Thursday, February 26, 2009

Under-Appreciated Albums, Part 4: The '90s (Part 2)

My disclaimer from part one a few weeks ago still applies to this part two of my '90s under-appreciated albums. Here it is again in case you forgot:

I had a more difficult time trying to find albums from the '90s that are truly under-appreciated. While I did find a few a few that are straight up ignored, I think there are a bunch more that simply aren't loved enough. I think this might be because at some point in the late '90s, I began to develop better taste. I also got pretty good at researching what to listen to (thanks, Internet) and I think I have pretty good coverage of most of the good stuff that was released during the decade. The result of this is that there may be albums that are under-appreciated, but I just don't realize it. Like Deserter's Songs. Does everyone else think that's a classic? Probably, but maybe not. How about Ladies and Gentlemen...? Again, I don't really know. All of this is a preamble to say that these might seem pretty arbitrary to someone else because they're only really under-appreciated in my mind. Regardless, listen to them.

The Cardigans - Gran Turismo (1999)

The Cardigans first made waves in the US with 1996's "Lovefool." For awhile, "Lovefool" was inescapable (and not in a good way). Looking back now, it's a great little pop song, but back then, without knowing that the Cardigans are, in fact, awesome by any measure, it seemed like a one hit wonder by some band with a good gimmick (gimmick: a smoking hot lead singer). I remember thinking a few years later when I first heard "My Favourite Game" that it must be by some other, awesome, Cardigans and not the ones who had made "Lovefool." But whose lead singer sounded exactly the same as the one from the other, shitty, Cardigans? (I'm realizing now that they named the band after a type of sweater - that's kind of awesome). "My Favourite Game" eventually lodged itself in my head enough that I had to go buy the CD. A little Internetting unnecessarily confirmed that the two bands were indeed the same Cardigans, and that they still had the same good gimmick.

Gran Turismo is just great. I hate claiming to know what influenced certain bands at certain times, but it really seems like the Cardigans took some cues from Bjork, Portishead, and trip-hop and added a little sugar. I like to call Gran Turismo the first and only Tripbjorugarpophead album. It's generally very low key with parts almost ambient. Every now and then, there is some more rocking guitar (like the awesome end of "Hanging Around" and most of "My Favourite Game"). Besides the fact that it just sounds good, Gran Turismo is also an album that makes you go back and reconsider the Cardigans' past output. I love those kinds of albums that make you think, hmm, maybe what I thought was kind of bad was actually kind of good and I'm the jackass. I think this was the first album that affected me in that specific way. I honestly don't know how objectively good this album is, but it's one that I love and continually return to.

Massive Attack - Mezzanine (1998)

This one was at the top of plenty of year end lists and probably some decade end lists too, but people seem to be forgetting it as it fades into the past. I'm not going to write much about how great this album is because there's one perfect way to experience it: in the dark at 3 in the morning while you're a little drunk. It's the perfect combination of really, really good, completely fucking terrifying, and strangely beautiful. Everything about it is scary - the blown up picture of some insect on the cover that looks like something that exists in nature crossed with the Shrike, the decent into hell opener ("Angel"), the brooding bass, the whisper-rapping, and even the name Mezzanine implying some sort of nowhere. I think it's slowly being forgotten because it's the high point of a dead genre: trip-hop (sorry Maxinquaye), a genre that lived fast and died hard shortly after Mezzanine's release. I doesn't help that Massive Attack's recent albums have been sup-par, probably because Mushroom left the band in '99. If, somehow, you didn't love this album when it came out or dismissed it because you thought trip-hop was stupid, I implore you to put back about seven Busch Lights starting at about 11:30 tonight, turn off the lights, and listen. You might be different tomorrow.

Fiona Apple - When the Pawn... (1999)

Fiona Apple can be really hard to like: there's this 90-word title that has to be brought up every time someone mentions this album, her crazy "speeches" at various award shows, she dated David Blaine, and, actually that's it. Those are the only three reasons not to like her. Unfortunately, for a lot of people, those three reasons are enough to pass judgment not only on her as a person, but her excellent work. (Actually, come to think of it, dating David Blaine is a completely valid reason to hate anyone). While Tidal has the hits and Extraordinary Machine has the story, When the Pawn has everything. Apple's voice and words are as good as always, but the extra bonus here is that she is perfectly in sync with uber-producer Jon Brion. His varied and unexpected sounds match up perfectly with what Apple brings to the table - just listen to "Fast As You Can." It's a strange song for someone to release as the first single on a follow up to a Top 40 hit-laden album, but it works unquestionably. Brion and Apple take risks, but they come off so well that they don't seem like risks in retrospect.

I love each song on the album, but I think my favorite track is the closer "I Know." When I went to see her live in support of When the Pawn, she played "I Know" at the end of the set. The whole show was good, but there were no stage effects or anything, which makes sense. She probably wouldn't look right surrounded by fireworks and lasers. But for "I Know," she broke out the only lighting effect of the show: some strings of Christmas lights on her piano. They only lasted for that one song. The effect was stunning.

R.E.M. - Up (1998)

You might think I'm a huge R.E.M. fan because this is my second R.E.M. album on these lists. I am not. I like them fine, but they're not one of my favorites. Up, however, is one of my favorites. Bill Berry had left the band shortly before Up was recorded and his absence in the studio translates into a presence. In trying to replace Berry with drum machines, a session drummer here and there, and sometimes nothing, R.E.M. created a sound for an album that is distinctly different from anything they had created before or have created since. Having Nigel Godrich around also didn't hurt. I think I can understand why people might not have heard this album: it doesn't have a big hit (although "Walk Unafraid" and "Daysleeper" are obvious high points), and it came at a point in R.E.M.'s career when they were taken for granted by pretty much everyone. I also think I can understand why some R.E.M. fans don't consider it to be one of the band's best: because it's just so different. It's almost an R.E.M. album for non-R.E.M. fans. If you haven't heard it in a while, you might want to check it out. To me, it just gets better with time.

--Jim Powers

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

No. 5. Everyone Has One...Inappropriate Karaoke Songs

Karaoke bars. No matter how you feel about them, you will invariably find yourself at one listening to some homely middle aged Hoosier woman belting out “Magic Man” by Heart as she dreams of the Magic Man of her youth (who for all intents and purposes is Todd from Beavis & Butthead). But Karaoke bars aren’t all Hoosiers singing Heart, frat boys adding ‘fuck’s to Bonnie Tyler lyrics, and promiscuous revelers performing that David Allen Coe song. No, sometimes due to the wildly inappropriate song choice of a clueless performer or a mischievous asshole, a karaoke bar can be transformed into a theatre of the hilariously awkward and absurd.

Our question to you is this: what are the most inappropriate karaoke song choices that you can think of? It can be a mood killer (True story, I once heard someone do Live’s “Lightning Crashes” in front of a rowdy Friday night crowd. Nothing stops the party like a person singing about placentas falling to the floor); inappropriate due to circumstances (Prince’s “P Control” during an outing with co-workers); inappropriate due to location (Neil Young’s “Southern Man” at a Mobile, Alabama sports bar); or just inappropriate for karaoke (anything by Dream Theater).

Feel free to pick songs from real life experiences as well as hypotheticals. And lest we devolve into a discussion of merely the most offensive songs you can think off, try to stick to songs you might ostensibly find in a karaoke songlist. (i.e., no songs by bands fronted by Seth Putnam).

--Travis Newman

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Album Review: Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion

Animal Collective
Merriweather Post Pavilion
Rating: I have never met someone from Hoboken, New Jersey that I didn't want to immediately put in a headlock.

I read somewhere that if you wanted to start a fight within the community of slack-jawed alternative yokels that read the magazine No Depression, all you had to do was bring up Wilco’s 1999 album Summerteeth. Some of them loved it and embraced Chicago’s favorite sons' new sense of experimentation. The others hated it, and felt the St. Louis band had snubbed the alternative country scene. (A scene that Chuck Klosterman once accurately pointed out rested on the laurels of a bunch of musicians born in the late 1960s writing songs about their experiences during the Great Depression and their affinity for fine malt whiskey.) I really do think there were certain Wilco fans that were reluctant to sign off on such a dramatic shift of sound. But there was something else at play, too. Some fans just weren’t ready to share the band with the new fans roped in by Summerteeth.

The same sort of thing could be at play with Animal Collective’s eighth album Merriweather Post Pavilion (hereinafter, MPP). MPP has a slightly more generous sound than their prior records, and those that have never heard or bothered with Animal Collective might finally tune in and start to understand what all the fuss is about. Therefore, if I had to guess (and I base this on nothing, mind you, other than a hunch), I wouldn’t be surprised if there are certain Animal Collective fans who have been around since the Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished days that are lining up to hate, or at least slightly resent, MPP. Take the second track “My Girls.” It’s an incredible song with all the proper Animal Collective experimental ingredients along with the requisite nonsensical chorus (“I don't mean to seem like I care about material things like a social status/ I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls.”). Oh, and it’s catchy as hell. So catchy your mom might like it. And there’s nothing like a great melody and moms to piss off the original fan base.

The album starts off with “In the Flowers,” a showcase of dreamy pop that eventually navigates into a series of crashing drums and just a big mess of awesome noises and vocals. Oh, brother, I really like this song. That notwithstanding, if the melody from “In the Flowers” isn’t lifted directly from the underwater levels from Super Nintendo’s 1994 classic Donkey Kong Country, then I didn’t beat that game during a 37-hour Coca-Cola and Doritos induced barrage of button-pushing instincts unrivaled to this day. So move over Coldplay and Joe Satriani, we might have another lawsuit on our hands.

MPP was actually released in several forms right after the New Year, and that’s when we here at NQL initially planned to do something with the record. But after glowing reviews starting pouring in from every direction, we thought it would be better to take a step back, give it a month, and then take another look. The best way to determine an album’s worth is usually after the honeymoon is over. (I believe this last sentence to be true. But what I wrote before it is a complete lie. What actually happened was laziness set in and before we knew it the album had been out for well over a month and we hadn’t done anything. The delay was completely unplanned.)

I bring this up because the virtues of the album become nearly impossible to ignore after listening to track 7, “Taste.” It’s not the strongest track on MPP, but it’s the first time I allowed myself to come to grips with the fact that this is a pretty great record. It’s an admission that must be made when you’ve been listening to an album nearly non-stop for a month and can still breeze through the half-way point with no intention of changing the dial. And symbolism aside, it’s a pretty good song. At the 0:37 mark, a really weird noise serves as a springboard for another rather catchy melody. And yes, when I review an album, that’s as good of a musical description you will get from me: a really weird noise and a catchy melody. Robert Christgau I am not.

That’s not to say they are all winners on MPP. “Daily Routine” is a bit of a bore, and “No More Runnin” is so sleepy it nearly cured the headache I got from staring at the ridiculous album cover. But if they’re the worse MPP has to offer, you can go to sleep at night knowing you’re in good hands. You can also rest assured knowing they’re the only tracks that have any stench of filler. Most of the tracks so brazenly attempt to mix creativity with basic pop sensibilities, that at the very least, you have to applaud the effort. For example, “Lion in a Coma” and the last track, “Brother Sport,” are so worldly absurd they wouldn’t be out of place on the Jungle Book Soundtrack. And I mean that in the most endearing way possible because you’re probably going to love these two songs, while at the same time trying to comprehend what you're actually listening to. At least, that's what happened to me.

Just as these two songs, along with the aforementioned “My Girls,” will be inviting to people looking for room on the Animal Collective bandwagon, I suspect they are the same songs that could potentially persuade veteran Animal Collective fans to give up their existing seats. But the more I think about it, there’s a good chance I am wrong. Even with this record, Animal Collective is still not going to appeal to the Rhianna crowd, or to even a large segment of people who own Arcade Fire records. The fresh and funky pop still gives way to that sense of avant-garde-ism that has always dominated their sound. And if there are any old Animal Collective fans who do find MPP to be just a tad too welcoming to all the new faces now listening to the band, I’ll be happy to let them borrow my copy of A.M. to keep them busy until something more akin to their taste comes along. In fact, they can keep it. I insist.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Album Review: Morrissey - Years of Refusal

Years of Refusal
Rating: His best since Vauxhall and I.

Beginning with the 2004 comeback album Morrissey Holding a Tommy Gun (aka: You are the Quarry) and continuing with 2006's Morrissey Holding a Violin (aka: Ringleader of the Tormentors), Steven Patrick has put together a pretty good run of albums featuring covers of His Pompadourness holding something. Morrissey Holding a Baby (aka: Years of Refusal) is the clear high point of this recent run and his best effort in about 15 years. While his voice sounds as strong and clear as it always has, he sounds a little more growly and pissed off than usual. The opener "Something is Squeezing My Skull" sets more of a rocking, angry tone than his recent output, and that tone lingers throughout the album. The Tormentors (Morrissey's backing band) get to play around a little more this time, evidenced by the bit of fuzz guitar (or something) during "Mama Lay Softly on the Riverbed." They continue the trend of being an excellent band while not sounding at all like Johnny Marr & Co.

The album's high points come fast and furious (without the Tokyo drift). The first three tracks are excellent, I think the best on the album. The fourth track, "I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris" is a fine song, but unfortunately kills the momentum that the first three tracks so strongly establish. From there on, the songs are still very good (especially "All You Need Is Me" and "It's Not Your Birthday Anymore"), but only hint at an overarching theme. Perhaps this theme will reveal itself more fully after repeated listens, which will certainly occur. Overall, Years of Refusal is a very, very good album that was certainly hinted at in Quarry and Ringleader. I think the songs might even be better live when they are illustrated by Morrissey's posturing and mugging. I will see this spectacle at the end of March (for the first time). After finally hearing this album, I can't wait.

--Jim Powers

Sunday, February 15, 2009

“A Slow Day in the Music World” Presents….What a Show is Worth: An Exercise in Redunkulousness

I was rudely reminded of Ticketmaster's insidious takeover of the music industry early this morning when I got online to buy a ticket to see Delta Spirit at the Double Door. A ticket that advertised for an affordable eight dollars, amounted to $17 after that “convenience” and “processing” fee. Yes folks, the fees themselves cost more than the ticket.

If we are placing a dollar amount to imply a product’s worth, then are we saying that Ticketmaster handling our transaction is worth MORE than the show? I wonder how Delta Spirit would feel about that. Ticketmaster was also recently exposed jacking up ticket prices for a Springsteen show that was sold under one of their underlings, TicketNow. Why do we have to use a third party to purchase tickets? How about some good ol’ fashioned bartering? I give you a fish, you play me a song. And I’ll buy a beer to make it worthwhile for the house.

I assume in order for this to be a financially viable arrangement, the Double Door must be receiving some sort of kickback by handing over all ticket sales to Ticketmaster. I e-mailed the folks at the Double Door to see what their decisions were behind using Ticketmaster. It has been over 48 hours and I haven’t heard anything. Nothing like the old pass-by. (It was more an exercise in shaking my fist in indignation than really expecting I would get a response.) So to Ticketmaster and our friends at the Double Door: How about some transparency? I never thought I would long for those days where I lined up for hours outside in the cold waiting for the box office to open. (Nor can I believe I did that for Bush, Goo Goo Dolls and No Doubt).

Ticketmaster and the Double Door are the only ones I see who benefit from all the fees. That is, unless the artists get a cut of the fees, but somehow I doubt that is the case. So we're left with two organizations that get more money, an artist that is largely unaffected, and a reluctant concert-goer. Starting fifty online purchases ago, I swore each time it would be the last time that I buy anything via Ticketmaster. I still firmly believe that I will never buy a ticket from them but I keep on doing it. Anyway, the truth is that it would be hard to do anyway given Ticketmaster’s ever-widening sphere of influence, especially now that they have merged with Live Nation. They now oversee all ticket sales from here to Timbuktu and in no short time I’m sure they will be charging ‘convenience’ fees to use the bathrooms at your local high school musical.

I could not justify this purchase. I’m sure Ticketmaster felt really, really bad about it since it made absolutely no impact in their books. If Delta Spirit grows in popularity such that they need huge venues with ticket vendors in Times Square, then sure, add on the fees. For now, using a behemoth ticketing company for small time bands simply doesn’t seem right. If Ticketmaster aids in sales and helps Delta Spirit grow in popularity, we may have an honest debate. But for a night that is billed as “A Double Door Budget Buster Show,” does it really make sense to make the online price twice the face value? Gimme a break.

--Audrey Wen

Monday, February 9, 2009

Kanye, The Gaslight Anthem, and the Everlasting Importance of the Album

I was watching Saturday Night Live completely by default before the New Year and caught Kanye West performing the song “Love Lockdown” from his latest album 808’s & Heartbreaks. I was curious because I hadn’t heard the album (never been that big of a fan), but the buzz had been telling me that 808’s was staunchly different from anything West had previously done. As always, listen to the buzz. I completely stopped what I was doing (in this case, I wasn’t doing anything, which is why I was watching Saturday Night Live in the first place, but if I was, I would have stopped doing it) and just focused on the television. I was blown away. I couldn’t even figure out what genre of music I was supposed to be watching. Was this hip-hop? Electronic? Rock? I hadn’t the first damn clue, which is probably one of the reasons Kanye’s performance was so captivating.

At least, to me.

Ironically, someone who had never been that big of a fan was one of the few persons that actually liked what Kanye was trying to do. The mass public thought it was the worst musical performance on Saturday Night Live since Ashlee Simpson tried to pull a “Cyrano de Bergerac” on live television. (That reference actually works on two levels if you think of Simpson before her rhinoplasty escapades.) Maybe Kanye’s voice was a little flat (in an exchange of emails, Scott went as far as to call the performance “really bad and awkward”), I don’t know, I was too busy watching a performance that, by most standards, would be completely illogical for an artist in his prime. It was as if I finally understood and appreciated Kanye West’s career in one four-minute “really bad and awkward ” span. He takes risks and remains devoid of predictability. This is why his career is prone to mistakes, but never boredom. And I could just tell that “Love Lockdown” was a great song, and that 808’s was an album that I would soon own.

Take note of the word “album.” Even though “Love Lockdown” was still the only song I had heard (how up to this point I had missed out on “Robocop” is beyond me), I wanted the entire album. Handing over $0.99 to Steve Jobs for one song wasn’t going to get the job done. Sometime after 2009, the album was purchased and quickly solidified as a favorite. (Purchased might be a stretch. “Burned” is probably technically accurate. Hey, read the paper, times are tough.)

To that end, another album comes to mind. A few weeks ago Brian urged me to check out The ’59 Sound by The Gaslight Anthem. I procrastinated. For whatever reason, I’m awfully hesitant to listen to something when it comes in the form of a recommendation. Well, here’s a lesson: When you have friends with whom you share a somewhat analogous musical taste, and they recommend music based on what they think will be compatible with your musical profile, you should listen. Nine times out of 11 you’ll be happy that you did.

And as for The Gaslight Anthem, well I certainly couldn’t be happier. I started listening to The ’59 Sound about three days ago and have only stopped to sleep, go to work, and have a meal or two. It’s that fucking good. It’s Springsteen music for a generation of music listeners who would look at a picture of Steven Van Zandt and think “Silvio Dante” well before they would ever think "guitar player for the E-Street Band." About half-way through the first spin, I called my brother and told him I think I had discovered something he might want to check out. By the time the album was over, I was calling him back and leaving an impassioned voicemail demanding he get this record. I was sending out text messages, banging on neighbors' doors--anything to spread the wealth.

It’s a bit weird listening to The Gaslight Anthem. For all intents and purposes they’re about my age, and they play this sort of essentially-American rock music and sing about classic cars, roller-skates, and pinball machines. But it works. Oh, man, does it work. Somewhere Brandon Flowers is listening to The ’59 Sound and thinking to himself, “Oh, yeah, that’s what Sam’s Town was supposed to sound like.” Now, I’m one of the few that actually has a soft spot for Sam’s Town, but I don’t how see how even the biggest Killers apologist can’t concede that it slightly missed the mark. The ’59 Sound doesn’t. And I have now reached that point where I am actually trying to conjure up any semblance of will power I have to not listen to the record. I don’t want to ruin the buzz too soon. I don’t want to be listening to The ’59 Sound a month from now and just feel like I’m chasing the musical dragon. But so far, so good, and I have plenty of music lying around that will keep any side-effects of withdrawal from being too painful.

Both 808's & Heartbreaks and The '59 Sound came out in late 2008. And I’m focusing on a couple of late-2008 albums for two reasons. First, I want a mulligan, make that two, on my best-of 2008 album list. (Sorry MGMT,Hold Steady…you’re out.) Music is one of the few things where it’s generally not considered cool to be fashionably late. But I’m here to tell you it’s okay. I had never listened to Loveless by My Bloody Valentine until this past year and we all seemed to survive just fine, didn’t we? (Perhaps this will be the year I’ll get around to listening to that Slanted and Enchanted nonsense.) And did I just reveal that year-end lists are completely meaningless and selective at best? Yes. Yes, I did. But they’re fun, and their lack of relevance is news to no one.

Second, and most important, even in 2009, albums still mean something. Anyone can pay attention to a three minute single, but it takes discipline to spend time with an album. I have no idea what song owned the 2005 Grammy Awards, but I rue the day I ever forget what won Album of the Year. (Okay, bad example.) But my favorite albums would all be incomplete with even the worst track missing. The setup is as important as the climax. You wouldn't read just a couple of random chapters out of a great book, and you wouldn't buy OK Computer and only listen to "Karma Police." (Alright, maybe you would, but you shouldn't.)

Word is people aren’t really buying albums these days. Labels and musicians know it, and the whole idea seems to be slowly dying. Bands are now finding new ways to get their songs heard. Fine with me. But if ten years from now the only way I can listen to my favorite band is through singular form, or by watching a commercial from the Super Bowl, or having to buy the latest edition of Guitar Hero, then that’s going to really suck.

When recently being interviewed by Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune, Billy Corgan was asked if the Smashing Pumpkins were done making albums. He responded, “We’re done with that. There is no point. People don’t even listen to it all. They put it on their iPod, they drag over the two singles, and skip over the rest. The listening patterns have changed, so why are we killing ourselves to do albums, to create balance, and do the arty track to set up the single? It’s done.” Well, bravo to that kind of thinking, I guess, but I don’t think people were forced to listen to Cut the Crap by the Clash all the way through just because it happened to predate the iPod. No, they pointed the needle in the direction of “This Is England” and then went on about their day. So tell me how listening patterns have changed?

And if they have changed, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe iTunes has actually raised the standard for what people will now accept as an album. The consumer is now enabled to only pay for three songs if there are only three songs worthy of one's attention. With all due respect to Corgan (and I’m usually the only person this side of Hipsters United that argues he deserves any), if he wants a collection of songs to be treated as one big happy family, the solution is rather simple. Record 10-12 songs and prove they all belong. Kanye did it. So did The Gaslight Anthem. And somehow I doubt they will be the last to successfully conquer this "outdated" phenomenon. Put out a good album, and we will listen to it. Above example notwithstanding, we will even buy it. And although we might occasionally be late to the party, we'll get there eventually.


Thursday, February 5, 2009

Meet Me In the Dollar Bin

Music obsessives are well-versed in searching the dollar bin; their eyes attuned to scan the minute point size of CD-spine text and minuscule record-label logos--like a red-tailed hawk spotting a prairie dog from 500 feet. The dollar bin is wonderful and necessary, but let's be honest: the shit-to-gold ratio hovers somewhere around 50-to-1. But when you find that 1, it's like pulling a 24-carat nugget from amid a panful of schist and granite pebbles. You dance your jig and go home happy. In this new recurring NQL feature, we discuss and dissect those 24-carat nuggets. First up: Copper Blue, the overlooked 1992 debut from Bob Mould's excellent post-Hüsker Dü outfit, Sugar (and, coincidentally, a nice companion to Jim's latest opus).

Confession: I'm not really that into Hüsker Dü. As a music nerd, I know they're a band I'm supposed to like, I know they're influential and seminal and all that, and their chapter in Our Band Could Be Your Life was rad, but for whatever reason, they've never hooked me like so many of their SST brethren and underground/hardcore/noise-rock contemporaries. So I had no real stake in Sugar--a classic guitar-bass-drums power trio--but I had heard enough good about them to snatch up Copper Blue when I saw it on clearance.

"The Act We Act" kicks off the album innocuously enough, and as any great album should be kicked off: with power chords. But make no mistake, this is not a "nice" record. The first hint is Pixies rip/fetish-ballad "A Good Idea", a tune about a dude fake-drowning his girlfriend: "The air was thick with the smell of temptation," we learn, as "he held her down in the water"--and she fucking likes it: "I wanna feel you in the water with your hands on my head." Whatever gets you through the day, I guess. (I wonder if this is a documented paraphilia? But I'll save that discussion for my other blog.) "Hoover Dam" uses its titular edifice as a metaphor for the divide between sanity and insanity--the "center line / right between two states of mind"--and makes suicide sound quite intriguing. The song employs a snaky synth line which critics have called "a wry tribute to Sgt. Pepper's orchestral-pop grandeur." Agree, kind of, but I hear more cheese than irony/humor, yet the synth is effective nonetheless.

Another clear highlight jump-starts the album's back half. "If I Can't Change Your Mind", a power-pop sugar rush (Sugar rush?) which most children of the '90s will recognize for its indelible melody. Beneath that saccharine veneer, though, is a broken-hearted, pleading narrative of rejection and wasn't-meant-to-be resignation. The next track, "Fortune Teller", is a perfect slice of straight-ahead rock; I just wish that four-bar guitar figure around 2:10 would happen more than once. "Man on the Moon" is the album's most playful cut--with its stops and starts, nonsensical lyrics ("don't you know that space is the place"), and most excellent guitar/synth bridge--and closes things on a fun (or at least less serious) note.

My grievances with Copper Blue are few and minor: (1) The grunge/post-grunge production dates the album somewhat. (2) The geography of "Hoover Dam" is just plain wrong: the real Hoover Dam spans the Colorado River, not the Mississippi. This flub is not a matter of cadence because both "Colorado" and "Mississippi" have the same number of syllables (four), or composition because both rivers also empty into a gulf (California and Mexico, respectively), so the lyrics would hold up regardless. How do you sleep at night, Bob Mould? (3) A few of the songs--"A Good Idea", "Changes", "Helpless"--go on too long, simply repeating a phrase or the chorus ad nauseum during the fade-out, giving the impression that Mould just couldn't come up with a suitable compositional ending. But no matter. These quibbles, individually or in sum, are hardly enough to detract from an album as uniformly solid as Copper Blue.

For a bit more insight into Copper Blue, check out the Beaster EP. Recorded during the Copper Blue sessions (I like that..."Copper Blue sessions"...imparts an air of importance to these proceedings), Beaster is as advertised: gnarly, dense, and heavy; more self-flagellant and unforgiving than its companion LP; and revealing in terms Mould's pop savvy and skills as a self-editor. The six songs on Beaster, "Walking Away" excepted, would've been too much for Copper Blue, and constitute a strong enough statement on their own. Beaster bristles with intensity and howls with loathing and anger. "Judas Cradle", for instance, deals with dishonesty ("could you lie and mean it?'), and "Feeling Better" tackles the push and pull of an unhealthy relationship ("you pull me off the floor / I'm coming back for more"). By comparison, Copper Blue is sunny.

One note before closing: While most of my attention has been focused on Mould, a great deal of credit belongs to his bandmates, drummer Malcolm Travis and bassit David Barbe. If Sugar were a human being, Malcolm and Barbe would be the muscles to Mould's skeleton. Analogies are not my strong suit.

From the forgotten corners of the '80s to the forgotten corners of the '90s and beyond, Bob Mould has made a career of being under-recognized and under-rewarded. And while he achieved a modicum of commercial success with Sugar (Copper Blue almost went Gold and was the NME's album of year in '92), the project was short-lived, producing only two full lengths and an EP. Even today Mould's work still flies largely below radar, which is a crime, because he is a legend and Copper Blue is a classic that should be discussed alongside other great albums of its era.

--Brian Herrmann

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Under-Appreciated Albums, Part 3: The '90s (Part 1)

I had a more difficult time trying to find albums from the '90s that are truly under-appreciated. While I did find a few a few that are straight up ignored, I think there are a bunch more that simply aren't loved enough. Perhaps this is because at some point in the late '90s, I began to develop better taste. I also got pretty good at researching what to listen to (thanks, Internet) and I think I have pretty good coverage of most of the good stuff that was released during the decade. The result of this is that there may be albums that are under-appreciated, but I just don't realize it. Like Deserter's Songs. Does everyone else think that's a classic? Probably, but maybe not. How about Ladies and Gentlemen...? Again, I don't really know. All of this is a preamble to say that these might seem pretty arbitrary to someone else because they're only really under-appreciated in my mind. Regardless, listen to them.

Morrissey - Vauxhall and I (1994)

A couple years ago, I had finally become a little tired of listening to the Smiths. After going through a months-long phase that saw me completely wear out The Queen is Dead, Strangeways, Meat Is Murder, and, especially, Louder Than Bombs, I thought I was done with all things Morrissey for a while. I hesitated to move on to Morrissey and Johnny Marr's separate post-Smiths output because I thought that one probably couldn't work without the other, and I had heard that Morrissey's solo stuff was just kind of OK. I did my diligence anyway and finally decided that, if I was going to give solo Morrissey a shot, that shot would be taken with Vauxhall and I.

Holy shit this album is amazing. It is very much a Morrissey solo album - the focus is entirely on his voice and lyrics (with one exception that I'll discuss in a minute). The arrangements are elegant and smart and do their job of not detracting from the star of the show. "Now My Heart Is Full" is an album high point and a wonderful opener. It includes one of my favorite lines ever: "loafing oafs in all night chemists / loafing oafs in all night chemists." I think it's awesome that he just used the same line twice to fit the song and it somehow turned into some sort of rallying cry--I want to throw my fist in the air when I hear it. The album moves along with solid cuts like "Spring-Heeled Jim" and hits its second of three high points with "The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get," one of Morrissey's funnier songs with awesome lines like "I will be in the bar / with my head on the bar" and "Beware, I bear more grudges / than lonely high court judges." Usually, I hate funny songs, but this one is an exception. The third high point is one of my favorite single moments in all of popular music. "Speedway," the album's closer, starts out with a short vocal and a sound that could be an engine revving or a chainsaw. The song moves along building tension until about the 2:50 mark when the drums start to kind of act up and Morrissey starts talking about lies and guilt by implication and being true to "you." Then, the moment, the last fifteen seconds where those vicious drums never fail to make me shiver.

Not enough people love this album. I understand why it's not mentioned in the same breath as the Smiths' classic output: because it's not the Smiths. It is, however, incredible in its own regard and deserves to be appreciated by both those who ignore Morrissey's solo output because they only love the Smiths and those who ignore Morrissey's output because they hate the Smiths.

Rancid - ...And Out Come the Wolves (1995)

This is one of the few albums I've either discussed or will discuss in this series that I've loved since it was released. I guess I was a junior in high school when it came out. During that time, I had questionable taste in music. I had just discovered Oasis, which eventually lead to Radiohead, which eventually lead to everything else, but my CD collection was generally full of the kinds of music that a suburban preppy kid would have. It may or may not have included Hootie and the Blowfish (okay, it did, although I maintain that Fairweather Johnson actually holds up kind of well--shut up, Jim). One genre of music that I had absolutely nothing to do with was punk. I didn't like Green Day, I hadn't even heard of the Ramones, and I think I knew who the Sex Pistols were, but if I did it was only because of Johnny Rotten's sporadic and completely insane appearances on MTV. I don't really know why I bought ...And Out Come the Wolves. I think I maybe heard "Ruby Soho" on the radio or something and gambled on it at my local Sam Goody.

I don't think I can pick out the highlights because all the songs are the same amount of good. That amount is very. "Ruby Soho" was the first song that attracted me to the album, but since then I think each song has been my favorite at one time or another. I'm listening to it as I type and I think "Journey to the End" might be my favorite this time. Critics of this album charge that Rancid is trying too hard to sound like the Clash. While that may be true, it works well, along the same lines as Interpol trying to sound like Joy Division on Turn on the Bright Lights. Rancid certainly follows the Clash's blueprint, but ends up with an album all their own. Other critics charge that the album is a departure from Rancid's more hard core roots (as on their self-titled debut and its follow up, Let's Go). Again, this may be true. But what's different about ...And Out Come the Wolves is that, while most underground bands' attempts at the mainstream are either failures or are commercially successful but betray their original sound, Rancid's attempt is a smashing success. This is as much a pop album as a punk album, but not the slightest bit pop-punk.

The album is basically ignored by the new music press. I'm not sure why. I think because it falls through the cracks as an album that didn't completely break through commercially, but isn't under the radar enough for it to be considered underrated. That's a shame because this is a terrific album from top to bottom.

R.E.M. - New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)

I think this is R.E.M.'s best album. It doesn't have the historic and influential cache of Murmur and doesn't include a single track as beloved as "Losing My Religion," but I think it's the best. It's unfortunate that it was released right after Monster. I think, after that abomination, a lot of people gave up on R.E.M. and consider their career to have sort of ended with Automatic for the People. It's a mistake. Both this album and (spoiler alert) Up are excellent and don't get their just due.

New Adventures works on two levels. First, it simply has great songs. "So Fast, So Numb" and "Electrolyte" are among the band's best, and there are really no sub-par tracks. I think "E-Bow the Letter" might be my favorite R.E.M. song, especially the live version with Thom Yorke singing Patti Smith's part. "Leave" is also awesome--that siren sound that I guess was made with a guitar that lasts almost the entire song is disarming and tense. I love the bit where it goes away for a few seconds at the end only to come back for an encore. The second level where the album works is the concept, which is not hidden: this is a road trip album. It smacks you in the face when you first see the album art's shots of wilderness, presumably somewhere in the American West. In case you didn't get it there, the first track, "How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us" drives the point home. That the album was mostly recorded on the road during the band's 1995 tour serves to drive the point home further.

Going back through old reviews, I see that New Adventures was reasonably well reviewed when it came out and people were happy that it was reissued recently. But I don't remember seeing it on too many best of the '90s lists, and I certainly don't see it cited when R.E.M.'s best output is listed and discussed. I'm actually not sure how well-regarded this album is. But it's definitely not well-regarded enough.

Twelve Caesars - Youth Is Wasted on the Young (1998)

These Swedes*, now known as simply Caesars in the US, are best known for having a couple of songs in commercials. The first one is what initially drew me to them, "I'm Gonna Kick You Out," from, I think, a Smirnoff Ice commercial (I remember that it took place in a laundromat). The second is the more popular "Jerk it Out" from an iPod commercial and also about a million video games. I remember a friend of mine finding "I'm Gonna Kick You Out" somewhere on the Internet in '02 or so, and us being excited that the whole song was as good as what the snippet from the commercial promised. I think I then bought Youth is Wasted on the Young off of eBay because it was an import and pretty tricky to find (it was later re-released in the US in 2003 as 39 Minutes of Bliss). I immediately loved it because the garage sound fit in perfectly with the other stuff I (and everyone else) was listening to: the Strokes, the White Stripes, the Hives, etc. The songs are great--the record is full of catchy songs that combine new garage and the Kinks. But what makes this album so impressive is when it originally came out: fucking 1998, three full years before the new garage explosion.

Listening to the album now, it's still great, but it's pretty unremarkable when compared to the other bands that were popular in 2001-02. The difference is that no one name checks this record in the same breath as those other ones (Is This It, White Blood Cells, Veni Vidi Vicious, etc.). And I guess they probably shouldn't. They should name check it as a predecessor to those records and an ahead-of-its-time classic. If this album had been released in 2001, it would be a fixture in most good record collections.

*That's a good band name.

--Jim Powers

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Virgins, Lizzy Trullie, Anya Marina--Schubas, Chicago, Illinois


This was the sense I repeatedly had throughout the night on Thursday evening when I visited the neighborly Schuba’s to see The Virgins, Lizzy Trullie, and Anya Marina. Everything seemed almost really, really good.

Actually, the opener, Anya Marina was the least guilty of this “almostness.” It was a cold night in Chicago, and her bright stage presence and golden hair warmed up the room as soon as she took to the stage. She is a DJ by profession, so she was never at a loss of words and was not afraid to tell a lengthy-but-worth-it story about her experiences in getting cups of hot water from gas stations in the south. She is supporting her new album Slow & Steady Seduction: Phase II which boast producers Louis XIV guitarist Brian Karscig and Spoon’s Britt Daniel. She played her songs either solo with guitar (an amazing Gibson acoustic and a beautiful Gibson hollow-body) or backed by some nice driving, sparse, non-bubbly programmed beats. She played “Move On” from her new album, and it was one of the night’s highlights. She seemed at her most comfortable all night in this song. The only reason that Anya fell into the “almost” category that the other two bands truly earned is that while she seemed completely at ease while talking on stage, she seemed a little less certain about playing her guitar and singing. It sounded really good, but she was distracted by looking down to make certain that all of her guitar chord changes. Of course, we want the chords to be right, but we also want the singer to be there with us. Anya delivered what we (my wife and I) thought was the most “delightful” music of the night. My wife had a large smile on her face the whole time, which means she is enjoying the music but also enjoying the person.

The crowd enjoyed her music as well, but really came alive when Anya did a fantastically adapted cover of T.I.’s “You Can Have Whatever You Like.” Now, I am already a fan of this song on its own merit. But Anya did not just go the easy party style route, but instead, went with a slower, heartfelt mood that suited the songs chord structure. Well done, Anya. Just look up at us so we can see your beautiful face and see your personality while you are singing, as well as entertaining us in between songs and you will be quickly rise above the aforementioned almostness.

Lizzy Trullie and her band were next up. Their whole set seemed almost good. At the beginning of the set, Lizzy said her dad was a teacher at Northwestern and was in the audience this evening. Could this be the reason that she never seemed to depart into the music? Nervous because dad was watching to see what all this rock and roll nonsense she had been wasting her time on was all about? Their first song, “Boy Boy” opened well, and “With You” was strong, but then the rest just kinda chugged along. Their music sounds like a Velvet Undergroundy and a 70’s New Yorky style. Three or four chords, simple, subtle, rocking slowly. I kept thinking that perhaps this would sound better on an album with the vocals given the space and front stage they need. But because of the style music, I bet if I heard it on an album, I would think, “I bet this is amazing in concert.” This does not bode well. Indeed, I did listen to her recorded stuff post concert and enjoyed it. I think Lissy’s lack of ability to let go into the music on this particular evening was the thing that kept it from popping into place. She sings in a way that it is more rhythmic than melodic, so without feeling like she was there, it was hard for me to be there with her. To close, the band came together with a different sound for a great cover of Hot Chip’s "Ready for the Floor" and mopped said floor with it. Over all, we’ll blame Dad on this one. Lizzy did not seem to be her same “bad ass” self this evening. Maybe she was just fueling up on parental rebellion angst that evening to get her through the rest of the tour.

So then the Virgins come out. Yes. They “almost” sounded like The Strokes. This is obviously the easy, but true comparison. Much of Donald Cumming’s phasing and inflection is very akin to Julian Casablancas, so that fact must go up front. The rest he seemed to have lifted from Mick Jagger and an '80s band I can’t quite place. The band, however, pulls a bit more funk and disco into the mix. Cumming’s was having a good time on stage prancing around. However, I did get the feel that there was a little burnout in the air. “What town are we in?” The band was into amusing themselves as they played. They almost delivered.

They were loud, rambunctious, and high energy, yet it didn’t quite work. They played through their hits. The crowd enjoyed. They closed with a cover of INXS’s "The Devil Inside." Now, I had already had grown a bit weary of Cumming’s over-pronunciation during the course of the evening. Words like “really” were pronounced “ree-ah-lee-uh.” So when he went into the never ending repeating of “The devil inside, the devil inside, every single one of us, the devil inside” at the end of the song, I grabbed my coat. (Incidentally, one realizes the genius of Michael Hutchence when hearing someone else sing that song.) The band was ripping it to shreds though. Big ending! The occurrence following summed up their set. The band after slamming the last chord said, “Thank you. Good night,” and abruptly left the stage. The house lights came up to half. Everyone turned and started looking for their coat. Conversations were mounted concerning the rest of the evening. Hugs were given and people started making their way toward the door. Then the band walked back out on stage. “We are gonna play a few more songs for y’all. I hope that is alright!” The folks in the front jumped up and down. The folks that were already wearing their coats kept their inertia away from the band, and the remainder of the show was played for a half house (which did not include me).

Were we supposed to cheer for an encore? Did we miss our cue? Were we guilty of breaking rock show etiquette? I think not. It seemed most people had had a good time, had gotten their fix of the catchy pop rock they came to hear, and decided getting home 30 minutes earlier than planned sounded better than 30 more minutes with the Virgins.

--Scott Rudolph

Photos by Scott Rudolph.
eXTReMe Tracker