Counting Crows: Recovering The Satellites

Wow, right on the heels of a CD I’ve had for a long time and only recently realized how good it was, here’s another one.  This one I’ve also had since it came out, which means it’s been even longer that I’ve had it without realizing its quality.  Now, this isn’t as good as Give, and I don’t like it as much as I liked August And Everything After back when I loved that album.  However, this follow-up is much better than Counting Crows’ debut album.

There’s plenty here that would have worked on that first disc.  “I’m Not Sleeping,” “Goodnight Elisabeth,” and the assuredly satirically (right?) overwrought “Miller’s Angels” all have the sobbing vocal whine and soft verses killing time between crescendos fans expected.  But there are a few times where they really rock it (the full hearts) and the band seems much stronger this time around, likely a result of what must have been almost non-stop touring to capitalize on their early success.

If I had to guess, I’d say I didn’t like this because it was just too Americana-twinged.  I don’t know what turned me off to it, but I know I tried a lot.  It’s almost three-and-a-half clowns, but I like those full hearts so much….

Rating:
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– “Angels Of The Silences,” “Have You Seen Me Lately?”
– “Catapult,” “Daylight Fading,” “I’m Not Sleeping,” “Goodnight Elisabeth,” “Children In Bloom,” “Another Horsedreamer’s Blues,” “Recovering The Satellites,” “Monkey,” “A Long December”
– “Miller’s Angels,” “Mercury,” “Walkaways”
Filed Between: Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones” single and Course Of Empire (Course Of Empire)
Song Notes: Below the fold… Continue reading

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The Bad Plus: Give

I guess The Bad Plus are for walkin’ around.

Most of the time the way I feel about a piece of art won’t change over time.  There are certain things that everybody who knows my tastes insists I should like, and I’ll try and try only to come away all the more certain I just don’t like it.  Or there are things that I’ve loved for decades that I should think are campy now, but still adore.  Every once in a while, though, something surprises me and makes a drastic shift on the like scale.  I’ve had this album for ages.  Probably since it came out.  And I knew I liked it, but when I thought of listening to it, I mostly thought “hit and miss,” “challenging,” and “not now.”  Now, though…Good God, this album is perfect.

I’m serious.  If you’re looking for a place to start with the best of modern jazz, a term so broad it’s pretty much meaningless beyond a strict combination of the meaning of its component words, this is it.  Hell, I think you could start and end here and not miss too much.

The three covers range broadly.  There’s “Street Woman” (Ornette Coleman, and his version is even nuttier than these guys’), “Velouria” (Pixies, and their version isn’t nearly as awesome as this), and “Iron Man” (Black Sabbath).

As if that wasn’t enough, the originals are all phenomenal.  You could write one of those 33 1/3 books about this album, going into a ridiculous amount of detail about each song.  I’m tempted to do that here, but instead I’ll highlight the stylistic diversity.  “Layin’ A Strip For The Higher-Self State Line” veers into rockabilly and stride, “Frog And Toad” seems to draw from the first few decades of 20th Century classical music, “Neptune (The Planet)” is all sublimated ecstasy, and “And Here We Test Our Powers Of Observation” and “Dirty Blonde” are energetic, no-holds-barred, rocking good times.

Eleven tracks of pure genius, there isn’t a weak moment here.  There’s nothing to get rid of, and it’s not missing a thing.

Rating:
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Mix: “And Here We Test Our Powers Of Observation,” “Dirty Blonde”
Keep: “1979 Semi-Finalist,” “Cheney Piñata,” “Street Woman,” “Frog And Toad,” “Layin’ A Strip For The Higher-Self State Line,” “Do Your Sums-Die Like A Dog-Play For Home,” “Neptune (The Planet),” “Iron Man”
Filed Between: Bacharach! The Instrumental Side and The Bad Plus’s For All I Care
Track Notes: Below the fold. Continue reading

Tori Amos: Abnormally Attracted To Sin

Yizzow, this is awesome.  Amos retreats from the harsh sounds of her prior album, American Doll Posse, exploring, in large part, complex, ambiguous sides of the human experience with gorgeously welcoming music.  Songwriting-wise it’s like The Beekeper but thematically coherent and without the scattershot experiments with Caribbean- and African-influenced songs.  It’s like the lyrics of American Doll Posse or Boys For Pele with the music of From The Choirgirl Hotel or To Venus And Back.  It’s her best album since Scarlet’s Walk and contends for her best yet.

There’s very little piano here, but if you still think of Amos as primarily a pianist you haven’t paid attention since the mid-90’s.  The orchestration is expert, with rich, immersive textures enveloping you for the entire disc.  From start to finish, Amos drugs you, hypnotizes you, seduces and enchants you, guiding you through a fantastical, sensuous world of dreamy harmonies, enrapturing melodies, and evocative lyrics, characters, and stories.

It seems like every Tori Amos review I write I have to deconstruct who she is and how she fits in to our cultural tapestry.  She’s emblematic, to me, of a relatively new kind of superstar.  In the last, I don’t know, 15 years or so, I feel like a new category of artists have emerged.  These artists have had their flashpoint moments, been feted as the new, now thing, yet have settled into a role of constancy in our hyper-charged media environment.  By constancy I don’t mean that their art stays the same; instead, I mean that they’ve found a loyal fan base and a new work by them merits mention for those paying attention, but for the most part they’re under the What’sHotNow radar.  I’ve made this comparison before, but I would put Pearl Jam’s last decade or so into this category.  Artists who are not in this category include U2 (too big, too much lavish praise for reinvention, plus No Line On The Horizon was very meh), Bruce Springsteen (sucks now), and throw a dart and hit a band that flamed out after an album or two or is still in the new and hot category.

What I’m building to here, and I’ve mentioned this before, too, is that these artists are hard to write about as a critic because they don’t give any easy storyline.  There’s no tabloid material about extramarital affairs, African child adoption, or hospitalization for “exhaustion” to contextualize the works.  It’s infinitely more satisfying to just appreciate an artist putting out quality work after quality work, developing their craft even if their voice was found and cozied into a decade or more ago.  However, these stories just don’t move paper.  We can’t congratulate ourselves on living a better life reading about their trainwrecked fairy tale while on the treadmill.

But Amos addresses this context as well.  “Curtain Call” seems to be about walks with fame and failure to avoid the machine that’s built up and tore down the Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohans of the world.

Then you ram your hand into your bag
For a little friendly substance
By the time you’re 25
They will say, “You’ve gone and blown it”
By the time you’re 35, I must confide
You will have blown them all

Of course, this is far more pertinent to female than male celebrities, and here we get to another area where it gets hard to write about Tori Amos: not only is her music laced with feminine themes, it’s wrapped in obfuscation and mysticism so as to deter me from venturing in.  I can’t get around it, though.  A big part of my interest in Amos is her complete control of her female personae.  She wears so many facets of the feminine throughout her catalog as to be simultaneously entrancing and off-putting, but always beguiling.  On Abnormally Attracted To Sin, she covers prostitution (“Give”), a mother contemplating suicide (“Maybe California”), female celebrity (“Curtain Call”), surveillance and voyeurism (“Police Me”), and pubescent drug use and sexual experimentation (“Mary Jane”).

And speaking of Amos’ female personae, this is the deluxe version of this album, which includes a DVD with videos of all the songs here except “Mary Jane.”  She plays her dolls from American Doll Posse in relevant settings (“Give” is in a nightclub, “Curtain Call” includes Hollywood’s Walk of Fame) shot in a grainy style.  It’s good and somewhat enlightening, but it has more value to me as a collector’s item rather than something I’ll watch often.

But, to wrap up the review of the music, feminism is all over all of Amos’ releases.  So what’s the story of this album?  I don’t think it’s one of the easy stories, like one of departure or of “best yet” (it may be her best yet, but that’s not the story), but rather one of synthesis.  Amos pieced together the best of what she’d done over the past 11-12 years and put it all into one fantastic package that’s instantly accessible but also revealing of greater depth upon examination.  And for those still paying attention, that’s more than enough.

Rating:
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“Give,” “Not Dying Today,” “Curtain Call,” “Abnormally Attracted To Sin”
– “Welcome To England,” “Strong Black Vine,” “Flavor,” “Maybe California,” “Fire To Your Plain,” “Police Me,” “That Guy,” “500 Miles,” “Mary Jane,” “Starling,” “Fast Horse,” “Ophelia,” “Lady In Blue”
Filed Between: Amos’ Scarlet’s Walk and Animal Chin (The Ins & Outs Of Terrorism)
Track Notes: After the fold… Continue reading

Vows v8

Eight years of marriage, eight updates to the vows.  This year’s addition in bold.

Baby,
I promise you that I will always be the things that made you fall in love with me: honest and transparent, funny and witty, open-minded and creative, adoring.
I promise you I will never stop pampering and courting you.
I promise you will always be my muse, and I will draw daily inspiration from you.  I promise to return the favor by trying to inspire you daily.
I promise to work on being a better husband: to talk to you, to tell you what I’m feeling, and to engage in continual self-evaluation.
I promise to prioritize us, without sacrificing you or me.  I promise to always make room for us in my life, and to make sure you know when I think we need to adjust to get to the right level of us in both of our lives.
I promise to try to love the things about you that are just in your nature, such as the telltale hair monster left behind everywhere you’ve been.
I promise to make a fuss over you when you’re sick, to love you and support you and take your side when you’ve had a bad day.  I promise to listen to you tell me about your bad day and to refrain from giving you unsolicited solutions.
I promise that I will do my best to learn how we are as one, and to take into account how my mood and actions affect you.
I promise to try to recover quickly from disagreements.  I promise to do my best to stay on the high road.  And I promise to forgive and forget mistakes said and done in the heat of the moment.
I promise to be stubbornly filled with determined, creative solutions to the most gridlocked, vexing situations we encounter.
Big decisions are rare. I promise to treasure them as important milestones in our journey by making their process the best possible one. I promise you that your decisions are our decisions and to engage openly, honestly, and frankly early and continuously in the decision-making process. I promise to trust your engagement is just as open, honest, and forthcoming.
I promise you that I will help you and support you to achieve your dreams.  And I promise that, with your support, I will pursue my mine as well.  I promise never to stop taking new risks and adventures with you.
I promise you physical, emotional, and mental fidelity.  I promise that you will always be my baby that I adore completely with my mind, body, and soul, and I promise to trust that you adore me as well.
I promise to be vigilant in never letting you forget that you are the most wonderful, most beautiful woman in the world.  I promise to set the husband you, as the most wonderful, beautiful woman in the world, deserve, as the impossible ideal I will strive to be.
I promise to help our marriage embrace, not suffer, change big and small, and to give us room to work through changes and all that come with them.  I promise to emphasize fun and presence over precaution and safety more than is in my background, and I promise to never be hung-over on Mother’s Day.
I promise to strive to be present at all times.  I promise to make what I’m doing the best thing I could be doing, and to make the best thing I could be doing the thing I’m doing.
And above all, baby, I promise to be always on your team.  And I will do my best to make our team the envy of every other team at the party of life.

Seaweed: Four

In previous posts, I’ve held Mudhoney up as the prototype of grunge.  I still think that’s probably right, but Seaweed would fill that void if Mudhoney didn’t exist.  If the definition of grunge is a mix of metal and punk with depressing, emo lyrics and downtuned guitars, this is pretty much the epitome of grunge records.  The main differentiator between this and grunge stalwarts like Soundgarden and Alice In Chains is that this sounds much more hardcore punk, with its diminution of low end, the band not completely shaking their roots even as they progress admirably.

Four of the album’s five best tracks are also among its first five tracks.  All four full hearts are up there (“Chalk The Cracks” is my new go-to pump-up song while running and is not to be missed), and “Wait For The Fade” is the standout on the back half of the disc.  Every song’s good, but the relative weakness of roughly half the album, where riffs and segments succeed alone but fail to find their way into a cohesive song, keep the album just shy of 4.5 clowns.

I’ve mentioned drummer Bob Bulgrien’s amazingness before, and he continues to be the star.  He’s even better here than on their prior two albums.  He’s half machine, half beast, all drumsexgod.  I could just sit, watch, and listen to him drum for ages.

The band’s evolving on this album.  Their songwriting’s getting more complex as they gradually move away from their hardcore beginnings.  The songs stitch together segments of varied tempi, dynamics, harmony, and melody (with varied results, as mentioned above), though the timbre remains overall one of hardcore throughout.  It’s their best album so far (he writes 19 years after the fact), despite the unevenness.  The high points are just that much better than their prior high points.

Rating:
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“Losing Skin,” “Chalk The Cracks,” “One Inch Punch,” “Kid Candy”

– “Card Tricks,” “Oversight,” “Turnout,” “In Fairness,” “Wait For The Fade,” “Metal Gazer,” “Your Privilege”

Song Notes:

  1. Losing Skin – Fast.
  2. Card Tricks – Strong moments, weak moments.  Worth keeping around but gets bogged down too often.
  3. Chalk The Cracks – Almost the best song ever.  Gets me so pumped.
  4. One Inch Punch – Another really fast one.  Close to being a full heart, but parts, particularly the intro, aren’t fully inspired.  “Break every object in the place.”
  5. Kid Candy – The single.  Any review of this album has to mention that this video was on Beavis And Butthead.  I swear the lyrics are about Lois Lane.  Gets bogged down a titch before the final run, but I’ma leave it full.
  6. Oversight – There are a handful of moments on the disc where things feel thrown together just to make the album longer.  This song is probably the least inspired on here.
  7. Turnout – Starts off almost thrashy.  Very thrash feel to the record, especially with all that high end.
  8. In Fairness – Great start.  Kind of uninteresting harmony.  Vocal line doesn’t quite work.  Right down there with “Oversight” as the worst track here.
  9. Wait For The Fade – This isn’t full?  It’s close.
  10. Metal Gazer – Short instrumental.  Last eight seconds almost make it a full heart.
  11. Your Privilege – Short again, but not as short and with lyrics.

BR5-49: BR5-49

You’ve never heard it, or even of it, but this is probably the greatest country album of all time.  At the very least it’s the greatest country album released in 1996 and I’ll even say it’s the greatest country album released in the 1990’s.  With, you know, all of my extensive knowledge of country music.

I found out about these guys because they opened for The Black Crowes.  Loved ’em.  Bought this record and their debut EP, Live From Robert’s, immediately.  Where that EP was raucous and wild, this album is well-mannered and cleanly groomed.  It’s old, 50’s-style honky tonk, right down to the clothes, with 90’s-level production quality.  It’s clean, beautiful, and pure.

If you think you hate country, and especially if you think what you hate about is the twang, listen to this.  This will (probably) demonstrate to you that what you hate is lowest common denominator pop dressed up as an “other” to modern sophistication.

Beautiful playing, beautiful sound, beautiful songs, beautiful lyrics.  Pure beauty by a crew of honky tonks who feel completely comfortable navigating urban, modern life.

Rating:
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Mix:
“Even If It’s Wrong,” “Little Ramona (Gone Hillbilly Nuts),” “Hickory Wind”
Keep: “Cherokee Boogie,” “Lifetime To Prove,” “Crazy Arms,” “I Ain’t Never,” “Chains Of This Town,” “Are You Gettin’ Tired Of Me,” “One Long Saturday Night”
Like: “Honky Tonk Song”
Filed Between: BR5-49’s Live From Robert’s and Big Backyard Beat Show

Track Listing and Notes:

  1. Even If It’s Wrong –
  2. Cherokee Boogie – Such a good song, especially the end, though it does get my culturally insensitive senses tingling.
  3. Honky Tonk Song –
  4. Lifetime To Prove –
  5. Little Ramona (Gone Hillbilly Nuts) – Mix rating is in no small part due to its lyrics, which push it over the hump.  About a punk rock girl who’s now into country. Best line: “Now she’s drinking Blue Ribbon and jitterbuggin’.”  Punk rockers drinking PBR…how prescient is that?
  6. Crazy Arms –
  7. I Ain’t Never –
  8. Chains Of This Town – A bit of a Hawaiian feel, which doesn’t match the lyrics.  Great.
  9. Are You Gettin’ Tired Of Me –
  10. Hickory Wind – Ballad.  At first seems like this should end the album since it’s just so powerfully down, but then you get used to the killer rocker following and it works.  This could have been last, but I now see how it doesn’t have to be.
  11. One Long Saturday Night – Can’t get mix due to scratchy record sound at end.