Six Tracks From Amazon MP3

I don’t even know why I have these, but I can tell they’re from Amazon MP3..  I guess they were giving away free tracks in September?  Probably, since most of these lie somewhere between suck and has-some-decent-attributes.

  1. Wye Oak: “Holy Holy” – Is it supposed to sound like that?  I can’t handle it.  Ditch, because of the sound.  It’s a good song, otherwise.
  2. Eleanor Friedberger: “Last Summer” – Pretty good groove.  But standard Sheryl Crow-y jangle vibe.  After the first minute or so it’s not all that compelling.  I’ll give this the benefit of the doubt with a like.
  3. Nikki Jean: “Steel And Feathers (Don’t Ever)” – A slow n’ easy vibe.  She’s from St. Paul, so there’s Fat Clown cred right there.  Breathy vocals, slide guitar, could work on AAA or Country radio.  Because she’s doing instrument-heavy pop and she’s light-skinned black (I think) I want to make an Alicia Keys comparison, but it’s not really there.  Like.
  4. Katy B: “Broken Record (Jacques Greene Remix)” – Like.  Dancey trancey kinda thing that’s quite sparse and cold instrumentally contrasting with her warm but kinda weak voice.  Some good parts, but it’s not really close to being kept.
  5. Nick 13: “Carry My Body Down” – Country-ish.  Slide and steel guits.  Inoffensive.  Enjoyable enough, but pretty boilerplate.  Like.
  6. Ziggy Marley: “Africa Land” – I shouldn’t be allowed to grade world music.  The song is fine, synth-heavy moombahton, or what I think moombahton sounds like based on what I’ve heard of it.  But the lyrics…it’s just really hard for me to be optimistic about “united Africa” songs given the continent’s history. And to just name regions seems very pedestrian: “North Africa/West Africa/Central Afica/East Africa/South Africa/Oh beautiful Africa Land.”  I hate being cynical, but this really sets of my naivete alarms.  Like.

James Blake: James Blake

Why don’t you call me what we both know I am
– “Why Don’t You Call Me?”

An album that was on seemingly every best-of-2011 list, something on it once caught my ear on shuffle, so it ended up in my to-review queue.  I didn’t get much more out of it than that; it’s still just kind of ear-catchy, not something I really want to spend a lot of time with. That’s not, however, due to a lack of depth.  Quite the contrary, this is an exceptionally rich album in terms of timbre, rhythms, and bloopy-bleepy song construction.

This album is simultaneously really good at setting a mood as background music and being really interesting to listen to attentively.  It’s just that it’s not really something to listen to when you’re doing the things I do when I listen to music, which right now is basically walking, driving, and working.  Rather, this is more coming-down-from-a-rave-at-6 AM music, where your head is able to simultaneously be in the place of paying super close attention but also only being able to treat everything as a background event.  You need to kind of sneak up on this music, and I think chemicals might be able to help with that.  This would also really work as a movie score.

Before I’d heard this album I don’t think I could have imagined music that sounded quite like this: so layered, dense, unconventional, tricky, and complex yet at the same time immediately accessible and super laid back.  And then beyond that, it’s also executed perfectly.  And for all that, I really want to rate it highly.  But as far as being enjoyable, it’s more of an intellectual and curiosity-piquing enjoyment rather than a visceral or pleasant feeling.  My gut says this is three clowns, but my inner critic’s inner critic says at least four.  I can’t find a rating I don’t have reservations about, so let’s just go with 3.5 clowns and move on to the next thing to review.

Rating:
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Keep: “Unluck,” “The Wilhelm Scream,” “To Care (Like You),” “Why Don’t You Call Me?,” “I Mind”
Like:
“I Never Learnt To Share,” “Lindisfarne II,” “Limit To Your Love,” “Give Me My Month,” “Measurements”

Track Notes:

  1. Unluck – quiet, with some muffled explosion sounds.
  2. The Wilhelm Scream – the hit.
  3. I Never Learnt To Share – “My brother and my sister/Don’t speak to me/But I don’t blame them.”  This is so compelling at first, but it really doesn’t stand up to repeat listenings, it really gets annoying.  The climax with about 70-80 seconds left is amazing.  This song is so maddening because the last half, or at least the last 90 seconds, is flipping incredible.  But it’s torture to get through the “brother and sister” part at the beginning.  Like.
  4. Lindisfarne I -incredibly sparse.
  5. Lindisfarne II – Flows right into this out of last one.
  6. Limit To Your Love – This may have been the one that caught my ear that has me listening to this now.
  7. Give Me My Month –
  8. To Care (Like You) – Has some great parts, but the title part is filthy disturbing.  Takes a while to get going, but once it does it’s pretty sweet.
  9. Why Don’t You Call Me? – Really like this.  At least the start.  It’s only like 90 seconds, though.
  10. I Mind – Very dense.
  11. Measurements – Kinda languid, you really have to be in the right mood for this.  Like is a stretch here, but okay.  Also bizarre in that it doesn’t resolve, ends on the dominant or something, just ends, very unsettling.

SPIN’s September (2011) Playlist

Not sure how I ended up with this SPIN playlist but no other SPIN playlists.  I mean, I’m assuming it’s a monthly thing.  It was probably a Largehearted Boy link or something.  However it was, I have to say this doesn’t make me want to listen to any more of these SPIN playlists no matter how free they are.  There’s two absolutely shite songs and a decent amount of mediocrity after that, too.  But, in fairness to the other artists, I may have rushed past them more quickly in my effort to never ever listen to the Prurient or Sun Araw tracks again.

  1. Twin Shadow: “Castles In The Snow” – Cool sounds.  Pretty sweet.  Rich, fat synth track, laid back, with a slow but kicking beat.  Maybe a touch too repetitive, but it’s not even three minutes, so how bad could it be.  Might have been just like in the context of the whole album, but this gets promoted to keep to keep an artist I might potentially be really interested in top of mind.
  2. EMA: “Milkman” – Another one that seems to intentionally sound really bad.  I guess I’m just old.  Talk about all subtlety being lost.  This is the loudness wars brought to a ridiculous conclusion…or just a continuation.  Holy ass this sounds bad.  Breathy, “tortured” vocals over a pretty dull beat in the A sections.  Mixes up to some cool rhythms in the B sections, but those sound the worst.  I guess I can let this get away with being like, but I’m assuming the sound quality is intentional to give it that rating.
  3. Male Bonding: “Bones” – Way too compressed, but not a bad song.  Fast-ish guitar rock, which really stands out on this playlist.  But that compression makes it sound more synth-y.  Which is weird…I mean, either be a guitar band or a synth band, but why try to be both by sounding bad?  Nice how the A and B sections contrast so much despite the basic guitar and drums tracks being the same.  Would have been keep, but the sound takes it down to like.  Plus it’s too long.
  4. Thundercat: “Daylight” – Sounds pretty sweet.  Very fun.  Short and sweet…they make their cool sounds and get out of the way before you realize the songwriting’s limited.  Not a ton of energy, they do a loungy jazz thing complete with that style of vocal harmonies.  It works.  Synth sound is a very quickly decaying, round 80’s sound.  Gets mixed for being so playful.
  5. Pictureplane: “Post Physical” – One of the better ones here.  Which isn’t saying much, but this is pretty good.  So flipping cheese with that worst-of-the-80’s synths sound, but still kinda good.  A really unique sound, but it gets a little old after a while.  Like.
  6. Prurient: “Let’s Make A Slave” – These lyrics are so stupid.  “Give birth to something dead/Give birth to something cold/Give life to those who hate you.”  And they’re just whisper-chanted.  I hope this guy is 16, because that’s the only explanation for such trite faux-darkness.  So obviously influenced by Nine Inch Nails.  Ditch.
  7. Sun Araw: “Crete” – 9.5 minutes and it never goes anywhere.  This is the worst song I have ever heard.  I never want to hear it again.  Ditch.
  8. Jacuzzi Boys: “Cool Vapors” – Standard indie pop-punk with an emphasis on pop (like Ramones crossed with Teenage Fanclub) fare.  Good enough, but it’s not blowing me away or breaking any new ground.  Choruses push it toward keep, but the verses are too whiny.  Like.
  9. Milagres: “Here To Stay” – Some cool sounds, not a great song.  Starts off with a nice propulsive rhythm in keys but before too long ends up languishing with a too-slow vocal track.  Does he say the birds are singing in the key of H?  And, if so, does he know German composers in the 18th century sometimes referred to B natural as H?  Like.
  10. The War On Drugs: “Come To The City” – Bob Dylan vocal quality and lyrics but with more held notes (and even a Springsteen “whoo hoo” right off of Nebraska with that reverb and everything) over a very lush synth track.  Compressed way too much, sounds like ass, but it’s a darned good song.  Keep.

Three Starbucks Tracks

Here are three more songs I picked up on those cards in Starbucks.

  1. Liam Finn + Eliza Jane: “Honest Face” – Kinda sounds like ass, but it’s kind of an okay song.  It’s in the vein of that standard adult alternative inoffensive but somewhat fresh sounding rock that so many of these Starbucks songs are.  The same line in the chorus gets repeated way too much.  Do you think Liam Finn is a partnership between Liam Neeson and Neil Finn?  Because that’s the only thing I can think of.  There’s a lot of silence at the end followed by sounds of traffic, which doesn’t seem to make any sense here.  It has some good parts that make it a like, but combined with the shoddy sound it gets ditched.
  2. Daniel Isaiah: “High Twilight” – Slow.  It sounds just like Wye Oak’s “Civilian” at the beginning.  And then it’s not as good as that.  Very standard moody singer-songwriter stuff with like three guitars, including a spooky slide thing.  Has an okay feel, but pretty weak on the songwriting front.  Nice harmonic movement in parts, but that’s about it.  Also yawn.  Ditch.
  3. Little Dragon: “Ritual Union” – Loves the fat, clean bass line.  Super catchy pop, but the songwriting needs a boost: it never seems to get out of the gear it starts in.  Fantastic sounds, cool rhythm.  I was actually surprised to see this on so few year-end lists given how ubiquitous it was for a few weeks in the fall.  Somehow I ended up with like three or four copies.  Mix.

Van Halen: Van Halen

Nothing says 1978 debut album like that cover, does it?

It is impossible to review this album as if you don’t know what happened afterwards.  And I’m not even talking about this lineup releasing five more albums worth of hits then doing the Sammy Hagar thing and all that.  What I’m saying is that it’s impossible to review this album without acknowledging the next 12 or 13 years of hard rock guitar bands. I mean, it’s all here, the arena-ready choruses, the pillaging of the blues and classic rock (in this case mostly the latter) pumped up to new speeds and volumes, the oversexed, fun-loving flashpottiness, and, of course, the wanky guitar solo.  This album was 10 years ahead of its time.  Either that or 1988 was 10 years behind its time.

The other aspect of this album that makes it impossible to review normally is that it’s like listening to classic rock radio.  Because so many of these songs are still played ad nauseum on classic rock radio.  I had no idea how many standards they put on this album alone: “Runnin’ With The Devil,” “You Really Got Me,” “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love,” “Jamie’s Cryin’,” and “Feel Your Love Tonight.”  That’s five out of eleven tracks.  (And note that there’s three explicitly dropped G’s in that list.  Three!  These guys really wanted the orthography of their song titles to match their pronunciation.)  So, while I think the album sounds more like a collection of singles than a cohesive whole, that may be due to the fact that, for me, born in 1974, this is a collection of singles.

So I can’t really say a whole lot about what this album is because it would be like classic rock radio itself.  And it’s really hard to untangle my feelings about classic rock radio from this album.  So many of these songs are catchy but have been overplayed so much that they drive me crazy in parts.  Does “Jamie’s Cryin'” get kept for its bridge or knocked down to like for its whiny chorus?  How about the triple-apostrophed “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love?”  Can I get past the fist-banging chorus enough to keep it?  Or does “I’m The One” get credit for its spastic insertion of doo-wop and the successive climax, or is its more dominant characteristic the way everything before that part is a too-fast throwaway quasi-punk misfire?

That list goes on, and all the answers are revealed below (he writes before knowing the answers himself).  But I can also point out a few surprises from this album.  First, the deep cuts are the best.  “Atomic Punk” is the perfect prototype of a hard rock/punk fusion that should have taken a country of mes by storm, but never came to fruition because I’m kind of like the most musically sophisticated person ever.  “Little Dreamer” is, I believe, one of the band’s most popular songs among devoted fans, and for good reason…it should dominate rock radio the way so much of this album does.  Rounding out the pleasant surprises, I didn’t realize just how ridiculously acrobatic David Lee Roth’s voice was.  From opener “Runnin’ With The Devil” through closer “On Fire,” Roth jumps octaves, bellows, and howls, setting a prototype for 80’s metal vocalists like Ronnie James Dio and Geoff Tate.  Turns out, though, that the style’s way more fun when tossed off with a semblance of effortlessness and a flirty, ironic wink than it is when done sincerely singing about orcs and wizards.

There were some less positive surprises, too.  I didn’t know the band did so many covers.  That’s not particular to this album, but rather something I picked up yesterday on Wikipedia.  But even here you’ve got The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” of course, and then an old blues tune “Ice Cream Man,” that lit the way for the less honestly attributed blues-plundering of the likes of Aerosmith, Cinderella, Great White, and more of the 80’s hard rock ilk.

The covers thing is neutral, but there was at least one really negative surprise, too.  I never really realized just how wanky Eddie Van Halen could be on guitar.  I guess I’d always just compared him to people like Steve Vai (who I kind of like) and Yngwie Malmsteen (who I definitely don’t), and in that light Van Halen is the master of songful integation…but good God, there are times when you wonder if he’s listening to anybody but himself.  The most obvious of these is, of course, “Eruption,” one of the most famous guitar solos in all of rock.  It gets a like for its first 50 and last 25 seconds, but that start of the second half of the track is insufferable.

It’s really kind of amazing the partnership between the effervescent Roth and the showy Van Halen lasted as long as it did.  Based on their styles, I can’t believe they ever could have liked each other enough to have a beer together.  And maybe they didn’t.  But I guess if you want to be a rock star bad enough, you can align yourself with a talented prick partner and grit your teeth long enough to make it.  (I think) I’m (mostly) glad they did.  This album seems to give itself away right away, but I keep finding more in it with additional listens.  If I could separate it from being sandwiched between Kansas and Journey and creating Yngwie Malmsteen, or if I could pretend I was a 14-year-old in 1978 whose older brother got him this album for Chrstmas, I may be able to pop this up to four clowns even.  I want to, I just can’t.

Rating:
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Mix:
“Atomic Punk”
Keep:
“Runnin’ With The Devil,” “You Really Got Me,” “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” “Little Dreamer,” “On Fire”
Like:
“Eruption,” “I’m The One,” “Jamie’s Cryin’,” “Feel Your Love Tonight,” “Ice Cream Man

Track Notes:

  1. Runnin’ With The Devil – His vocals are just a parody of themselves.  But I love them. Not sure hi-hat hits ever sounded so huge.
  2. Eruption – This is well done and all that, but there’s no song here.  It’s just pyrotechnics.  And it’s to blame for all the tuneless guitar wanking I’ve ever had to sit through at rock shows.  Maybe I’d have liked it back in the day, but it’s just impossible to separate from its legacy now.
  3. You Really Got Me – The Kinks cover, natch.  I love how it always seems like they’re about to veer out of control.  Rock and roll on the edge.  This is really probably more of a like but I have to keep it because what is this album without this song?
  4. Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love – Again, it’s amazing how many of these I know.  Is he saying “you’re semi-good looking”?  This is quite a strut.  And at such a good clip…probably the fastest strut song ever.  Take out the shouted title part and this might be mix.  It’s a tough thing to overlook, but it’s quite a well-crafted gem.
  5. I’m The One – Throwaway?  More wanky guitar stuff at the top.  But the song is also growing on me quite a bit.
  6. Jamie’s Cryin’ – I love the classic rock harmonies at “one night stands.”
  7. Atomic Punk – Not expected at all, but it totally works.  This would go on to influence a completely different type of band than you normally think of as being influenced by Van Halen.  I like how they go all Stooges “Search & Destroy” and Springsteen “Backstreets” in the lyrics while still having such a good time with it.  It’s just so different from so much of what they’ve done.
  8. Feel Your Love Tonight – It’s amazing how many songs on this album I know.
  9. Little Dreamer – Like it on first listen, but I don’t think I know this one.
  10. Ice Cream Man – “All my flavors are guaranteed to satisfy.”  Yep, I even know this one, a cover of a track by an old bluesman.  (Is there any other type of bluesman?)  This might be the definition of like.
  11. On Fire – God who does that scream remind me of?  Is it Geoff Tate?  Ronnie James Dio?  I never realized how much metal vocalists owed to DLR’s upper range theatrics.  Not even like so much, but has parts I like.  Eh, it’s growing on me.  I might even keep this.  And if I do then the album as a whole has a real chance to go up to 3.5 clowns.

Alice In Chains: Black Gives Way To Blue

Alice In Chains last released a studio album in 1995.  They released live albums in 1996 and 2000.  Lead vocalist Layne Staley died in 2002.  Yet here they are in 2009 with a new album and a new vocalist William DuVall.  The obvious move for Jerry Cantrell, of course, would have been to have started a new band with a new name.  Not doing that opens him up to criticisms of exploitation.  But, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, this feels like a continuation…and kind of even the right continuation of the band.

As a whole, this album is more in line with their weakest prior album, their 1995 self-titled release, with a more mellow, less hard-hitting vibe.  The angst-sharpened edge from Dirt is still gone.  And, despite Dirt being what the band will forever be known for, that’s not a bad thing.  I mean, you can’t keep making an excessively angry record.  It’s exhausting for the band and for the fans.  Everybody experiences anger, and for some of us it’s even kind of a default reaction to even slight setbacks, but to endlessly dwell in it is something that should best be generally avoided.

While this, at first blush, seems more like Alice In Chains than anything else, when dissected you hear references, quotes almost, to Dirt and Jar Of Flies.  “Your Decision” would have fit right in on Jar Of Flies, as would have “Lesson Learned,” though in the latter case it would have been far and away the best track on that EP.  Dirt‘s “Down In A Hole” re-appears on “Private Hell,” which also seems to hint at that album’s “Rooster.”

Staley’s death was remarkable for being so simultaneously tragic and predictable.  Found dead in his apartment from an overdose after having been dead for days, one of the world’s biggest rock stars, who sung endlessly about the wonders and horrors of heroin, died alone in the University District of Seattle, his last several human contacts undoubtedly with his dealers.  It felt as empty and pointless as his lyrics told us it would be.  How it couldn’t be helped is mind-numbingly depressing.

Anyway…sigh…this all seems to be referenced on “Your Decision” and “Black Gives Way To Blue,” the album closer that doesn’t close because it doesn’t resolve, just leaving you to float away into silence.  The album opener, “All Secrets Known,” chuggily builds in pure Alice In Chains style and seems to directly reference the public perception predicament the band has created for themselves.  DuVall sounds quite a bit like Staley on the first two tracks before going to a a cleaner vocal style on the next two.  I’m not sure newcomers to the band would want to start here, but for fans who have been along for the ride since Facelift, it all works as an honest melding of past, present, and potential.

I’ve had more trouble settling on a rating for this album than I have in a long time.  A 3.5-clown rating usually means there’s some very strong points that are held back by some failures.  But a three-clown rating usually signifies a positive-but-muted reaction.  This is different.  Sure, there are a few weak points, most notably “When The Sun Rose Again,” and there are times when good songs go on too long (“Private Hell,” “Acid Bubble”).  But for the most part this is just plain solid.  Good songwriting, good performances, good soloing.  At times very good, at times a bit weak, but the standard deviation on quality is remarkably narrow.  So maybe I’m giving them a low-expectations and/or your-lead-singer-did handicap here, or maybe I’m just finding it hard to keep ragging on the heroes of my adolescence.  But this is significantly better than anything they’ve done since Dirt and it’s pretty darned good.

So there you go, 3.5 clowns.  It seems Layne Staley’s purpose was to make Facelift, Sap, and Dirt, but Jerry Cantrell has more to do.  This is one snapshot of him working on that.

Rating:
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Keep: “All Secrets Known,” “Check My Brain,” “Last Of My Kind,” “Lesson Learned,” “Take Her Out”
Like:
“Your Decision,” “A Looking In View,” “When The Sun Rose Again,” “Acid Bubble,” “Private Hell,” “Black Gives Way To Blue”

Notes:

  • Given that the Loudness Wars are referenced on this album’s Wikipedia page, I’d be remiss not to mention it.  Even without seeing that reference, I’d thought, “Now this is the way to fight the loudness wars.”  Yes, everything is way too compressed, and  yes, all nuance is lost.  When I listen to this on shuffle with the rest of their discography, I have to turn down the volume at least two notches for these songs.  But at least there’s no digital distortion.  At least they didn’t commit any Loudness War Crimes.  I can live with this.
  • I suppose there’s a bit of a same-key-same-tempo problem here, but what is Alice In Chains if not a key and a tempo?

Track Notes:

  1. All Secrets Known – Sounds like a really cool way to start this off.
  2. Check My Brain – Kind of like a low-end siren going in the background of the verses.  Cool choruses of “Ca-a-lifornia.”
  3. Last Of My Kind – The first track that popped up on shuffle.  I knew there would be a different vocalist, but I was still shocked when he started singing and it sounded so different.  “I’m the last of my kind still standing.”  Think i’m digging this.
  4. Your Decision – Very Jar Of Flies-ish
  5. A Looking In View – Dirt-era riff.  Tres grunge.  I like it.
  6. When The Sun Rose Again –
  7. Acid Bubble – Switches songs about 2:45 in.  At that point goes to “It’s an obsolescence/Built into the system.”
  8. Lesson Learned –
  9. Take Her Out – That’s a disturbing title…at least read one way.  Good tune, though.  One of the better ones.
  10. Private Hell – Could have come right off of Dirt.  It’s more “Down In A Hole,” but I can hear some of “The Rooster” in there, too.
  11. Black Gives Way To Blue – Slower and quieter.  Piano. Okay.

Fat Clown’s Best Albums Of 2011

Despite what you may have read elsewhere, this is a list of the best albums of 2011.  These are not the best albums I listened to last year…those are the Clownies.  These are the best albums that were released in 2011 that I also listened to last year.  If you get confused, you’re stupid.  Which is probably why you never comment, you milquetoast weenie snivelly shit.

Amazingly, there were actually seven albums that fit the criteria for this list.  That’s six more than I was able to rank in 2010.  So, here we go, the seven best albums of 2011.

1 Clown

7. Radiohead: King Of Limbs – Great songs, horses**t production.

3-3.5 Clowns Rating Cop-out
6. Pearl Jam Twenty Soundtrack – Reviewed during a low point for me on the year so it either gained or lost a half-clown because I just couldn’t bring myself to care about the difference.  That maybe wasn’t such a bad decision, either.  Very good documentary, decent soundtrack.

3.5 Clowns

5. The Airborne Toxic Event – All At Once (Deluxe Edition w/ DVD) – Got 3.5 clowns in a fairly disappointed review.  The main problem was the sound.  The songs were much better, and I continued to enjoy “All I Ever Wanted” and “Half Of Something Else” quite a bit as the year went on.  I re-listened to this in order to separate it from the other two 3.5-clown discs, expecting to like it much more.  But the sound really, really sucks.  The next two discs were harder to differentiate, each with very strong points but also carrying some unavoidable flaws.

4. Gangpol & Mit: The 1000 Softcore Tourist People Club – Cool sounds, catchy and experimental songwriting, but it’s only kind of fully executed well on about half of the disc.

3. Melvins: Sugar Daddy Live – A live album from The Melvins from their Nude With Boots tour.  Good, not great.

4 Clowns

2. Adele: 21Great album that completely dominated the music industry all year long as a January release.  A shoo-in for the Grammy, for whatever ridiculously named award this is eligible for.

And the best album of 2011….

4.5 Clowns
1. The Book Of Knots: Garden Of Fainting Stars – Amazingly not on anybody else’s best of list.  Everybody else was wrong.  This was a challenging, dense album.  But it was also amazing and nearly perfect.