Sweet Relief: A Beneifit For Victoria Williams

I never owned this CD, but I did have a dubbed cassette of it; that’s a thing I might even still own. So this is kind of a re-review.

Sweet Relief was put together in order to raise money for Victoria Williams’ recently diagnosed multiple sclerosis. Williams is a songwriter’s songwriter. She’s got a squeaky, always out of tune voice that makes hearing her performances of her own songs a test of fortitude and an exercise in trying to hear what could be instead of what is. So having 90’s alternative rock royalty play her songs was probably the best prescription for her medical bills.

The album is awesome from start to almost-finish. I could do without the last two tracks, but I’m hot on all of the first 11. These sound is amazing and the bands really bring out the best in the songs Williams created. “Tarbelly And Featherfoot” is probably my favorite Lou Reed song. Same goes for “Lights” and The Jayhawks. I might even go there with Pearl Jam’s “Crazy Mary” if I didn’t have my crazy 2003-tour-induced Clockwork Orange-esque aversion to anything they did on that tour. I’m not really into Buffalo Tom, but I love their noisy take on “Merry Go Round,” Evan Dando is as heartbreak-y sweet as every on “Frying Pan,” and we get to hear one of Soul Asylum’s last pre-complete-suck performances in “Summer Of Drugs.” Even the off-kilter “Weeds” (Michael Penn), “Animal Wild” (Shudder To Think), and “Big Fish” (Giant Sand) have some very strong parts.

I know more than one person who went from this album to buying Williams’ albums directly, usually to discover they couldn’t handle her voice. I’ve not really explored her catalog aside from 1994’s Loose. Sweet Relief is a great starting point and, for many, a great ending point.

Rating:
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– “Summer Of Drugs” (Soul Asylum), “Main Roads” (Lucinda Williams), “Crazy Mary” (Pearl Jam), “Merry Go Round” (Buffalo Tom), “Animal Wild” (Shudder To Think),”Tarbelly And Featherfoot” (Lou Reed), “This Moment” (Matthew Sweet), “Frying Pan” (Evan Dando), “Lights” (The Jayhawks)
– “Weeds” (Michael Penn), “Opelousas (Sweet Relief)” (Maria McKee), “Big Fish” (Giant Sand)
– “Why Look At That Moon” (The Waterboys)
Song Notes: After the jump
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Spiderbait: Grand Slam

The thing I really like about this album is how sure of itself it is in each individual song. I mean, each one has a distinct personality, you can tell what they were wanting to do on that song, even if you hate it. The album as a whole, though…well, that’s a different story.

What does this album want to be? If they were shooting for a really shitty ass mix of a ton of different styles, they nailed it. Otherwise it’s just schizophrenia in sonic form.

And you know, I’d be happy with the stylistic variation if they were good in more than half of them. As it is, though, a listen takes you from an awesome fist-clenching guitar song to a laid-back drum machine rainy Sunday fey-vocals piece of crap.

If I took a reductionistic approach and just summed up the parts here, I’d probably find there was a lot of enjoyment. But as a holistic thing, as an album, I just have no desire to listen to it because it’s too scattered and there are two many awful parts.

Rating:

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– “Shazam!,” “Plastic,” “White Trash Superstar,” “King Of The Northern”
– “Dinnertime,” “Daisy May,” “Stevie,” “Jellybean Drifter,” “Lickety Split”
– “Cracker,” “Glockenpop,” “Bessy’s Last Journey,” “Buster,” “By The Time I Get To Howlong,” “Tallygaroopna,” “Ultralite,” “Lost In Adelaide”
Song Notes: After the jump
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Monster Magnet: Dopes To Infinity

In case you hadn’t figured it out yet, Monster Magnet likes the smokey. To the infinities, apparently.

This album is so, so good. They finally got the perfect mix of awesome sound and killer riffs to make even the long, meandering songs (which are fewer and less meandering) pretty damn enjoyable. They even work in a sitar (“All Friends And Kingdom Come”) and a theremin (“Ego, The Living Planet”) so seamlessly that they don’t stand out oddly as they’re wont to do, but you also can’t imagine the songs without them.

This is one of my top rock star albums. With the heavy, churning riffs, I can go into full-on rock star pose–face scrunched, legs spread, air guitar, rocking back and forth–for the entire album without feeling the least bit self-conscious. Total escape into mega rock fantasy album. It doesn’t hurt that the songs flow so perfectly from one to another, both just in mood but also in continuation of sound.

The three best tracks are “Dopes To Infinity,” “Negasonic Teenage Warhead” (the hit), and “King Of Mars.” The two worst are the last two, which are separated by only one song from the epicness of the “King Of Mars” riff. So there are some sequencing problems here. And the last two tracks are the only times on the album where they get too navel-gazing, repetitive, and uninteresting. But gawd, by that point you’re so blown away that you just kind of kick back and let the glow of the first nine tracks take you through to the end as these guys bring it back to Earth.

Rating:
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– “Dopes To Infinity,” “Negasonic Teenage Warhead,” “Look To Your Orb For The Warning,” “All Friends And Kingdom Come,” “Ego, The Living Planet,” “Blow ‘Em Off,” Third Alternative,” “I Control, I Fly,” “King Of Mars,” “Dead Christmas”
– “Theme from ‘Masterburner’,” “Vertigo”
Filed Between: Monster Magnet’s Superjudge and Monster Magnet Interview Disc, White Zombie’s Sean Yseult interviews Dave Wyndorf
Song Notes: After the jump
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Pearl Jam: Lightning Bolt

This. Sucks. Worse than Riot Act. May even be worse than the avocado album, but making a definitive call on that would require me listening to that album again, and I remember that album as only having one good song on it. Which is basically what we’ve got here. The first three songs get us off to a pretty good start, and then it completely falls apart.

Okay, I just went back and re-read the avocado review, and it was better than I remember it. (six(!) keepers.) And there’s a good paragraph back there about how I’d counted the band out before and they’d bounced back, which you can kind of copy and paste here because they followed up Pearl Jam with Backspacer, which I remember really liking, but I can’t find that review anywhere,  so …

Eddie, nobody wants to hear your opinion on anything anymore. We know where you stand. And please, for the love of all that is holy, stop with lyrics like this:

sometimes you find yourself
having to put all your faith
In no faith
Mine is mine
and yours
wont take its place

So not deep, man, so not deep.

The drumming…oy, the drumming. Just blichem, blichem, blichem on the moderate to slow tempo songs. So stomach-turning.

But my biggest problem with album is that there’s nothing we haven’t heard before. I mean, I know that Pearl Jam isn’t going to be breaking any new ground for us any time ever. They’ve got their sound, their formula, their template. But this is just stale s**t that could just be the castoffs from the last few albums. Much of this sounds like they really are just reheated stuff that actually was on those albums.

And it ends so so so poorly. They end with three s**tty last-song songs at the end of the album. There’s the requisite Vedder-on-uke song about loneliness (a whole album of this wasn’t enough?), then two more and I’m not even going to describe them because I don’t even want to think about them. But “Future Days” is of such a tepid, retread form that it should be abolished or maybe we should even make people who write those songs subject to criminal penalty.

Awful. And the worst part is, because they sound so similar to what was on Riot Act, and that was the album they were touring where I have the whole damned tour, I can hear these songs being histrionically melodramatized by Vedder, I can hear the regurgitated banter in between songs, I can hear the reverb of the arenas in which they’re being played. It’s a horrible re-visitation, and I’m sure that accounts for at least one less half-clown here.

Finally, if I’m being honest with myself, I don’t think I’ve ever really gotten over all that banter from the Riot Act tour. It makes me angry every time I hear Vedder’s voice. So self-righteous. And the coup de grace, of course, was when he tried to prove himself sensitive to women’s issues by…making fun of a fan’s breast size. It’s my problem at this point, but I still don’t think I’ve ever forgiven him for that.

Also keyboards are more prominent than on any other album except maybe Riot Act. And they’re usually used really well.

Rating:
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– “Mind Your Manners”
– “Getaway,” “My Father’s Son,” “Swallowed Whole”
– “Sirens,” “Lightning Bolt,” “Infallible,” “Pendulum,” “Let The Records Play,” “Sleeping By Myself,” “Yellow Moon,” “Future Days”
Song Notes: After the jump
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Los Lobos: Good Morning Aztlán

Another Los Lobos album, another four clowns. This is actually really hot shit, though. A high four, nearly 4.5-clown, release. Almost certainly their best since La Pistola Y El Corazón. A few disappointing points, but overall just a rock solid release.

This is a band, a full two-decades past their awesome kind-of debut, that is mastering and re-mastering their skills, fully confident in their abilities in songwriting and performance. Good Morning Aztlán finds the band working more into a Latin+soul kinda thing. Latin percussion is consistently in the background while the keys, guitars, and vocals evince a 70’s soul crooner thing.

The title track is the best song on the album, but other upbeat tracks like “Luz De Mi Vida,” “Malaqué,” and “Maria Christina” challenge for the top spot. The band shines the most when it finds a really good mix between upbeat and laid-back. The worse songs are the ones that are too laid back or too strident, the latter of which is prominent on “Done Gone Blue” and “Get To This.”

Another aspect of Los Lobos’ development that I’ve kind of been tracking is their use of Spanish. Last time I remarked on how they’d simplified their lyrics down to a first-year Spanish student. This time they really get into the language of immigrant kids born here and do a very fluent Spanglish on “Luz De Mi Vida.” Some excerpts:

There could be no fin
Siempre los dos

It was en la mañana
In our rinconcito
Was the time you played me
Sang me your canción

Totally loving this. Like I said, almost 4.5 clowns, and probably would be had I written this on a different day.

Rating:
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– “Hearts Of Stone,” “Luz De Mi Vida,” “Good Morning Aztlán,” “The Word,” “Malaqué,” “Tony Y Maria,” “Maria Christina,” “Round & Round”
– “Done Gone Blue,” “The Big Ranch,” “What In The World”
– “Get To This”
Filed Between: Los Lobos’ Colossal Head and Lovage (Music To Make Love To Your Old Lady By)
Song Notes: After the jump
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Teenage Fanclub: Bandwagonesque

This style, this kind of sissy, laid back, slacker power pop, is not really my thing. But this album, it’s practically perfect. So many wonderful things about it. First of all, that beautiful shade of pink up above. Marvelous. Then there’s the sound of the guitars. The way they just bleed like an open sore, oozing blood, come, sweat…every note comes with so much additional oomph due to the effects. The notes aren’t all that all the time, but with that sound…it just cuts right through. Then there’s the sequencing. They start with their epic six-minute-plus song (also the best on the album), then go into a 1:22 ditty (“Satan”) that’s about two-thirds free jazz noise before blasting into an epic rock riff. The rest of the first half is their emblematic stuff, the stuff you think of when you think of Teenage Fanclub, where it’s just sweet power pop riffs about love, disaffection, boredom…typical Gen-Xer stuff. Things get a bit weaker for the second half, but the album ends with a nice come-down in “Guiding Star” before wrapping everything up with “Is This Music?,” which is like a movie or TV theme kinda instrumental thing…a really sweet riff that, like “Satan,” could have been a foundation for an awesomely fleshed-out song, but instead just stays as an awesome, unfleshed-out track.

My experience with Bandwagonesque is that it always takes me a while to warm to it, due to the initial off-putting-ness of the sissiness of the slacker vocal delivery and the guitar jangle. I always start off thinking it’s just The Posies, but then I realize that this is what The Posies wish they could be. Really, this is the gold standard every sissy power pop band should be striving for. And by the time they’ve hooked me, it’s always hard to stop listening and move on to the next thing.

Rating:
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– “The Concept,” “Satan,” “December,” “What You Do To Me,” “I Don’t Know,” “Star Sign,” “Pet Rock,” “Is This Music?”
– “Metal Baby,” “Sidewinder,” “Alcoholiday,” “Guiding Star”
Filed Between: Tchaikovsky (The Best Of) and Television (Marquee Moon)
Song Notes: After the jump
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