Matthew Sweet: Time Capsule: The Best Of Matthew Sweet 90/00

timecapsuleMatthew Sweet actually had two albums before 1991’s breakthrough, Girlfriend. The second of those two came out in 1989, so when he set out to create a greatest hits collection it made sense for him to do it in 2000 and celebrate his great decade. Time Capsule covers the five albums and one EP Sweet released in the 90’s and includes a couple of new tracks. And, even though he’s apparently still releasing new records, this collection has all the songs of his you know.

And what songs those are. The man wrote a perfect pop song in “Girlfriend” and came close to perfection with “Divine Intervention” and “Sick Of Myself.” I think writing a perfect pop song is the kind of thing society should reward by giving you a Caribbean island and supporting you in whatever you want to do for the rest of your life, and to have almost hit the jackpot twice more, well, Sweet’s a pretty gifted songwriter. And that still leaves 15 tracks left to consider in this collection.

And heck, let’s tackle those tracks, going from best-rated to worst…or let’s at least start that way and see how far we get. I mean, there’s no reason to try to pin some narrative on a greatest hits collection, amirite? For the last Really Like, we’ve got “Behind The Smile.” To be honest, I couldn’t hum the song for you right now. [Later: It’s the “I haven’t been a good friend while you’ve been mine” song -Ed.] And then, of the remaining 14 tracks, we have nine Likes, and, well, here’s where we get into the crux of this review. And Ima be honest with you, I’m working this out in real time here. If there was ever an album that screamed 3.5 clowns, it’s this one. Because, due to a great bulk of the record being Like and below it’s not four clowns. And the fact that I can say that definitively means, given my resistance to half-clown ratings, which I try to save only for times when I can’t decide between two full-clown choices, that it should be three clowns. But dammit it seems better than that, and yeah, as an album that represents the peak of Sweet’s career, I’m probably weighing it more heavily toward the great songs collected here.

But there are too many other songs. And Sweet has included too many slow songs and songs that veer away from his power pop perfection sweet spot. He maybe did this to shine light on the fact that he can do country-tinged and ballads in addition to power pop, which I kinda get, but when you’re the best in the game at the best genre ever, then why would you want to point out you can do lesser genres not as well?

So if I’m looking at my rating on this album as a reflection of Sweet’s best songs in his best decade, then, yeah, it’s really hard to leave it at three clowns. But if I look at what it is, a Greatest Hits album, with the inherent lack of cohesion that comes with that, and a collection that, I have to guess, does not actually pull out the 16 best songs available on the six releases represented herein, then I have to say, yeah, this is a solid three clowns.

Rating:
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Mix: “Girlfriend”
Really Like: “Divine Intervention,” “Sick Of Myself,” “Behind The Smile”
Like: “I’ve Been Waiting,” “The Ugly Truth,” “Devil With The Green Eyes,” “Someone To Pull The Trigger,” “We’re The Same,” “Where You Get Love,” “What Matters,” “Ready,” “So Far”
Meh: “You Don’t Love Me,” “Time Capsule,” “Until You Break,” “If Time Permits,” “Hide”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Crowded House: Together Alone

togetheraloneIt turns out Crowded House had a career beyond their mega hits “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Something So Strong” from their 1986 self-titled album. In fact, it turns out there are like mega-fans of band-leader Neil Finn, whose credits also include band-I’ve-heard-of Split Enz.I’m gathering that Neil Finn is a bit like David Byrne in that he’s one of those musicians that musicians love and has a select but devoted following.

Crowded House was even putting out albums in the heart of grunge times, this one coming out in 1993, but you’ll see no reflection of those times in this music. This is still pretty straightforward pop rock with pretty vocals whose lyrics you can understand. It’s a clean sound, but with some additional effects brought in beyond the more strummy guitar sound I was familiar with from 1986.

It’s also similar to a David Byrne or Peter Gabriel type of thing where where it’s accessible songs, but a little more complex than standard radio fare, uses some modern electronics, and ends up being cold, stilted, and off-putting. Just a bit more cerebral than it needs to be. It lacks the raw energy, passion, and soul that I’m more attracted to. You can tell it’s pretty good, even though it just doesn’t grab you. Even when they use a Maori choir in the closing title track, it’s a bit removed, a bit too Graceland, failing to capture the raw power and emotion that I usually associate with indigenous music (but maybe this is more reflective of a potentially offensive cultural bias I have that indigenous means “raw”).

“Nails In My Feet,” which is maybe my fave song on this album, is a perfect counterexample of this. For the first 1:45 or so they’re stuck in their typical restrained mode, but then when the bridge pops in there’s a lovely build, an intensification of the rhythm, a key change, and even people in the lyrics “screaming surprise,” making for a lovely dramatic echoing of the music.

As a big fan of Rick Springfield and Faith No More, I’m always sympathetic to artists like this, where their popular legacy is based in one or more early songs but who have gone on to have a much richer career than most people are aware of. And I kinda dig most of this: I mean five Likes is nothing to sneeze at and everything else is Meh. So I feel like I get it. It just leaves me cold, so this ends up being about as close as I can get to liking an album without being able to say I actually like it.

Rating:
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Like: “Nails In My Feet,” “Black And White Boy,” “Locked Out,” “Walking On The Spot,” “Catherine Wheels”
Meh:
“Kare Kare,” “In My Command,” “Fingers Of Love,” “Pineapple Head,” “Private Universe,” “Distant Sun,” “Skin Feeling,” “Together Alone”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Failure: Fantastic Planet

fantasticplanetPretty big let down here. You might recall I reviewed the band’s first album a couple of months ago and liked their second disc over at an old place. So I was pretty pumped to round out the band’s catalog (prior to this year’s reunion/comeback album, at least) with what seems to be regarded as their high point. I can say unequivocally that it is no such thing.

Things are much cleaner this time around. The grungy crunch and rip is gone and in its place is a very smooth, traditional sound. Another feature of grunge that’s left behind is drop-tuning with, again, the band taking a more traditional approach to harmony this time around. But worst of all is the combination of a lack of really great songs and the fact that the band seems to have been on sleeping pills for most of the record.

In typical 90’s fashion, this album is a ridiculous 17 tracks long, but, to be fair, three are those are “Segue” tracks where they’ve recorded some bumper sounds and riffs and use them as transitions or, heck, segues, if you will. But still, 14 songs. And the best stuff is all back loaded in the last eight tracks (seven songs). So the last five songs end things really strong, and, despite their traditional tunings, the band is still really good at weaving in novel sounds at various layers to keep your interest.

But of the first five tracks, three are Meh, and the two Likes are not at all fantastic, to which I call false advertising on the album’s title. So I’m kind of bored and the bar’s been lowered by the time I hit the next three tracks, which all garner Likes, but, again, bar is lowered and all that. Even the Really Likes, “Pitiful,” “Heliotropic,” and “The Nurse Who Loved Me,” are more like strong in parts rather than something that grab my attention throughout.

The production isn’t helping. I mentioned the clean sound, but everything’s super compressed and thus lacking dynamic range, which only heightens the same-key same-tempo problem the band is prone to fall into.

The most frustrating thing about all of this is that, again, this is the Failure album that I see getting the most cred in the community. Which makes me wonder if nobody’s heard the other two superior albums or if everybody else is just plain wrong. Either way it’s proof that everybody should just give up and start listening to me since it’s plainly obvious that I’m right and literally everybody else is wrong.

Rating:
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Really Like: “Pitiful,” “The Nurse Who Loved Me,” “Heliotropic”
Like: “Saturday Saviour,” “Sergeant Politeness,” “Blank,” “Segue 2,” “Dirty Blue Balloons,” “Segue 3,” “Another Space Song,” “Stuck On You,” “Daylight”
Meh: “Segue 1,” “Smoking Umbrellas,” “Pillowhead,” “Solaris,” “Leo”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Neil Young + Promise Of The Real: The Monsanto Years

themonsantoyearsWell here’s a benefit of Windows Phone (or, as they’re stupidly trying to rebrand it, Microsoft Lumia…NOBODY calls it that). When Neil Young recently went off and pulled all of his music from streaming services, not because of the pay, but because it didn’t sound good enough, he seems to have done it by device, not by service. So while I can’t listen to his albums on Groove Music (which is Microsoft’s stupid rebranding of Xbox Music, which was their stupid rebrand of Zune Music Pass) on iPhone, I can listen to them on Windows Phone. Which, I don’t know, just kind of illustrates that it’s really an anti-fan move, but you know, you’ve got the rights, so whatever.

Young has always been eccentric, but he really seems to have gone off the deep end lately. There’s the streaming services thing, there’s him launching his own PonoPlayer audio device (as much as an audiophile as I am, I don’t think this is destined for success or the right way to try to bring high-end audio to the masses), and now an album where he gets all conspiracy theory in song after song slamming Monsanto and Starbucks and promotes things that, I think, are unproven, like pesticides causing autism.

In fact, in my last post I described this album as an “unhinged polemic.” That may be unfair, but ho boy. I mean, we don’t get a lot of protest music in 2015, maybe a lot less than we should, so I’m kind of glad that Young’s taken that on. But Dylan this ain’t. I feel like he’s just shooting himself in the foot, poetically, by slamming Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Safeway, and Monsantao (the last in many songs) by name. And even beyond that he can’t even phrase his protest as elegantly as a Presidential candidate might in a debate. Take “Big Box” as an example. “People working part-time at Walmart/Never get the benefits for sure/Might not make it to full time at Walmart/Still standing by for the call to work.” Or, if that doesn’t make you cringe, try the explanation of a case of the Grocery Manufacturers Alliance v. State of Vermont in “A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop.” I mean, he simultaneously gets super literal and expository while also leaning way too heavily on populist rhetoric that both major parties use vacuously (e.g., “take back our freedom,” “overturn the people’s will”).

And that’s kind of all you need to know about this album, and that’s all that most reviews of this album will tell you. Well, okay, they will probably also tell you that the backing band is Promise Of The Real, which is led by Willie Nelson’s son Lukas Nelson, and that they’re also joined by another son of Willie Nelson, Micah Nelson, and that they all sound stylistically similar to Crazy Horse. But what they won’t tell you, and what Fat Clown is here to rep, is that the songs, while of the milieu that Neil Young can kind of throw out in a few days, are awfully fucking good. And due to that, if you make yourself listen to the album ten times or so, you’re starting to believe in the hippie earnest bullshit of “A New Day For Love” and you raise your fist against those damned lawyers in “Workin’ Man” (though, to be fair, going after Clarence Thomas is kind of a shorcut to my rage-heart).

Listen, poetically, this album clunks along like a terrible high school punk band railing against The Man. But man, in Neil Young’s hands, even those sentiments become something special. The critical landscape is very against this record, but I think when we look back at the man’s catalog, this will fare quite well.

And I’d like to stand here as testament that one of the victors in this anti-corporation manifesto is possibly the ultimate symbol of modern corporations: Microsoft. This album alone sustained my use of a Windows Phone (take that stupid rebranding!) by about a week.

Rating:
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Like: “A New Day For Love,” “People Want To Hear About Love,” “Big Box,” “Workin’ Man,” “Monsanto Years,” “If I Don’t Know”
Meh: “Wolf Moon,” “A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop,” “Rules Of Change”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Breaking Benjamin: Dark Before Dawn

darkbeforedawnSometime in June I started adding new releases to my queue just because. And clearly there wasn’t a lot coming through in June since I added only this and Neil Young’s unhinged polemic against Monsanto. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Breaking Benjamin song, and if I have, I didn’t know it. But I’d heard of them. I think I thought they were some kind of indie band, but quickly found out that, no, they’re metal. And then very quickly after that realized they were a very formulaic new (but not nĂ¼) metal band that Millenials liked.

And that was basically my take on this album for the next three months or so. But in the last few weeks, as I’ve approached this review, the formula of the band has become more like a warm, comfortable blanket that makes everything all right. I mean, this band is not breaking any new ground, but I don’t think there’s a whole lot of metal right now that is simultaneously progressive and offering meaty, finger-horn-inspiring riffs, and so I’ve got to make do with one set of bands that’s in the business of offering extreme new sounds and another set of bands that’s fairly predictable but offering songs that get stuck in my head and I can sing along to.

The formulaicity of the band is present even within the album, as it gets a bit same-y, and if I’m to hear a song out of context of its surroundings, Ima have a real hard time naming it if it’s not “Failure” or “Breaking The Silence,” which are the album’s real standouts, the former containing a unique melody in the chorus. On “Breaking The Silence” and “Bury Me Alive,” the Cookie Monster vocals are used to great effect. This is a band that is mostly traditionally sung but adding the gruff barking vocals to the breakdowns is, well, it’s basically how they should always be used. So call these formulaic songwriters seers, I guess, I don’t know…see? I keep finding more and more to like about them.

The trend continues: as I write this I’m promoting tracks left and right. First Breaking Benjamin was an eye roll and a scoff. Then they were a guilty pleasure. But now I’m legitimately a Breaking Benjamin fan, albeit one that still listens with a critical ear. Still, a couple of beers and I can basically tell that part of my brain to shut up and throw up some completely unironic rock horns in the bathroom mirror.

Rating:
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Mix: “Breaking The Silence”
Really Like: “Failure,” “Close To Heaven,” “Bury Me Alive,” “The Great Divide,” “Ashes Of Eden,” “Defeated,” “Dawn”
Like: “Angels Fall,” “Hollow,” “Never Again
Meh:
“Dark”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Link

anthology1In 1995 and 1996 The Beatles released a trio of double-CD sets called Anthology. I remember it being an opening of the vaults to grab a bunch of unreleased stuff to package around two songs that had been recorded, forgotten about, and recently discovered. The first of those songs was “Free As A Bird” and starts this collection, while the second, “Real Love,” leads off Anthology 2. That’s not quite right, though. While there are songs here that fit the pattern of being contemporaneously discovered and released here for the first time, the two “new” songs are tracks that John Lennon had been working on at the time of his death and, in 1995, were finished by the three surviving band members into what’s presented here.

Anyway, I’ve had the second and third installments of their Anthology trilogy since their release, in large part because if you bought them right away at Best Buy you got a free disc of interviews, too, and I mean, free CDs! I was never as intrigued by the band’s early stuff as their later stuff, and combined with just not being on the ball for that first free interview disc, this first installment went missing from my collection until now.

All three albums are peppered with speeches and outtakes, making them more historical records than albums, per se. Still, this is by far the most ragged, the one with the most rough edges. That’s to be expected, of course, given that this pulls out recordings going way back to the band’s beginning. There’s the 78 they recorded as The Quarrymen, as well as selections from their recording tests at Decca and Parlophone. On its own, it’s a pretty tough listen. The liner notes, though, combine with the speeches peppered throughout to tell the story of the band’s early beginnings through Beatlemania (a real treat is that first song they played on The Ed Sullivan Show, “All My Loving”) and wrapping up at about the end of their second album, With The Beatles.

There’s some real crap in here, even after you get past some of the awful sound on the early home recordings. It’s no surprise to me that they didn’t get a deal at Decca given that their audition included the execrable “Searching” and “Three Cool Cats.”

However, there are also some gems that I’ve never heard of. The Decca audtion bit closes out with the wonderfully energetic and fun “The Sheik Of Araby” and from the E&M (Parlophone?) audition we get the sultry “Besame Mucho.” Right around the same time come “Like Dreamers Do,” which I can’t stop singing, and “Hello Little Girl.” Later we have “I’ll Get You” and “You Know What To Do.” How many of those did you know? I maybe knew a couple, but now I can’t tell. It reminds me of something a friend used to say that, if you don’t like The Beatles, you just haven’t heard enough of their music. And I think that’s basically true because the band does cover a really wide range of musical styles. But this goes even further to my point that there are styles in the above songs that they just don’t exhibit anywhere else in their catalog, and so, as long as you keep digging, you’ll still find new, good stuff that the band never saw fit to release. And I do think that some of the stuff they released, including some of their biggest hits, are pretty bad. (Among those, ready your pitchforks, are “Love Me Do” (included here in a much slower, worse version that the one you know), “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” and “All You Need Is Love.”)

In the end, I think Anthology 1, in its 60(!) tracks, does a great job of creating a historical document of The Beatles’ early years, told mostly through studio and live recordings, though the liner notes are pretty essential to getting the story down. I’d love to reward it for that outcome with four full clowns, but it’s just such a hard listen, especially without the liner notes context, that I can’t quite go that high.

Rating:
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Mix: “Besame Mucho,” “You Know What To Do”
Love: “Like Dreamers Do”
Really Like: “The Sheik Of Araby,” “Hello Little Girl,” “I’ll Get You,” “All My Loving,” “Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey”
Like: “Free As A Bird,” “My Bonnie,” “Ain’t She Sweet,” “Cry For A Shadow,” “Speech: Brian Epstein (‘Well the recording test came and went…’),” “How Do You Do It,” “Lend Me Your Comb,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “From Me To You,” “Money (That’s What I Want),” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Till There Was You,” “Twist And Shout,” “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “I Wanna Be Your Man,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Boys,” “I’ll Be Back (Take 3),” “Mr. Moonlight,” “Leave My Kitten Alone”
Meh: “That’ll Be The Day,” “Speech: Paul McCartney (‘Sometimes I’d borrow a tape recorder…’),” “Cayenne,” “Speech: Paul (‘First of all we made a record…’),” “Speech: John (‘Brian was a beautiful guy…’),” “Speech: Brian Epstein: (‘I secured them an audition…’),” “Please Please Me,” “One After 909 (Sequence),” “One After 909,” “You Really Got A Hold On Me,” “She Loves You,” “This Boy,” “Speech: Eric Morecambe And Ernie Wise (‘Boys, what I was thinking…’),” “Moonlight Bay,” “And I Love Her,” “Shout,” “I’ll Be Back (Take 2),” “No Reply,” “Eight Days A Week (Complete)”
Dislike: “In Spite Of All The Danger,” “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” “Three Cool Cats,” “Speech: John (‘We were performers…’),” “You Can’t Do That,” “No Reply (Demo),” “Eight Days A Week (Sequence)”
Hate: “Speech: John Lennon (‘We were four guys…’),” “You’ll Be Mine,” “Searching,” “Love Me Do”
Filed Between: The Beatles’ 1967-1970 and that first interview disc that Best Buy gave away with this which I ended up getting on the secondary market many years ago
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Ornette Coleman: The Shape Of Jazz To Come

theshapeofjazztocomeThere’s always a risk when I set about reviewing a jazz or classical (or hip-hop or …) album that I’m going to find myself way out of my depth. I generally chalk it up to me just not being proficient enough in the vocabulary of those genres, but still, I can have some very strong reactions to artists in each of them. For example, I didn’t have any trouble finding things to say about the Miles Davis or John Coltrane CDs I reviewed some years back.

But this seminal album by Ornette Coleman has me (mostly) stumped. And, yes, I did add it to my listening queue shortly after his death, recognizing him as a gap in my knowledge. So I guess the saddest part of this for me is that I’m still not sure I appreciate this jazz legend.

While Coleman would release an album titled Free Jazz one year after this album, this is regarded as one of the beginnings, if not the beginning, of the free jazz musical movement. The shape of this jazz is, if you will, not too markedly different from the be-bop which preceded it. There are still composed heads that the band plays together with solos in between. It’s just that the solos are a little…freer. They feature more spastic-ness, by which I mean they’re less connected with themselves in the seconds before and after the present notes. There’s also more of a tendency to leave behind the harmony and rhythm of the rest of the band and jag out on your own.

To my 2015 ears (and heck, to my 1991 ears), it’s not revolutionary. However, I can imagine that if you were just getting accustomed to what Miles Davis was doing in the late 50’s, this would have really blown your mind by defying all the expectations you’d built up. I don’t have those expectations, which I think makes it less disorienting but also doesn’t play with my mind in the same way since it doesn’t have the same walls of expectations to bounce off of. Another reason I may have trouble finding earholds in the music is that the traditional quartet lineup has been modified: instead of a piano there’s a second horn (a cornet).

Highlights for me are “Lonely Woman” and “Congeniality,” where the crazy bits seem obviously crazy to me given my understanding of music. The key feature of “Lonely Woman” is that the two horns play the same melodic line but one is very slightly delayed, leading to a palpable sense of disorientation. First your ear wants them to come together, then you’re a little bit freaked out when they refuse to come together, and then you start to really enjoy the experience. “Congeniality” really foreshadows some of the more brazen aspects of free jazz with a sax solo that’s almost twelve-tone in its bold, angrily-blown notes.

Unfortunately, even after listening to this on the order of 15 times, I still have to consider Coleman a gap in my musical knowledge. But I’ve at least taken and passed, even if barely, Coleman 101.

Rating:
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Really Like: “Lonely Woman,” “Congeniality”
Like: “Eventually,” “Peace,” “Focus On Sanity,” “Chronology”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading