the same way listening to Summer Teeth. Wilco is obviously knowledgeable about what musical components make a great Southern-rock song, and even their most ostentatious excursions (such as "Pieholden Suite") don't come across as pretentious so much as enthusiastic, but their music is so bland that it tries your patience, even if you are rooting for them. There's no spontaneity to Summer Teeth; each song sounds as though the band has already run through it 50 times that day, and this results in lagging tempos, lax musicianship, and an overall absence of energy. "ELT," for example, starts off with a fine hook that sounds like a good-ole-boy version of Fountains of Wayne, but after a couple verses, the band just sounds tired. There are a handful of songs that don't drag along, like the terrific, bent single "Can't Stand It" and the Dylan-esque homily rock of "How to Fight Loneliness," but they deserve better than the repetition and ennui that characterize the rest of the album. Grade: C+

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Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Willie's comments: Like Aimee Mann's Bachelor No. 2, Wilco's long-delayed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot flew out of the gate with legions of critics and anti-corporate-rock music lovers ready to sing its praises. Why? Because this is the album that got the band dropped from Reprise Records for not being commercial enough. The band then bought back the rights to their recording, and after garnering plenty of good buzz for this album by making it available for download on their website, it was picked up by the Nonesuch label (who is owned, like Reprise, by AOL Time Warner, so the poetic kicker to this story is that the parent company paid Wilco twice for this album). It's always encouraging when an artist is swatted away by a major label, only to follow this rejection by rallying both commercially and artistically, because there's nothing better than a good "screw you" to the RIAA and its minions. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is not quite the rally it's been made out to be, however. Make no mistake: it's a good album- Wilco's best by any measure- but although it marks a new, self-consciously artistic path for the band, its ambitions are confounded by strain throughout.

Much has been made of how challenging and bewildering parts of this album are, and perhaps that's a valid summation by mainstream standards, but this still ain't exactly Kid A. Songs like "War on War," "Kamera," and "I'm the Man Who Loves You" are foursquare rockers that show the band at their most confident and catchy, with the only remotely unconventional elements being their arrangements. Xylophones, zithers, horns, and analog keyboards pop up at frequent intervals throughout the album to keep things lively, and these songs are fun, if a bit too fussy (frontman Jeff Tweedy doesn't trust his own instincts enough to really let his songs fly in the whimsical way bands like Beulah do). It's when the band overshoots their own songwriting skills that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot bogs down; "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," "Radio Cure," and "Reservations" are overlong and rely too heavily on atmosphere (read: sprinklings of muted feedback) and instrument rotation, without ever really advancing the melody beyond one or two lines. That said, draggy moments like the above don't quite detract from the pleasure that comes from hearing this band finally buckling down and writing songs that are as tight and unique-sounding as "Pot Kettle Black," a backward pop song that manages to get away with removing instruments from the mix as it gains steam. While still far from being a masterpiece, this album is surely more deserving of a spot in record stores (and, probably, your record collection) than the Reprise suits would've ever admitted. It's nice to have it around. Grade: B

READER COMMENTS:

Hugues writes: Okay... I'm not sure I like Disclaimer so much, finally. What I read about "Summerteeth" lets me voiceless. "repetition and ennui"...

Well, what can I say... I can only think that you totally missed the point. You must review too much albums. This isn't Wilco who's tired, it's you! Incredible...

Matthew Clothier writes: I don't know if you guys "grade" on a curve, but how the Friends Sdtrk. pulls a C while Summerteeth only manages a C+ is beyond me! Someone get the principal!

DPowel@mentorcorp.com writes: [Re: Being There] Ballad driven? What about "Monday", "Outta Sight" (on the first CD), "Hotel in Arizona", "I Got You", Someday Soon", "Kingpin", "Dreamer in My Dreams", "Don't Forget the Flowers"...

Also, "no can't stand it alt rockers to found?". 1) "Outta Sight" and 2) by any estimation, "Can't Stand It" has almost nothing to do with "Alt Rock".

To be honest, like or dislike, it is clear that you did not listen to this album when you heard it. If Coldplay Parchutes would get an A and this a B...????? I own both and like them both, but really...

[Several minutes later] Wait, sorry to write again, but I just noticed that you gave both Roxette albums equal or higher grades than any Wilco LP!!!!!

I'm not even I big Wilco fan, but you guys suck and have terrible taste. I'm over this site.

BTW- Did you decide that Kid A was better than Ok computer after you ate acid, got dizzy, and fell on your head?

Thank you blowing my mind. At least being annoyed by you is better than being bored at work. Keep up guys; I'm sure someone's listening.

Joe Friesen writes: In response to the other dinks who commented here on Willie's Wilco reviews... umm, guys, you do realize you've stumbled onto a guy's personal review site, and that this guy just might have his own opinions that differ from yours just a bit, right? Well, whatever.

As for your "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" review... I, like just about everyone else, overrated this release when it first came out. Now that I've had about a year or so to think about it, I'm inclined to agree with you. This album tends to drag horribly in parts, the worst offender being "Radio cure", which starts nowhere and goes nowhere. I dig "I am trying to break your heart", though. That said, "Heavy metal drummer" is a great rocker, and "Jesus, etc." is BEE-fucking-YEWTIFUL. Mother of crap, I love the hell out of that song.

LoadesC writes: Being There. B
Summer Teeth. A-
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. A

Wilco are a far more talented and relevant band than Coldplay and their songs don't over reach and fail miserably and make you sick, like Coldplay's do.

SEE ALSO: THE AUTUMN DEFENSE

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William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet soundtrack album

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Willie's comments: I got up to use the restroom in the middle of Shakespeare in Love, so I must have missed the scene where the title character says, "You know what my tragedy of star-cross'd lovers needs? A bizarre, bombastic soundtrack that features a twisted mindjob from the Butthole Surfers, an irksome disco number from Kym Mazelle, and a song called 'Everybody's Free (to Feel Good),' which shall be one of the stupidest things ever recorded." 400 years later, though, that's what he got, thanks to Baz Luhrmann, a demented man whose films play like cough syrup-induced hallucinations. Luckily, unlike the roller coaster derailment that is the Moulin Rouge soundtrack ("Lady Marmalade," anyone?), the Romeo + Juliet album actually has a number of keepers placed strategically within its musical funhouse. It's impossible to hate an album that contains a shiny new Radiohead song ("Talk Show Host") as well as magnificent loungepop by the Cardigans (the ubiquitous "Lovefool") and the Wannadies ("You and Me Song"), and the record certainly isn't harmed by the guilty-pleasure trance of Gavin Friday ("Angel"). But when Romeo + Juliet is bad, it's roll-up-your-car-windows-so-no-passing-motorists-will-laugh-at-what-you're-listening-to bad. "Pretty Piece of Flesh" by One Inch Punch is an embarrassing attempt to mate Filter with the Beastie Boys, "Local God" by Everclear will further make you wonder why these guys aren't back in their garage where they belong, and Des'ree's "Kissing You (Love Theme from Romeo + Juliet)" can be used as makeshift ipecac. I can't imagine this is an album you would want prominently displayed in your collection when your friends come over, but still, Radiohead is Radiohead... Grade: C+

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Lucinda Williams

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Essence

Willie's comments: As far as I'm able to tell as a Northerner who survived his adolescence on a diet of punk and new wave, the appeal that country music holds for its fans is in its simplicity. The reason everyone makes jokes about the genre's repetitive themes of heartbreak, rural life, and pickup trucks is the same reason that it appeals to as many people as it does; its familiarity is appealing to those who pride themselves on being simple people leading simple lives (simple not meaning dumb, but uncomplicated). All of this might explain why headstrong country rocker Lucinda Williams has never had a hit in twenty years of recording: she's patently not uncomplicated. Her most recent release, Essence, might contain some songs that would sound perfect as anonymously downcast background music to closing time at a honkytonk ("Reason to Cry," "I Envy the Wind"), but she grapples with gender roles and spiritual issues throughout the album, and it's never quite clear which side she comes down on. And that's to the good.

Apart from the annoyingly pseudo-aggressive title track, her lyrics are beautifully plainspoken, not stupidly blunt or frustratingly elusive (the admittedly clever Biblical allusions in "Broken Butterflies" are overshadowed by the song's tear-inducing imagery). Even better, songs like "Out of Touch," "Blue," and "Are You Down" have hooks to match Williams's words. The tunes aren't ever particularly striking in their originality, but Williams has a gift for arrangements, whether it's inserting some well-placed guitar harmonics into the otherwise straightforward "I Envy the Wind" or bending a generic blues riff into a unique, marching rockabilly hoedown on "Get Right with God." Essence might be too powerful for most mainstream country radio, but even if you're not typically a country fan (in fact, especially if you're not typically a country fan), this album would sound great in your stereo. Grade: B+

READER COMMENTS:

LoadesC writes: You should check out more from Lucinda. The self titled album is still, for me, THE great "new country" record. She is the most consistent artist in her field, isn't it a travesty that she is outsold by utter trash like Shania Twain? My Ratings:

Happy Woman Blues B-
Lucinda Williams A
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road A
Essence B+
World without Tears A-

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Windy & Carl

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Consciousness

Willie's comments: What if you took a Yo La Tengo song apart and gave each instrument its own track on your album? That's the question Michigan's Windy & Carl evidently seek to answer on this charmingly inauspicious album. "The Sun" consists of a chimey guitar line repeated ad infinitum, "Balance (Trembling)" is little more than simmering keyboards and slowly blooming feedback, "Elevation" is a gorgeous wave of busy synths that work together to form a magnificent drone, "The Llama's Dream" provides the whispered vocals, etc. Where Windy & Carl differ from, say, Sue Garner & Rick Brown (who share W&C's affinity for Yo La Tengo as well as for unimaginative band names) is in their ability to capture the dreamy, ambient mood that Yo La is so fond of, as opposed to just ripping them off wholesale. At first, it's enervating that the tunes never really do anything (with the exception of the terrific title track, the album's one fully constructed song) and yet last for upwards of twelve minutes, but once you're attuned to Consciousness and listen to it in the proper setting- such as a car on a lonely nighttime drive- it's a blissful canoe trip to the center of your mind. Grade: B+

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Wire

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On Returning (1977-1979)

Willie's comments: Wire was one of the stranger bands to come from England's punk movement. Their songs were as short and energetic as anything the Ramones ever did, and as tuneful as the Buzzcocks, but their staccato, jerky, almost sterile guitar sounds and rhythms recall early Talking Heads. There are plenty of songs (31, to be precise) on this collection, which makes it a good introduction to Wire's World. "Strange" is probably the best-known, since R.E.M. covered it on Document, and "Three Girl Rhumba" will sound familiar to anyone who's ever heard Elastica's rip-off "Connection," but "Mr. Suit," "Ex Lion Tamer," "Champs," and "Another the Letter" are superb punk documents. Toward the end of the album, Wire evolves into a pretentious, arty new-age conglomerate (Patti Smith's influence?), but there are still interesting, singable tunes like "Marooned" and "The Other Window." Still, you might be better off just buying the band's classic debut, Pink Flag, and not have to deal with the ponderous, Spinal Tap-ish mishmash in On Returning's later half. Grade: B+

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