Brad: Best Friends?

The story of my relationship with Brad’s fourth album will be one of disappointment.  Just off of finally figuring out what makes Welcome To Discovery Park so awesome, my initial listens to Best Friends? had me elevating them to new favorite band status.  After several more listens, though, it’s a good but not great album from which I wouldn’t need to keep more than a handful of songs.

There are two reasons for the drop in disappointment and both relate to the nature of first listens.  First, the album’s best songs are all up front.  The first four tracks are easily the best four, and it’s not until the sixth track you get anything even close to a clunker.  So in my early listens I was more affected by the stuff I was hitting first and assuming the rest would grow on me as much as the early stuff impressed me.  The second reason I’m less hot on this now is that the songs, even those first four, aren’t as good as I thought.  Except that’s not quite right….  You know how you like a really good song more and more as you become more familiar with it?  Well these songs were so immediately accessible and beautiful that I interpolated future appreciation and built that into my initial assessment.  But since Brad kind of leaves their songs half-written, a trait I touched on in my reviews of Shame and Welcome To Discovery Park, often there’s not much more to discover.  “Rush Hour” is the exception here.  It’s an amazingly cathartic, gorgeous work that doesn’t get old.

According to Wikipedia, the disc was recorded in 2003 but wasn’t released until 2010.  That long gap is noted without comment, which is almost as odd as the gap itself.  I’ve got nothing here, but I can’t help but wonder if the inspired-but-unfinished feel of the tracks is somehow related to the hiatus.

It’s still quite a good album.  If this was the first album I’d heard from these guys, I’d probably be much more jazzed about it.  But if I’m going to listen to Brad, I’m not going to reach for this unless it’s “Rush Hour.”

Rating:
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– “Rush Hour”
– “Price Of Love,” “Without Regret,” “Believe In Yourself,” “Every Whisper,” “One Love Remaining,” “Low,” “Oh My Goodness,” “Luxury Car,” “Bless Me Father,” “Runnin’ For Cover”
– “Holiday”
Song notes: Below the fold Continue reading

The Bad Plus: These Are The Vistas

As near as I can tell, this was the album where The Bad Plus started getting noticed.  Their follow-up to their self-titled debut, it’s a much more polished, impactful release then its predecessor.  Where The Bad Plus could, at times, get lost in some heavy jazz referencing, this one is much more easy and fun to swallow.

This was good enough that it almost got 4.5 clowns, but the first side carries some significant flaws:

  • “Keep Your Bugs Off Your Glass And The Bears Off Your Ass” goes on too long at the end.  It should end about three or four times before it actually does and the solo bass droning on with the head really leaves a bad taste in my mouth after what’s an otherwise very good piece.
  • “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is even worse here than the version on The Bad Plus.  It’s easily the lowest point of the album and I really want to believe that when the band themselves revisits this album they’re unhappy with the choice to redo it here.
  • The beginning of “1972 Bronze Medalist” is a bit too overbearing and dominates what turns into a great song.

Aside from those points, all bunched up together on the first side, this album is amazing.  “Big Eater” is the perfect introduction to the band but also grows with you as you spend time with it.  “Everywhere You Turn” and “Silence Is The Question” are both song-long builds whose rating belies their reward; they just won’t fit on mixes with their slow, quiet starts.  Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass” gets the good cover treatment they can do so well for anything except “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”  The top of the top highlights are either the beautiful head in “Flim” or the climax of “Silence Is The Question,” which, in contrast to what I wrote for their debut, is great walking around music, where happiness rains down from the piano first as a mist that gently soaks into your heart, opening it up, and eventually turns into a downpour of happy drops pelting your heart relentlessly, forcing giddy, eyes-closed smiles facing the sky.

Rating:
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“Big Eater,” “Flim”

– “Keep Your Bugs Off Your Glass And The Bears Off Your Ass,” “Everywhere You Turn,” “1972 Bronze Medalist,” “Guilty,” “Boo-Wah,” “Heart Of Glass,” “Silence Is The Question”

– “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Song Notes:

  1. Big Eater – Very good.  There are better songs on here (thought not many), but this gets full where those don’t because its compressed, consistent, mid-range sound make it the most likely to fit on one of my mixes.
  2. Keep Your Bugs Off Your Glass And The Bears Off Your Ass – Also good.  Very slow and quiet in parts.  Very bass heavy.  A bit on the annoying side.  Goes on way too long. Should end way before it does.
  3. Smells Like Teen Spirit – I think I liked the previous version better, and I wasn’t crazy hot on that.
  4. Everywhere You Turn – Very good, but probably too slow, sparse, and quiet at the start for mixing.
  5. 1972 Bronze Medalist – A different version than the one on The Bad Plus.  I think I like that version better…this one’s a bit too harsh.
  6. Guilty – Some of bass solo is bogged-down noodly stuff, but as it transitions to the piano solo this track is awesome.
  7. Boo-Wah – I really love this song, but the opening riff, not so much.
  8. Flim – A sweet little melody in the piano.
  9. Heart Of Glass –
  10. Silence Is The Question – Recalls In A Silent Way in both title and sound.  Which I’m guessing isn’t a coincidence.  Heart it so much, but probs can’t mix.

Various Artists: Kill Rock Stars 20 Year Anniversary Sampler

Free sampler, so right into it….

  • Very good, especially for a label’s sampler, except for an awful stretch from tracks six through nine.
  • Kind of surprised just how many good artists Kill Rock Stars has had

Song Notes:

  1. Elliot Smith: “Doubt” – I am pretty sure I’ve covered this elsewhere.  It was on Either/Or and I kept it but I think that was pre-like, which is fine.  So it’s an open heart.
  2. The Thermals: “Now We Can See” – Would have been keep.  The oh way oh oh oh part is annoying, but the rest of the song is easily full material.
  3. Gossip: “Standing In The Way Of Control” – Where do I know this from?  Best song on here.
  4. Thao & Mirah: “Eleven” – Would have been keep.
  5. Milagres: “Glowing Mouth (Radio Edit)” – Would have been keep.  “She said: Son you better get used to believing/In things that you can’t see”
  6. Xiu Xiu: “I Luv The Valley OH!” – Pretty annoying vocals.  It has its moments, but on the whole this is really annoying.
  7. Grass Widow: “Fried Egg” – Pretty bad and I think awfully forgettable, too.  In some ways (the frenetic pacing and atonal shouted vocals) the verses are like a less noisy, way less interesting Melt Banana song.  But then the chorus is really boring.  And the production seems to highlight the fact that they can’t play their instruments.
  8. Gospel Music: “Automobile [ft. Tracyanne Campbell]” – Terrible.  Terribly annoying.  Ouch, we’re in a real bad stretch of at least three songs here.  Three minutes of torture.  The vocalist in the spelling part sounds a bit like Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth.
  9. Bratmobile: “Die” – Snotty punk just like the name suggests.  It’s listenable but you have to be in just the right mood.  And I think more often than not I hate this.
  10. Sleater-Kinney: “Dig Me Out” – So awesome.  Second-best song here.
  11. Bikini Kill: “New Radio” – The first band you think of when you think of Kill Rock Stars.  Such a distinct voice and vocal delivery.  “Let’s wipe our come on my parent’s bed.”
  12. Marnie Stern: “Transparency Is The New Mystery” – Kind of an annoyingly blah and off-key intro.
  13. Deerhoof: “Believe E.S.P.” – I do like this one quite a bit.  Some cool rhythms.
  14. The Corin Tucker Band: “Doubt” – Very good.  Would have been keep.  Sounds an awful lot like her former band, Sleater-Kinney.
  15. Unwound: “Corpse Pose” – Pretty good, but pretty forgettable, too.
  16. Quasi: “Repulsion” – Sounds very familiar, but I don’t have the album this is on, nor is it on the mix from J-mez.
  17. The Boats: “T.V. Scientist” – Pretty cool, but the chipmunky voice is a bit unsettling.  Probably would have been like.
  18. The Decemberists: “16 Military Wives” – I think I might actually like this.  I know I like this, but what’s going on with me not hating on the last few Colin Meloy songs I’ve heard?  Love the horns.  What is that low one?  Trombone?  Would have been keep.
  19. Thao: “Bag Of Hammers” – Didn’t I cover this on that iTunesU playlist?  Yes, during my brief time on Blogger.  Somehow it got mix there.  I believe in my review of this the first time I said it was mix not because it was that good but because it evoked a very particular, fairly unique mood.  But it is driving me nuts now.  I mean, I’d drop this down to like in the old system, so I’ll keep it as open now, given that it is enjoyable in the right moods.
  20. Horse Feathers: “Curs In The Weeds” – Why do so many vocalists on this album sound so familiar?  I don’t hate this, but it doesn’t do anything for me, and it sounds really derivative.

Rating:
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Full: “Standing In The Way Of Control” (Gossip), “Dig Me Out” (Sleater-Kinney), “New Radio” (Bikini Kill), “Repulsion” (Quasi)
Open: “Between The Bars” (Elliott Smith), “Now We Can See” (The Thermals), “Eleven” (Thao & Mirah), “Glowing Mouth (Radio Edit)” (Milagres), “Transparency Is The New Mystery” (Marnie Stern), “Believe E.S.P.” (Deerhoof), “Doubt” (The Corin Tucker Band), “Corpse Pose” (Unwound), “T.V. Scientist” (The Boats), “16 Military Wives” (The Decemberists), “Bag Of Hammers” (Thao)
Broken:
“I Love The Valley OH!” (Xiu Xiu), “Fried Egg” (Grass Widow), “Automobile [ft. Tracyanne Campbell]” (Gospel Music), “Die” (Bratmobile), “Curs In The Weeds” (Horse Feathers)

The Bad Plus: The Bad Plus

The Bad Plus: They’re not for walking around.  That’s the phrase that kept coming into my head as I tried to figure out which songs would get nudged into like and which ones into keep while I listened to their self-titled debut album.  Some were easy: I knew I’d want to keep their great cover of Abba’s “Knowing Me Knowing You,” but thought “Blue Moon” was a little too cute with its sped-up and tempo-shifting head.  But there were tougher ones, and that was due in large part, not necessarily to the quality of the song but more often to the fact that if I keep something on my phone I have this view that I’m going to be listening to it on shuffle in noisy environments while walking around the city.  And some of these tunes, particularly in the latter half, just don’t work in that environment.

It is jazz, after all.  The Bad Plus play so much in the rock idiom, with their choices of cover songs (“Smells Like Teen Spirit” gets the de rigeur treatment here, to mixed results), their arrangements, and the sound they choose to press.  But it’s still a jazz trio.  There’s nothing more here than bass, piano, and drums, and there’s only so much dynamic compression can do to make jazz sound more familiar to ears raised on 80’s and 90’s rock.

But I love these guys.  I love their approach, and I love their execution.  Sometimes it takes a little longer to get, like with this album, but sometimes I grab it right away, as I did with For All I Care.  But when I do get it I always like it, and they stand up to repeat listens far better than just about anything else in my collection.  So there’s a reward for the initial work here, even if it is a work that’s hard to gain community joy from.  This is not as good as For All I Care in terms of accessibility or execution, but it’s very good, bordering on great, and boldly lays out what The Bad Plus is about, making an auspicious statement about the rest of their career.

So the album worked its way up from three clowns to four from the initial listens to review time.  But how did I resolve those like vs. keep battles?  I stopped fighting the battles.  SinceI’m listening to a lot more music on my Windows Phone 7 phone now, I’m going to go with their rating system: full heart, open heart, and broken heart.  (I have a to-do to get those icons at the bottom of this post, but the descriptions will work for now.)  Those will basically map to mix, keep and like, and ditch, respectively, but they also match how I think about songs more anyway.  The like/keep distinction was a bit false given that it seems I’ll always have to make tradeoffs about what music I want to keep with me on the go anyway.  And it pains me to penalize songs as good as The Bad Plus’ just because it can’t rock louder than a bus stop.

Rating:
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Full: “1972 Bronze Medalist”
Open: everything else

Song Notes:

  1. Knowing Me Knowing You – Great.  Could have been mix if it didn’t start off so meanderingly, but I love this.
  2. Blue Moon – At the start this seems like an experiment that didn’t work.  Tempted to ditch this.
  3. 1972 Bronze Medalist – jagged rhythm.  One of the three best tracks on here.  This is jazz that rocks.  It’s like Coltrane blowing his lungs out on the piano.  Just fantastic.
  4. The Breakout – jagged rhythm at top, then kind of a slow ballady thing.  goes back and forth.  A little bit immature the way it goes back and forth, but that’s my only real complaint.  Love the drum work.  Almost keep.
  5. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Probably the worst one on here.  Was this still novel at this time to do a version of this?  2001.  Nope.  This gets better when it gets further afield from the bland “here we are now” and the “hello hello” riffs.
  6. Labyrinth – Starts off very slow.  A nice piano line, but there’s not too much here.
  7. Scurry – uninspired drum solo.  Leaning like here as well.
  8. Love Is The Answer – love the start.  great piano line.  Leaning like, I think, as it kind of gets bogged down in bass solo land in the middle.  But it’s a pretty good bass solo, and I really like the colors and textures of this piece.  Totally dig this.  I’m always encouraged when bands seem to know what their best songs are, and the placement of this and “Knowing Me Knowing You” indicates that The Bad Plus got it for this record.  The bassist’s best song.

Melvins: The Bulls & The Bees

I had no idea this was a thing, but apparently Scion has a whole kind of media…thing…going on.  It took me a while to get this, as far as I have, so I’m going to step through it a little more slowly.  Scion, the car company that Ira Glass dispassionately bills as being for “today’s connected youth” on This American Life, cares so much about this particular brand strategy, that they have Scion Audio Visual where you can download free music unavailable elsewhere, watch videos, …screw it, I don’t even really know what you can do there.  But one of the things you can do there is get Melvins’ new five song EP, The Bulls & The Bees, for free, and that’s the only way you can get it.

So this is basically exactly what you would expect a free Melvins EP released in 2012 by a car company to be.  It’s pretty awesome, with tons of sludgy riffs, but also feels somewhat uninspired and quickly tossed off, like it probably contains the rejects from their upcoming full-length release.  The band also seems to feel free to experiment in ways they haven’t before.  Not in ways they haven’t felt free to experiment before, because there’s basically no experimentation that would turn these guys off, but just in ways they haven’t actually experimented before.  For the most part, the collection is more rock/song-oriented than their early releases, as they’ve been wont to do recently.  However, the middle features sustained industrial sounds, mystically chanted vocals, and either strings of synths that sound like strings.

All of which is very good, but little of which feels like it lives up to the quality Melvins have set.  That’s a high bar, to be sure; it just feels like these are maybe still a bit in the demo stage, with some craft left to be applied to the songwriting before they’re truly ready to have Melvins’ name stamped on them.

Rating:
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Keep:
“The War On Wisdom,” “We Are Doomed”
Like:
“Friends Before Larry,” “A Really Long Wait, “National Hamster”

  1. The War On Wisdom – Starts with some bad sound but then comes in huge.  You’d think I’d get tired of this style, but man do they rock it so hard.  I think this may be the best one here.  Certainly the most immediately striking.
  2. We Are Doomed – Slower.  Doomier.  Nice soaring guitar over sludge doom base.
  3. Friends Before Larry – Spacey.  Sounds like there are even keys in there.  Metallic sounds that build into a pretty heavy riff for the first few minutes that then fades back into distorted, high, faint vocals and miscellaneous new sound effects.  Gets tiresome over the last half-minute or so.
  4. A Really Long Wait – Could be like Meddle-era Pink Floyd.  There are strings here, I think.  A violin and cello, or else that’s a synth.  No drums except for a building cymbal effect.  No traditionally played guitar though there do seem to be some feedback effects.  Vocals are slow, relatively high, though not falsetto, kind of like a spooky monk chant.  Very non-Melvins.  Very experimental for them, and given their propensity to experiment, that’s saying a lot.  These last three songs have all blended together…which my phone did gapless playback.
  5. National Hamster – This is good.

Seaweed: Despised

Despised is the debut album from Tacoma punk rockers Seaweed.  Released in 1991 on Sub Pop, the band would inevitably be lumped in with grunge, which is, in fact, how I came to be familiar with them.  And actually that categorization isn’t too far off: it’s 10 tracks and 28 minutes of melodic punk with some downtuned guitars on a couple of tracks.  The band had little in common with Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, or Pearl Jam, but it’s not far at all to Green River or Mudhoney, or even a garagier Nirvana.  Furthermore, the band produced the album with Jack Endino, who also did Nirvana, Gruntruck, Skin Yard, Babes In Toyland, Tad, Green River, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Mudhoney, Mark Lanegan, Love Battery, Gas Huffer, Kerbdog, Malfunkshun, and Zen Guerilla.

This is how I like my punk.  Short, sweet, with great melodies.  These melodies aren’t as all-out catchy as those by Green Day or even Ramones, but lead singer Aaron Stauffer has a flat, strained voice that he makes the most of, finding unique paths through the band’s tight-as-hell musical pounding, itself driven primarily by the awesome Bob Bulgrien on drums.  The muscular, tight sound shares enough with hardcore punk of the 80’s and 90’s that I can’t help but imagine Stauffer as a skinhead.  (I actually did see Seaweed at SP20 and remember the singer (assuming that’s Stauffer) as a big, muscular guy with a full head of hair.)  But it’s also quite warm, with the lyrics taking a more personal bent than political, humanizing the band amid their pec-flexing sound.

Now comes the time for me to write about individual songs, but I’ve already taken longer to write this review than the actual album is.  So let me start to wrap it up by saying “One Out Of Four” (where the band shines at what it does best: tight, hard-hitting beats to end a bit of a delay in a way that almost borrows from the metal of the time) is probably the best song on here, though it’s got competition in “Stale.”

There’s a load of performance and recording talent in this group.  And the songwriting’s pretty good, though that’s the aspect that keeps this disc from four full clowns.  The album fades in quality quite a bit over the second half, and it’s a bit monochromatic, playing into preconceived notions of what a hardcore punk band is about.  They’re different enough in their style to be very good, but not quite different enough to be great.  At least at the point of their debut.

Rating:
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Keep: “Selfish,” “One Out Of Four,” “Rethink,” “Stale,” “Sit In Glass,” “Installing,” “Inside”
Like: “Bought It,” “Patchwork,” “Lovegut”

Appendix 1: Song Notes

  1. Selfish –
  2. One Out Of Four –
  3. Rethink –
  4. Stale – “I’m becoming what I once despised”
  5. Bought It –
  6. Sit In Glass – This kinda sounds like one from Weak.  Well, there’s one part that’s like “Squint” (I think).
  7. Installing – One of the ones that sounds like it may have a dropped D tuning.
  8. Patchwork –
  9. Inside –
  10. Lovegut –