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"Weird Al" Yankovic

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"Weird Al" Yankovic

Willie's comments: Before I start reviewing "Weird Al" Yankovic's oeuvre, let me point out two things: (1) It really bugs me to put "Weird Al" in quotation marks every time I type it, so I'm not going to. (2) I haven't listened to any of Weird Al's music in about four years (till I wrote these reviews), but in the third through seventh grades, I listened to each of his albums like 900 times, so I still have them all memorized. Which should say something about Weird Al's appeal to young people, regardless of what I might say now.

Anyway, Weird Al's self-titled debut album was a much more stripped-down affair than any of his subsequent offerings. Even his parodies of popular songs, such as "My Bologna" and "Another One Rides the Bus," don't try to mimic the originals' arrangements at all- it's basically just Al and his accordion. There are more than a few moments of brilliance here, too. "Ricky"- a parody of Toni Basil's "Mickey"- is a song about I Love Lucy that's as funny as a really good MAD magazine article. "Happy Birthday" is a dated list of all the things that were wrong with the world in 1983 ("Your daddy's in the kitchen with a can of Cycle 4... There's garbage in the water/ There's poison in the sky/ I guess it won't be long before we're all gonna die!") that started me on the long track to cynicism, and "Stop Draggin' My Car Around" is just goofy but funny. However, as with any comedy album, there are too many jokes that don't connect, and a triad of songs on the second side- "The Check's in the Mail," "I'll be Mellow When I'm Dead," and "Such a Groovy Guy"- are essentially satires of early-'80s America, and should've stayed there. Grade: B-

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In 3-D

Willie's comments: Al started recording with a full band on In 3-D, thus turning out credible imitations of the songs he was parodying. The big hit "Eat It" is all the funnier for its musical similarity to Michael Jackson's "Beat It," while "The Brady Bunch" is tolerable because it sounds just like Men Without Hats' wonderful "The Safety Dance" (even though it's basically just a list of TV shows). Likewise, Al's original "Mr. Popeil" is a tribute to Ronco (it's even used on Ron's infomercials now!) that's hilarious due to the fact that it sounds just like the B-52s, and is catchier than just about anything they ever wrote. "Theme from Rocky XIII," "I Lost on Jeopardy," and "Buy Me a Condo" are all solid, too, but the reason I can most recommend In 3-D is its inclusion of what would become an Al staple: The polka. "Polkas on 45," the first in his long list, takes a medley of popular songs ("Smoke on the Water," "Burnin' Down the House," "My Generation") and polkafies them. The song's inclusion of DEVO's clattering "Jocko Homo" is truly inspired. Grade: B+

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Dare to be Stupid

Willie's comments: Further continuing Al's use of DEVO as a source of material (a habit that I gladly welcome), the title track from this album is an amalgam of DEVO's musical habits that has been rearranged into a song more catchy and perfect than almost anything in DEVO's canon. Mark Mothersbaugh admits as much! The song isn't funny, but that's not the point: by Dare to be Stupid, Al had become such an accomplished songwriter that you could rely on his original music to at least be catchy, even if it wasn't funny. The album has some great moments: the Madonna parody "Like a Surgeon," the Kinks parody "Yoda" (which is probably Al's most popular song, since many of his fans are Star Wars geeks to begin with), and the hilarious, violent easy listening number "One More Minute" ("I'd rather jump naked on a huge pile of thumbtacks/ Or stick my nostrils together with Crazy Glue/ I'd rather clean all the bathrooms in Grand Central Station with my tongue/ Than spend one more minute with you"). For the most part, though, the laughs just aren't there- even "Hooked on Polkas" isn't particularly entertaining, and "This is the Life," "Slime Creatures from Outer Space," and "I Want a New Duck" are just boring. You might think about picking up Weird Al's greatest hits album and skipping this middling affair. Grade: C+

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Polka Party

Willie's comments: I've always felt that this album was underrated. Apart from "Toothless People" and "Addicted to Spuds," which is irritating both because it's not funny and because it's set to a Robert Palmer tune, every song is pretty funny. "Dog Eat Dog" has a special place in my heart because it's a style parody of the Talking Heads- just as "Dare to be Stupid" was with DEVO- and that's the song that made me a fan of David Byrne & Co. Again, not a very funny song, but a great Heads song nevertheless. "One of Those Days" and "Christmas at Ground Zero" let Al's cynical, destructive id come out to play, resulting in two of his funniest songs ever. The former is particularly funny in its description of a bad day by juxtaposing horrible tragedies with mundane disappointments: "A 747 crashed into my den and there's nothing but tater tots for dinner again... Big steamroller just ran over my mom and I cut myself shaving and they're dropping the bomb." "Here's Johnny" is a parody of "Who's Johnny" (which I remember from Short Circuit) that will probably be better remembered than the original, even if it is a dated number about Ed MacMahon. As with all of Al's albums, the humor is best suited to precocious middle-schoolers, but Polka Party is reasonably worthwhile for people of any age. Grade: B+

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Even Worse

Willie's comments: This album contains Al's most brilliant, inspired, and compact song ever: "Twister." Roughly 30 seconds long, it's basically a commercial for the board game Twister, but Al sings it in the style of the Beastie Boys (he does a particularly good MCA)! It's a hysterical concept to begin with, but when he ends the song by proclaiming, "From MB!" it's clear that Al has finally made the quintessential, hysterical comment on pop-culture cannibalism that he's strived for in all his songs, before and after this one. "(This Song's Just) Six Words Long" is a fun jibe at George Harrison's inability to write lyrics, but the rest of the album is substantially less clever. "You Make Me" is an Oingo Boingo style parody, "Velvet Elvis" is a song about manic Elvis fans, and "Alimony" is a parody of "Mony Mony" about divorce. All of those are just as cutting-edge as they sound. "I Think I'm a Clone Now," a parody of Tiffany's version of "I Think We're Alone Now," presents a new Al fixation: coming up with a high-concept song parody based on song title alone, and then not having any jokes supporting it within the song. That habit would continue to dog him to this day. Grade: C

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UHF: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and Other Stuff

Willie's comments: After Even Worse, Weird Al made a movie: UHF. It had Michael Richards, Emo Phillips, and the incomparably hilarious Gedde Watanabe in it, but it basically tanked despite a lot of funny sequences. Some of those sequences are featured on this album, like a commercial for "Spatula City" and a TV-movie commercial parody called Ghandi II ("No more Mr. Passive Resistance; he's out to kick some butt!"). Mostly, though, this album is just another Weird Al album, and an unremarkable one at that. Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing" is transformed into a song about The Beverly Hillbillies, Tone Loc's "Wild Thing" is transformed into a song about Gilligan's Island, R.E.M.'s "Stand" is transformed into a song about Spam, etc. The only really funny song is "The Hot Rocks Polka," which is made up entirely of Rolling Stones songs. If the rest of it sounds like it's up your alley, go for it. If not, give this one a wide berth. You might want to rent the movie, though, if you're in the mood for some ZAZ-esque slapstick. Grade: C

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Off the Deep End

Willie's comments: This album is probably Weird Al's best. "Smells Like Nirvana" is a song about Kurt Cobain's incomprehensible singing that singlehandedly deflates the stupid youth culture of 1991; "Trigger Happy" is a Beach Boys style parody that skewers gun owners, much to my delight ("Oh, I accidentally shot Daddy last night in the den/ I mistook him in the dark for a drug-crazed Nazi again"); and "When I Was Your Age" takes a hackneyed premise which you can surmise from the title, and actually makes it funny ("[Dad] would chop me into pieces and play Frisbee with my brain/ And let me tell you, Junior, you never heard me complain"). "Polka Your Eyes Out" is the best of Al's polka's, too, in my opinion (though they're really all the same). You also get parodies of New Kids on the Block, Milli Vanilli, Gerardo, and M.C. Hammer, but those are pretty good, too, if you can get past the fact that the original songs are just as laughable as Al's versions. "Airline Amy" and "I Was Only Kidding" are basically useless, but if you're going to get a Weird Al album, this one probably won't disappoint you. Grade: A-

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Alapalooza

Willie's comments: This is the point where Weird Al's inspiration reservoir dried up, was filled in with cement, and was topped with a generic minimall. This album is utterly awful. "Jurassic Park" takes Donna Summer's "Macarthur Park" (which is bad enough as it is) and essentially turns it into a summary of Spielberg's film. "Achy Breaky Song" is about how much everyone hates that Billy Ray Cyrus song, but Cyrus was a too-easy target from the second he showed up on the country scene. "Bohemian Polka" is a polka version of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," and it quickly wears out its welcome. I couldn't locate any jokes at all in "Traffic Jam," and Al's other originals, such as "Young, Dumb, & Ugly," "Talk Soup," and "She Never Told Me She Was a Mime" are all full of punchlines (and comedic targets) so obvious they wouldn't seem out of place in a Miller/Boyett sitcom. "Frank's 2000" TV" at least has a great melody, but Alapalooza is a big, thudding waste of time. It's literally embarassing to listen to. Grade: F

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Bad Hair Day

Willie's comments: I'd hoped- optimistically, I know- that Alapalooza was a fluke and wouldn't be indicative of Al's subsequent output. The first single from Bad Hair Day boosted my hopes: "Amish Paradise," a parody of Coolio's pompous "Gangsta Paradise" which was funny and it incurred Coolio's wrath (which I found even funnier than the song). However, "Amish Paradise" is the sole bright spot on Bad Hair Day. "Phony Calls" is a remake of TLC's "Waterfalls" which finds Al so bereft of jokes that he has to fill time by playing a snippet of Bart prank-calling Moe on Simpsons. "Everything You Know is Wrong" is a style parody of They Might Be Giants that, while impressively TMBG-esque (right down to an imitation of John Linnell's superhuman lung capacity), makes the irritating mistake of parodying TMBG's lyrics by writing nonsense, as opposed to the metaphor-happy lyrics they actually write. With "Gump," Weird Al stoops to writing a parody of a song that is already basically a novelty joke song- the Presidents of the USA's "Lump." It doesn't help that "Lump" is funnier, but that's another bad Al habit that would continue through his recent parodies of the Offspring's "Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)" and the Barenaked Ladies' "One Week." Weird Al is an immensely likable guy, but I wish he'd stop taking the easy road to comedy, because his audience is far too savvy for that to work by this point. Grade: D+

READER COMMENTS:

Rich Bunnell writes: Well, you weren't as harsh as I'd anticipated. In fact, I agree with a lot of your ratings, though I don't think that Alapalooza and Bad Hair Day are THAT bad (certainly his weakest albums, but they each had more redeeming tunes than you gave them credit for) and I'd personally rank the UHF soundtrack as his best-ever release. Additionally, I agree that even though Al's jokes in his originals aren't very funny, he's often able to supply a solid enough melody to make that fact insignificant-- "Dare To Be Stupid," "Don't Wear Those Shoes," "Dog Eat Dog," "Frank's 2000" TV" and "I'll Be Mellow When I'm Dead" are really huge examples of that.

Personally I heavily disagree with the "Pretty Fly" and "One Week" parody statement. That argument is the cliche that everyone's been spouting out for the past eleven months even though they haven't noticed the fact that the original Offspring and BNL songs weren't funny. "Like Harrison Ford I'm getting frantic, like Sting I'm tantric!" Oh MAN, those Canadian whiteboys are funny as HELL! MAN! "Jerry Springer" pales in comparison to it so heavily even though it has actual jokes! Additionally, the state of popular music today doesn't allow for parody as much as it did in the '80s, huge examples being "Misery" or "Phony Calls," two songs which came off as really, really weak and trite (despite the Simpsons soundclip in the latter). One last thing-- Though Al undeniably hit a dry run with "Alapalooza," last year's "Running With Scissors" is a brilliant album. The Star Wars/American Pie crossover gets old fast, but the rest of the album is as good as Al's been since "Off The Deep End."

Anyway, here're my ratings-- Debut: B+, In 3-D: A-, DTBS: C+, Polka Party: B- (too much underdeveloped crap to make for a good listen though the highs are high), Even Worse: B, UHF: A+, OTDE: A-, Alapalooza: D+, Bad Hair Day: C-, Running With Scissors: A.

John Schlegel writes: You do a nice job of summing up Weird Al's career highs and lows by  reviewing his albums. Off the Deep End is actually my favorite Al-bum too. "Trigger Happy" and "You Don't Love Me Anymore" have to be two of his best originals ever. The former Beach Boys style-parody with the NRA-bashing  lyrics is one of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard, and it's also  one of the FUNNIEST things I've ever listened to because the lyrics are pure  comic genius. The do-whoppy, cheerful vibe of the music mixed with the  perverse comedy works so well I can't really even put it into words. And, like you, I particularly love the "Shot dadyyyyy in the den! . . . Drug craaaaazed Nazi again!" part (mostly the backing vox)--gets me every time!

The latter-mentioned ballad is also brilliant. It starts out like Al's masterpiece "One More Minute," as a nice, soft melody with banal break-up song lyrics, and then goes into this sick rant, the whole time keeping that beautiful ballad humming along; masterful uses of irony in both of those songs. As far as his other records go, I also agree that In 3-D is a solid buy with a B-52s parody that is catchier than most B-52s songs, and that Bad Hair Day was a huge disappointment (I like "Gump," though). For the record, I have not heard Al's entire discography.

Like Rich Bunnell above me, I do have to disagree with you about UHF being one of Al's weaker '80's albums. That one's my second favorite. "Hot Rocks Polka" is his most creative medley concept, and it works so well at making fun of the Stones' music and backing vocals. The sound bits from the movie are hilarious (especially "Gandhi II"), and two more of his best originals, "Generic Blues" and "Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota," are here. I'm not surprised you had nothing to say about these tracks, because they took a little time to grow on me. But you applauded the indeed funny "When I Was Your Age" on Deep End, and that song is actually very derivative of "Generic Blues" ("I was born in a paper sack at the bottom of a sewer/I had to eat dirt clods for breakfast my family was to poor"). I also don't think Dare to Be Stupid is as mediocre as most fans seem to think it is, but maybe that's just because it was the first Yankovic album I heard, and I was in the 5th grade at the time, so it has sentimental value to me. But at any rate, Weird Al is truly an overlooked genius, even if most of his records do follow the same formula.

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Yeah Yeah Yeahs

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Fever to Tell

Willie's comments: After a couple EPs that are either too expensive (the self-titled one) or rare (Machine) for me to check out, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs make their full-length bow with this fine record, a collision of nifty girl-punk and PJ Harvey fandom that's thoroughly enjoyable without exactly being mindblowing. Actually, imagine if Rid of Me had been sensibly recorded, with singer Karen O's unapologetic horniness in place of Polly Jean's feminist fury, and you're pretty close to Fever to Tell's lascivious, raw mood. Though the only musical parts come in the form of Brian Chase's spare drumming and Nick Zimmer's bumpy guitar canoodling, the arrangements never seem lacking in a White Stripes way- partially because Zimmer's not afraid to indulge in wedding cakes worth of layered overdubs (opener "Rich" skips along overtop of a gratifyingly strange, distorted pattern of harmonic notes), but also because Karen's genuinely sexy punquette vocalizing is enough to make up for any number of missing instruments. On energetic tunes like "Black Tongue," in fact, the guitars often drop out of the mix entirely, but oh, Ms. O's confident, accessible-yet-intimidating voice is compelling enough to be equal to fifty Dee Dee Ramone basslines, as she finds seemingly infinite emotional variations on the sound "Uh-huh." (Orgasmic, sarcastic, impatient, gleeful, monoecious, in intense concentration, frisky, peevish, surly, embittered, sanguine, creepy, ambivalent, hoobalicious, amused, bewildered, stupefied, flabbergasted, heterodyne, gobsmacked, aloof, flummoxed, caustic, shampoo, harum-scarum, recalcitrant, tractable, cressy, factious, pulmonary... Why, yes, I do have a dictionary in front of me!) Pounding garage-punk blitzkreigs like "Man" and "Tick" are the definite highlights here (and the latter features singing-as-sex so enthralling that it would make the Lords of Acid's Lady Galore come with envy), though the second half of the record takes a surprising turn into calmer, more mature fare with the sweet "Maps" and "Modern Romance," a slow-moving drone piece that could've come from shoegazers like Azure Ray if Karen's voice was buried a little more. Though the third-act twist might put off purist punk fans, and a couple lax tunes in the middle ("Pin" and the overlong echo-effect indulgence "No No No") sort of stymie the album's momentum, this half-hour disc is mostly an espresso shot of buzzing rock bliss. Grade: B+

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: TV ON THE RADIO

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Yes

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Fragile

Willie's comments: I fully expected to loathe the prog rock manifesto that is Fragile, given that the genre's characteristics (which can be concisely summed up as "Wanking! Wanking!!! WANKING!!!") are generally about as palatable to me as a Bass-o-Matic milkshake, but Yes shattered my expectations at least a few times on this inventive- albeit bloated- album. Sure, the acoustic guitar operetta "Mood for a Day" just sounds lost, and "Cans and Brahams" recalls Switched On! Bach (an album which manages to be simultaneously stupider and more listenable than Yes's foray into classical interpretation), but the pretentions end there. Or rather, they cease to be grating. On songs like the bouncy rondo "We Have Heaven" and the jam-happy "Roundabout," Yes locates the same middle ground between clinical technical proficiency and fun that influenced modern weirdos like Ween and Phish. By far the best song is the lengthy closer "Heart of the Sunrise" (which was also the centerpiece of Vincent Gallo's terrific film Buffalo '66, if you're interested), whose guitars charge full-speed ahead, bayonets out, until they're stopped dead in their tracks by a pretty, Pink Floyd-ian lullaby, only to have the two styles seemlessly flow together, part, and then rejoin by the song's end. If you're not on their side by that point- even grudgingly so- then I'm afraid there is no hope for you. Like Johnny Carson delivering scripted ad-libs with an aplomb that makes them seem totally spontaneous, Yes had the ability to make prog's lab-coat precision sound like the sweaty squall of 200-proof rawk. Grade: B

READER COMMENTS:

siberian_khatru7@yahoo.com writes: This albums pretty good. Some of the solo spots are a bit weak though. you should get yes' s Close to the Edge. Its probably there best. And no I'm not some 50 year old guy recomending this to you, I'm 15, so you should check it out.

SEE ALSO: THE BUGGLES

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Yo La Tengo

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New Wave Hot Dogs

Willie's comments: Those who joined the cult of Yo La Tengo further into their careers probably won’t be too impressed by this assortment of (mostly) jangly songs. This album was recorded before husband-and-wife team Ira Kaplan (guitar, vocals) and Georgia Hubley (drums, vocals) began integrating dozens of musical styles into any one song, so to fans of Painful or I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, textbook classic rock riffs like "Lewis" and "Clunk" might sound a smidge bland, and the cover of Lou Reed’s "It’s Alright (The Way That You Live)" almost seems too easy a choice. The beautiful "Lost in Bessemer" and the hammering squall of "House Fall Down" are superb, however, and since this album is currently available only on a CD with the far superior President Yo La Tengo, it's worth your attention anyway. Grade: B-

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President Yo La Tengo

Willie's comments: This is the Yo La we know and love. Seven songs, a hundred melodic hooks, and immeasurable amounts of detailed, layered sound. "Barnaby, Hardly Working" loops a second or two of feedback into an indelible groove, while "The Evil That Men Do- Pablo’s Version" flares the feedback to critical mass over a bed of tribal rhythms and a period of ten minutes. More calm are the heartbreaking "Alyda" ("He said ‘hop,’ you hopped until your feet grew corns/ Checked for some reaction, then just hopped some more") and a cover of Dylan’s "I Threw It All Away," and "The Evil That Men Do- Craig’s Version" sounds like a spy movie theme. If only it was a half hour longer! (It's joined by New Wave Hot Dogs on CD, however.) Grade: A+

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Fakebook

Willie's comments: What band would decide to record an acoustic album of (mostly) cover songs after only three LPs? Yo La friggin’ Tengo would! And good for them! It’s precisely this "Please ourselves first and the audience will follow" attitude that puts them at the very top of my list of rock music geniuses. The covers Ira, Georgia, and two other guys twang out on Fakebook are mind-bogglingly kaleidoscopic- Cat Stevens, Daniel Johnston, NRBQ, and the Flamin’ Groovies are all represented, with amusingly stuffy liner notes by Ira regarding the songs' sources. Georgia takes the vocal seat for the first time on a few tracks, and her gorgeous, unpretentious murmur lifts "What Can I Say?" into the stratosphere. It’d be hard to find catchier, more pleasant songs than "The Summer" and "Yellow Sarong," too. The album’s only slip-up is the embarassing (though still a bit fun) "Emulsified," which finds really white Ira howling like James Brown. Grade: A-

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May I Sing With Me

Willie's comments: Unjustly trashed by many critics, May I Sing With Me takes all the jagged noises that were left out of Fakebook and spreads them out over the course of 54 minutes. While the abundance of feedback and dissonance can be a touch unsettling, it’s not as though the songs don’t have driving basslines (courtesy of new, permanent, brilliant bassist and nice guy James McNew, who releases stunning solo albums under the name Dump) or melodies as glistening as anything YLT had done before. "Always Something" and "Swing for Life" use endless repetition to slowly construct tunes that are as sturdy as the pyramids, while "Upside-Down," "86-Second Blowout," and "Out the Window" cheerfully zip by like rock ‘n’ roll cheetahs. "Mushroom Cloud of Hiss" ups the ante on the spastic guitar ramblings of "The Evil That Men Do- Pablo’s Version," and Ira’s articulate, poetically basic lyrics are just the icing on the cake. Grade: A

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Shaker EP

Willie's comments: Unfortunately, "Shaker" (the lead track off this EP) wasn’t included on the 1996 B-side compilation Genius + Love, so you still have to buy Shaker if you want to hear it. [WILLIE'S NOTE: This is no longer true. "Shaker" is included on the fine compilation Prisoners of Love. I don't feel like rewriting this review, though.] You definitely should do so if you can find it- "Shaker" is built on an almost malevolent guitar refrain, and Ira multitracks his vocals out of synch with one another to creepy, heroin-chic effect. As for the rest of the EP, there’s a great minimalist cover of Richard Thompson’s "For Shame of Doing Wrong" and another unremarkably good previously unreleased YLT song, but given the price of most EPs, this three-song collection might not justify whatever Best Buy would have you pay. Grade: B

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Painful

Willie's comments: Hooray for the new-wave organ! Almost every song on this dreamy, unspeakably perfect album is beefed up with clouds of organ drones, either subtly (the first of two versions of "Big Day Coming") or prominently ("Sudden Organ," which rocks without breaking Painful’s fragile, floaty mood). And what songs they are! Georgia’s "Nowhere Near" is a quiet, flowing trance of a song, while Ira’s "From a Motel 6" features a collapsing guitar riff and his most touchingly funny lyrics ever: "Oh no, your heart is broken/ Now don’t you think that’s a little trite?" Imagine the fuzz-coated beauty of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless deconstructed to resemble Brian Eno’s Another Green World, and built around melodies as catchy and pretty as Lush’s best (in their rock mode, not their dreampop mode), and you’ve almost got Painful’s sound. But you have to actually get inside it with your headphones to understand its genius. Grade: A+

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Electr-O-Pura

Willie's comments: Around this time, James became a big part of the songwriting process, and this is clearly exhibited in Electr-O-Pura’s improvisational slant. Songs like "Decora," "Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1)," and "Blue Line Swinger" are long, winding tunes that underscore Ira’s chaotic bursts of guitar and frequent mood changes, but they’re always grounded by a comforting bassline or organ drone. "False Alarm," too, is a perfect balance of the ordered and the snarled- as Georgia hammers out a precise beat and James (probably) plays an odd ostinato on the organ, Ira speaks the lyrics without regard for rhythm ("If I open my eyes/ If I just pay attention to McNew...") and makes scratchy organ sounds that resemble the end of Radiohead’s "Karma Police" played through a megaphone. It’s beautiful. And the slower songs on this album, like "Pablo and Andrea," "Don’t Say a Word," and "Paul is Dead," are no less interesting for their accessibility. Grade: A

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Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo

Willie's comments: YLT is the only band I know of that can boast that they released a 2-CD set of B-sides and rarities and it’s just as wonderful as their studio albums. Featuring wry liner notes by Ira, Genius + Love spans YLT’s entire career with one disc of vocal tracks and one disc of instrumentals. In addition to the wonderful, sideways melodies the band is known for, this album also highlights their deadpan sense of humor: There’s a sharp, YLT-ized parody of a Stereolab song ("Evanescent Psychic Pez Drop"); a Muzaky version of the Ramones’ "Blitzkreig Bop"; two brief tracks comprised of Georgia "venting some frustration" by making noise; etc. Plus plenty of nifty covers, from Wire to Jackson Browne! Grade: A

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I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One

Willie's comments: Heart, with its overriding dreamy quality and plethora of organs, seems like a sort of sibling to Painful. A sibling that rocks and pops like nobody’s business, however. James takes center stage more often, singing the bittersweet folk-rocker "Stockholm Syndrome" and transplanting the bassline from a Velvet Underground song (I forget which) into the Massive Attack-meets-Beck groove of "Moby Octopad." "Sugarcube" would be a top 40 power-pop hit if Ira hadn’t guarded against that with layers of searing- though not off-putting- guitar, and the tranquil "Autumn Sweater," by all rights, should have been a top 40 hit. The album’s most effective track, however, is the hypnotic ten-minute drone of "Spec Bebop." Wow. Grade: A+

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Autumn Sweater EP

Willie's comments: This is as satisfying as an EP of song remixes gets. Rather than ruining a great song with generic, thudding Vic Tanny commercial beats (see Cher’s Believe EP), YLT has electronica luminaries like u-ziq and Kevin Shields remix "Autumn Sweater" to beautiful, mesmerizing effect on this EP. Listening to this album is as cleansing and wonderful as watching time-lapse photography of a year going by in 30 minutes. Grade: A

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Strange But True (with Jad Fair)

Willie's comments: SEE JAD FAIR

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And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out

Willie's comments: Yo La's ninth studio album is bookended by two superlative drone-rock songs. The trancey opener, "Everyday," consists of little more than James's hypnotically sustained bass and the gorgeous, hushed harmonies of Ira and Georgia. "Night Falls on Hoboken," on the other hand, is a 17-minute coda that, rather than crescendoing and falling several times like "Blue Line Swinger," feels like one extremely long fade out. Those two songs are reason enough to buy And Then Nothing, but the middle parts of the album are often just as wonderful. The Matador press machine billed this LP as a concept album about Georgia and Ira's marriage, but if plainspoken lyrics that are largely concerned with love are enough to make it a concept album, then just about every YLT album since Painful has been a concept album about their marriage. (And labeling this one a "concept" album overlooks the Simpsons-derived hilarity of "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House," too.)

No, what's truly different about this album is how subdued it is. James anchors each song with a simple, repetitive bassline, and organs and odd percussion float all around the half-spoken melodies on songs like "Our Way to Fall," "The Crying of Lot G," and "From Black to Blue," without ever raising the volume above "pleasant." Indeed, virtually every song on here is as blessedly tranquil as an Eno album. (The exception is the incongruous raver "Cherry Chapstick," which sounds like a leftover from Electr-O-Pura, albeit with heartbreaking, lovesick lyrics.) Fans of Yo La's rockers will probably be a bit let down that the most instantly likeable song on And Then Nothing is "You Can Have It All," a disco cover recast as a pseudo-They Might Be Giants tune, but by the time "Madeline" and the appropriately titled "Tired Hippo" roll around, you'll be thoroughly absorbed, no matter how much you might try to resist. Grade: A-

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Danelectro EP

Willie's comments: This EP contains three nondescript, instrumental outtakes from the And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out sessions (entitled "Danelectro 1," "Danelectro 2," and "Danelectro 3") and one remix of each song. To be perfectly honest, it's the first Yo La material I've ever heard that's really not worth getting. YLT can write beautiful instrumentals, certainly, but they usually work best when used as interludes to break up their vocal material. For example, the way "Superstar-Watcher" neatly bridges the gap from "Double Dare" to "Nowhere Near" on Painful, or the way "Spec Bebop" adds some much-needed psychedelic tension after the squeaky clean pop of "Center of Gravity" and "The Lie and How We Told It" on I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. Even the instrumental disc of Genius + Love works much better when you shuffle it together with the vocal disc on your CD changer. The Danelectro songs, lovely though they are, beg to be paired with other songs into which you can sink your teeth. It doesn't help that the remixes aren't very good this time around. The remixes by Q-Unique and Kit Clayton of "Danelectro 1" and "Danelectro 3," respectively, aren't drastically different from the original versions and seem redundant. Nobukazu Takemura's 11-minute reworking of "Danelectro 2," on the other hand, reduces the song to tinkertoy electronica, fighting the innate warmth of YLT's music (as opposed to embracing it the way the bands on the Autumn Sweater EP do). I myself stupidly paid $15 for this EP at Best Buy, but even at the $6 price CDNow is asking for it, I wouldn't recommend it. I hope the band at least got some free guitar pedals out of the song titles. Grade: C

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The Sounds of the Sounds of Science

Willie's comments: Okay, fine. This disc (available only through YLT's website) is a collection of eight lengthy songs that were written to accompany Jean Painleve's undersea documentary series The Sounds of Science, and it's as though the band recorded it specifically to disprove everything I said about their instrumentals above. Though I'm sure these wordless songs would make more sense in the cinematic context for which they were written, they work wonderfully on your stereo as utopian home-planetarium music. "Sea Urchins" and "Hyas and Stenorhynchus," to name two, glisten and slowly float around as if they were actually recorded underwater, with soothing basslines that keep things steady as the rest of the music drifts along a gradient that runs from simple keyboard-and-drum accents to sexy tribal rhythms and expansive guitar work, generally within the same song. (One of the seldom-noted reasons Yo La is so wonderful is their ability to begin a song with one musical mood and wind up, several minutes later, someplace seemingly contradictory, but in a way that's not only seamless, but actually seems completely logical once you hear it.) "Shrimp Stories," "The Love Life of the Octopus," and "The Sea Horse" are a bit peppier, in ways that conjure images of cute little crustaceans-or-whatever bopping happily about, but the strange "Liquid Crystals" goes awry. It's of much lower sound quality than the rest of the album (recorded by James in the band's practice space, as opposed to in a real studio), and it consists of Georgia somewhat randomly thumping her drum kit while Ira's guitar and amplifier engage in a fierce- yet tiresome- battle of tuneless sounds. I guess you'd have to see the corresponding film to get your mind around that one, but the rest of The Sounds of the Sounds of Science is a confident and magical aquatic adventure of maritime melodies. (I don't care how stupid that last sentence sounded. It made me laugh.) Seriously, though- it's really cool. Grade: A-

Nuclear War EP

Willie's comments: Nuclear war protest songs have kind of petered out since the end of the Cold War, but since our president has come to bear an increasing resemblance to Slim Pickens riding the bomb at the end of Dr. Strangelove, they may be coming back in vogue soon. It'll be hard for any up-and-coming peaceniks to trump this giddy EP, though. I don't know that the Yo Las have any particular political leanings themselves (I mean, I assume they think nuclear war would be a bad thing, but apart from that...), but that didn't stop them from pumping out four versions of the titular Sun Ra song, which angrily proclaims, "It's a motherfucker, don't you know? If they push that button, your ass gotta go!" over and over. Sun Ra's original is a somewhat laid-back bit of call-and-response piano jazz, but Yo La has filled it full of energy- if not exactly rage- by putting James in the frontman seat, and letting everyone present bash out their frustrations on percussion instruments, resulting in a booty-shakingly rhythmic chant for version one. Version two adds a wacked-out drone and the inspired notion of a bunch of schoolkids taking the "response" part; as funny as it is to hear the kids giggle as they yell, "Kiss your ass goodbye," it's pretty chilling at the same time, given the subject matter. Version three brings in a brass section and some more percussionists, resulting in 15 minutes of killer free jazz- imagine if the end of Radiohead's "The National Anthem" had more of a party atmosphere, and that's what it sounds like. And then version four is a remix of version two that really adds nothing. What's incredible is how YLT has created over a half hour's worth of engaging listening on this disc without so much as a single melody or traditionally "musical" bit of instrumentation (unless you count the screaming horns in version three). I'm not saying they've reinvented the wheel here or anything, but I am saying let's see your precious Starsailor do that! Just one more reason I think Yo La Tengo is probably the best band working today, and since this EP is only four dollars (less if you get an employee discount at Barnes & Noble), it's yet another great chance to follow a band who is willing to go anywhere on their musical... uh, traipsing. Can you tell how much I've run out of steam in the past few sentences? Grade: A-

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Summer Sun

Willie's comments: For the first time in their career, Yo La has made an album that doesn't sound remarkably different from their previous one. Just like And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, Summer Sun is about as mellow an album as one can imagine: more indie-pop than indie-rock, giving top billing to the bass and keyboards while relegating the guitar to a few cameo roles, Ira further blurring the line between singing and whispering on his tracks, etc. However, far from being a case of the Cement Mixer of Creative Block freezing the band in their tracks, Summer Sun's differences really are substantial- just so subtle that they take a few listens to sink in- and this is ultimately a stronger album than its predecessor. Though the album cover amusingly depicts a parka-clad Georgia, Ira, and James standing in the parking lot in front of a Christmas tree farm (these guys can be really funny when they want to be, to the point of namedropping Don Cheadle in "Moonrock Mambo"), there actually is something of a casual bonfire vibe to this record. "Winter A-Go-Go" and "How to Make a Baby Elephant Float," to name two, are playfully tentative flirtations with loungey funk that don't stray far from the band's usual hushed intimacy so much as spice the formula up a bit, and "Nothing But You and Me" goes even further, stitching a sultry R&B melody to a haunting, minimal backing of piano and bass that's more Philip Glass than Phil Spector. It's easily the darkest song on the album, but like everything else here, it's suffused with a mood of rock-geek benevolence that prevents it from becoming a downer at all, and then it's followed by "Season of the Shark," which is a pop song so tiny and comforting you'll want to walk around with it on your shoulder like a happy cockatiel. There's really not a single song on here that I don't love in its own way, and even if Summer Sun doesn't cheerfully yank you out onto the dance floor like, say, the New Pornographers, nor does it try to; it's just a genuinely friendly, modestly perky little record, and who doesn't need more of those? Grade: A

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Today is the Day EP

Willie's comments: Six songs. Two must-hears. Namely, "Needle of Death," which is a tear-jerking acoustic cover of Bert Jansch's eulogy to a heroin addict (the lyrics are admittedly overwrought, but when they're coming out of Georgia's mouth, the effect is so sad and consoling that it achieves the same grandeur as the best moments on R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction), and "Outsmartener," which is an ominous drone-rock number featuring one of the scariest and catchiest melodies these guys have ever written. Two interesting re-workings of previously released YLT songs: the long-awaited quiet version of Inside-Out's "Cherry Chapstick" and a squalling version of the title track, on which it's nice to hear Ira going buck-wild on his guitar again. And, finally, two fine other songs: fun surf-rock instrumental "Dr. Crash" and rocker "Styles of the Times," which is fairly unremarkable apart from the fact that it mentions The All-New Three's a Crowd. Fans will love it; YLT neophytes might be flummoxed. Grade: B+

V.O.T.E. (with Chris Stamey)

Willie's comments: SEE CHRIS STAMEY.

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Prisoners of Love: A Smattering of Scintillating Senescent Songs 1985-2003

Willie's comments: Unlike a lot of my critic colleagues, I'm a sucker for compilations, to the point of buying the-band-thus-far retrospectives like this one even though I already own all the albums, so long as I can be tempted with a rarity or two (or, in this case, a limited-edition three-disc version that contains a bonus disc of outtakes and B-sides and such). So you should probably take that into account before you rush out and buy this package, which collects 18 years' worth of YLT greatness: if you're a Yo La completist or thinking of becoming one as you should, you probably won't have much use for the two-disc version, because apart from four EP-only tracks (the essential "Shaker" and "Nuclear War (version 1)," as well as a nice version of "By the Time It Gets Dark" from the Little Honda EP and early single "The River of Water"), these are all available on the band's studio albums. As an introduction to the band, though, Prisoners of Love does an impeccable job of presenting a lot of their most accessible material while still showing off their range and the various stages of their career, drawing only the best songs from their pre-Matador years ("The Summer," "Drug Test," "Upside-Down," etc.) while making sure not to give away all the treats from their more solid recent work, letting some of the less representative- but nonetheless top-notch- tracks from Painful ("I Heard You Looking") and ICHTHBAO ("Stockholm Syndrome") say hello alongside singles like "Tom Courtenay" and "Sugarcube." For a band with as much stylistic depth and as many great albums as YLT, it's impossible to cover it all on one compilation, but if you need an excuse to get into them, this set not only makes for an enticing Cliffs Notes version of their discography, but even after you buy more of their albums, it'll serve as a superb mix CD you'll keep coming back to.

As for the bonus disc, there aren't really any surprises for the die-hard fan. Some covers (these guys really like covering Sun Ra and NRBQ, don't they?), some alternate takes of familiar songs (the best of which is a demo version of ICHTHBAO's "Green Arrow" that boasts a glistening track of E-Bow work that was found to be "unrecreatable" when it came time to properly record the tune), Kevin Shields's remix of "Autumn Sweater," witty liner notes by Ira, and a handful of minor originals. It's all fine, but only a couple songs are anything remarkable. So even if you're a fan, unless you really dig the compilation vibe like I do, you may not find the bonus disc sufficient incentive to pick this up. I personally consider it gravy. Grade for both versions: A-

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Yo La Tengo is Murdering the Classics

Willie's comments: This is a compilation of 30 songs from YLT's annual participation in fundraising drives for radio station WFMU: for a certain monetary donation, you can request any song in the entire world that's within FCC broadcast guidelines, and the band (joined by Bruce Bennett from The A-Bones on second guitar), will play- or at least attempt- an impromptu cover version. Sometimes it works (The Apprentice: Martha theme "Sweet Dreams (are Made of This)" bears little resemblance to the original, but is equally haunting thanks to Georgia's vocals and a keyboard drone), sometimes it don't (when the lyrics to Brian Eno's "Baby's on Fire" are forgotten, the whole thing just sort of sloppily crumbles until it stops), but everyone involved seems to be having a good time. Although Ira's tray card essay reads, "No returns. If one or more tracks on your copy doesn't play on your CD player, consider yourself fortunate," there's no reason not to smile as they stumble through X-Ray Spex's "Oh! Bondage, Up Yours," Bacharach's "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," or "The Hokey Pokey." What is oddly off-putting, though, is that there's very little about this release that's distinctively Yo La Tengoey; songs like the Nightmares' "Baseball Altamont," on which Bruce sings over a chord progression stolen from The Monkees, could be any bar band anywhere, but even those that sound like YLT homeruns on paper, such as NRBQ's "Captain Lou," are whimsical but forgettable, wandering through with enthusiastic yet unremarkable arrangements. It's fun once in awhile- particularly on a sunny road trip- but odds are you'll want to stick to Fakebook the rest of the time. Grade: B

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I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

Willie's comments: Though the confrontational album title is a sublimely funny joke, it does indeed herald the arrival of a more imposing record than we've heard from YLT in nearly a decade- Georgia's using sticks instead of brushes! The distortion pedals have been dusted off and plugged back in!- but it's hardly the obstacle course of feedback you might imagine. In some ways, it's a return to the expansive dynamics and exploration of the brilliant Painful/Electr-O-Pura/I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One trifecta, but Ass retains the neighborly accessibility of the past couple albums even through the killer two-note drone "The Room Got Heavy" and the silly R&B-based oddities "Watch Out For Me Ronnie" (a fusion of early R&B and punk reminiscent of the Detroit Cobras) and "Mr. Tough" (an upbeat exercise in falsetto swagger that you'll either find hilarious or grating; personally, I like it far better than Fakebook's "Emulsified"). The twin ten-minute-plus epics "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind" and "The Story of Yo La Tango" [sic] may further Ira's ongoing quest to wear his frets and fingers down to nubs, but the six-string explosions never overwhelm or dislocate the songs' melodic sweep: "Goodkind" is loopy psychedelicism at its noisy best, and "Tango" sustains one long, stirring build with the sort of focus that Sonic Youth would never dare attempt. (Fans of the latter song are implored to check out James's similarly grand "Daily Affirmation" on the Dump album A Grown-Ass Man.) Most of Ass's length is filled with even friendlier fare, though: the piano plays a lead role on both ballads like "I Feel Like Going Home" and pop boppers like "Beanbag Chair," and at various points, all three band members drop the whispers and murmurs and just sing, sing, sing! There's nary a band alive that can outrun a greased Yo La Tengo, and without a single wasted moment in 77 minutes, the thoroughly lovable Ass finds them at their greasiest. Grade: A

They Shoot, We Score

Willie's comments: This self-released compilation is a stylistically far-flung collection of otherwise unreleased instrumental cinematic music YLT contributed to the indie films Old Joy, Junebug, Game 6, and Shortbus, and makes a good case for the band's talent in scoring narratives just as they did undersea documentaries a few years back. Some of this material will be familiar to YLT fans: there's a frenzied distillation of I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One's "Spec Bebop," and many of the pieces from Junebug are pretty variations on that same album's "Green Arrow," but lest you think it's a collection of uninspired retreads, turn an ear to the hilarious bossa nova of "Wizard's Sleeve," the textbook Yo La drone cacophony of "Pharaoh Blues," or the oddly upstanding piano/clarinet duet "A Roomful of Ladies." Best of the bunch is the selection of songlets from Old Joy, on which Ira's heavily reverbed guitar manages to nail that film's vibe of thoughtful introspection. As with The Sounds of the Sounds of Science, They Shoot can't really be counted as essential the same way YLT's proper album work tends to be, but if you're a snooty grad student in need of some studying music, you won't be able to do any better. Grade: B+

SEE ALSO: DUMP

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: KIDS IN THE HALL: BRAIN CANDY SOUNDTRACK; EVERYTHING IS NICE; GIMME INDIE ROCK, VOL. 1; KINKS TRIBUTE ALBUM

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: THE 6THS; DANIEL JOHNSTON; TORTOISE; ANTIETAM

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT YO LA TENGO


Thom Yorke

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The Eraser

Willie's comments: I know it’s stupid to say, “Poor Thom Yorke,” for a million reasons. To do so will get you mocked for being taken in by his determinedly sulky persona despite the fact that he’s the frontman of arguably the most highly regarded band in the world, not to mention the fact that he commands a fanbase whose loyalty only grows the more hookless and canted his songwriting becomes. (I include myself in that fanbase.) Still, regardless of the creative freedom and popularity Radiohead affords him, there was no way Thom was going to be able to release a solo album that would be judged on its own merits. Discussion of The Eraser would inevitably be colored by backlash, anti-backlash, comparisons to Radiohead, speculation about discord within the band, irritation at the way Thom’s announcement of the project was mostly a defensive and pre-emptive rant against such speculation, paragraphs like this one commenting on the above phenomena, etc. So perhaps it might be more accurate to say, “Poor The Eraser,” because it seems a touch unfair to burden this relatively straightforward, lovable little record with all these lumbering expectations! (Particularly if you tend to anthropomorphize everything, including albums, the way I do.)

So let’s talk about The Eraser. It’s good! (That’ll be my blurb on the shrink-wrap of future pressings: “It’s good!” – Chris Willie Williams, The Disclaimer Music Review Archive.) It probably won’t appeal to anyone who’s not already a fan of Thom’s day job, since his songwriting remains distinctive in that expressive, bleak, Yorkeian way, but its mournful beauty is absorbing and intimate enough to keep it from seeming redundant. Radiohead without the bombast isn’t Radiohead, after all, in much the same way that Moe’s Tavern isn’t Moe’s Tavern without the dank. Even the most forceful songs here, like the apocalyptic drone “The Clock” and the, er, apocalyptic twitch-fest “And It Rained All Night,” retain personal touches like Yorke’s unadorned vocals and the decidedly unglossy sounds of guitars plugged directly into mixing boards.

On the other hand, although Thom and producer Nigel Godrich go easy on the special effects, the former has made no secret of his fondness for skittery, glitchy electronic music, and taking a solo detour has allowed him to indulge in the deceptively complex cut-and-paste programming of minimalist techno artists like Pole, To Rococo Rot, and Mum, though without getting as far-out into IDM weirdness as you might expect. (For those worried about the potential inaccessibility of Yorke without the dissenting voices of his bandmates, fear not: The Eraser is more cohesive and instantly gratifying than Radiohead’s Amnesiac.) He’s clearly having a lot of fun creating atmosphere, but the piles of fidgety percussion, samples of discarded Radiohead studio sessions, and synth washes don’t dislocate the melodies. Rather, on the best tracks (“Harrowdown Hill” and “Black Swan,” both of which approach danceability in their own way), they gel into memorable, Fun Size electro-rock that doesn’t aspire to anything “greater.” Which is pretty great in and of itself. Grade: A

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Spitting Feathers EP

Willie's comments: It's hard for anyone to muster enthusiasm for EPs, I understand- by the time you're absorbed, they're done- and I'm enough of a skinflint to generally wish that their songs had simply been appended to studio albums (particularly relatively short ones like The Eraser, whose outtakes are, in addition, thematic buddies of the tracks that made the cut). That said, Spitting Feathers is a nifty five-song surprise even by the odd standards this guy's solo album established. "The Drunkk Machine" electronically tithes to Remain in Light's Talking Heads, while "Jetstream" and "Iluvya" just skitter about as fast as they can, gabba-style, and the welcome extended mix of The Eraser's "Harrowdown Hill" calls attention to that album's most "important" song, about Ministry of Defense employee David Kelly, who was murdered because he questioned the official justification for Operation America Knows What's Best for Iraq. Paranoid wallflower "A Rat's Nest" is maybe the best song Yorke has had anything to do with since The Bends' "Street Spirit (Fade Out)," though. It's almost certainly the most tearfully, tunefully hopeless. Together, these five songs comprise a disc that anyone remotely partial to electronica should own, though they might be a smidge distant for anyone else. Grade: B+

SEE ALSO: RADIOHEAD

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT THOM YORKE


Neil Young

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After the Gold Rush

Willie's comments: There are those who think that Neil Young's singing voice- a yearning squawk that always sounds as though it's struggling to break free from the bonds of his larynx- is the most appalling thing in the world, tantamount to listening to your grandma sing on her deathbed, or Rosie Perez. I'm not saying those people are necessarily stupid, since I don't think anyone can fully give himself over to Young's high-pitched crooning without at least a brief period of acclimation, but if you count yourself among those people, I do feel you're cheating yourself out of the joy that is to be had in Neil's music. Once you grow to admire and love the emotion, elation, and pain that his craggy voice expresses, After the Gold Rush, his third album, becomes a startlingly pretty and moving listening experience. Upon first listen, it sounds as though these folk-rock numbers have suspiciously little going on in them: an acoustic guitar or piano line, Neil's voice, maybe a harmony vocal line, and some muted drums or bass, surrounded by planetariums full of empty space where most musicians would cram more guitars, more instruments, more, more, more! By presenting these songs with such a unique lack of production, though, Neil forces you to focus on the understated beauty of songs like the title track and "Birds," and his bittersweet lyrics that are as consoling as if Neil was sitting next to you in a bar, clapping his beefy Canadian arm around your shoulder and trying to cheer you up. (The heavyhanded "Southern Man" is something of an oddity here, albeit an infectious one- it's a virulent diatribe against good-ole-boy racism that's succored by the upbeat coda, "Till the Morning Comes.") After the Gold Rush isn't as ostentatiously brilliant as, say, my old standby OK Computer, but just because it's more subtle does not mean it's less satisfying*. Grade: A+

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Harvest

Willie's comments: Neil's next album finds him successfully trying to build upon the sparse folk of After the Gold Rush while still maintaining its intimacy. Subtle new touches like a steel guitar (the saddest-sounding instrument ever created) add a sense of wild-west yearning to the proceedings, and the plea for intergeneratonal understanding, "Old Man," manages to even make a banjo seem despondent. "Heart of Gold," "Out on the Weekend," and the title track (a magnificent bit of Hank Williams twang) never go overboard with the C&W influences; they're just folk-rockers that are country-curious. No, Neil goes overboard elsewhere on Harvest: on "A Man Needs a Maid" and "There's a World," two songs recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, and arranged (by Jack Nitzsche) in a manner that's about as tasteful and subtle as a Super Bowl halftime show directed by Baz Luhrmann. At this point, Neil was virtually incapable of writing a dull melody, but when those melodies are drowned out by timpani, flutes, strings, and clarinets, the experiment falls somewhere between laughable and annoying- particularly when the rest of the album is a paragon of knowing when to stop. Further confusing the album are "The Needle and the Damage Done," a beautiful live track that's repetitive but short, the generic country-blues of "Are You Ready for the Country?" and, finally, "Words/(Between the Lines of Age)," an actual rocker on which Neil makes his guitar yelp in amusing ways. Mind-twistingly jumbled though Harvest might be, this collision of Neil's many influences and musical paths is still both moving and fun, mostly. Grade: B+

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Sleeps with Angels

Willie's comments: As you may have noticed, I have a rather sizeable gap in my Neil Young collection, so we're going to jump ahead a couple decades to 1994, when Sleeps with Angels was released. Surprisingly, given all of Neil's vaunted stylistic antsiness, this album is mostly of a piece with After the Gold Rush. Neil has turned up his amps quite a bit, but all the elements that made that album great are still here: no discernible production (most of these songs sound like they were recorded live), melodies that slide through you in interesting ways, and Neil's endearing falsetto. This all lends a unique continuity to the album even though most of the songs don't sound much like each other- the title track achieves the sort of skronky brilliance that the Velvet Underground never quite attained, "My Heart" is a strange piano number that could've been torn from Gilbert and Sullivan's songbook, "Piece of Crap" is a ragingly funny slop-rocker, "Driveby" handles the topic of urban decay with disarming calm, etc. Granted, some of the songs on the second half of the album are redundant ("Train of Love," perplexingly, is "Western Hero" with different words, and the atonal, minimal blues of "Blue Eden" has no reason to be sandwiched between the brilliant, 14-minute "Change Your Mind" and the similarly minimal "Safeway Cart"), but that's no reason to shy away from one of the most fascinatingly restrained rock albums ever made. Grade: A-

READER COMMENTS:

LoadesC writes: I read in one of your reviews that you don't get time to listen to Neil Young. Well you HAVE to listen to the "despair" trilogy: Time fades away; Tonights the Night; On the Beach, just for starters. My ratings:

Everybody knows this is Nowhere A-; After the Goldrush A; Harvest B+; Time fades away A-; Tonights the Night A; On the Beach A; Zuma A; Comes a Time A-; Rust never Sleeps A-; Live Rust B; Hawks and Doves A-; Reactor B; Trans B+; Freedom B+; Ragged Glory A-; Weld A-; Harvest Moon A-; Sleeps with Angels A-; Mirror Ball B-.

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT NEIL YOUNG


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*Though OK Computer is still the best album ever made.