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 nü) 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

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

Lisa Germano: Excerpts From A Love Circus

excerptsfromalovecircusThis album is one of two in my current queue, both courtesy of Dig Me Out, where I’m first and foremost struck by the fact that the given artist has an artistic vision that is (i) fully formed, (ii) niche and often off-putting, and (iii) completely unique.Lisa Germano’s 1996 aptly- and greatly-titled release, Excerpts From A Love Circus, is the kind of thing that could have only seen wide distribution in the anything-goes ’90’s.It features, paradoxically, sparse instrumentation and lush arrangements with personal, expositional lyrics that are often more whispered than sung. There are strings, instruments I’ve never heard, and cats making cat noises for extended periods of time. The songs move ahead slowly and, again paradoxically, determinedly and faltering. It’s like a person wounded by love and life but moving forward putting one foot in front of the other, playing one chord after the other, because that’s all she knows how to do. There’s a song called “Baby On The Plane,” about exactly that and the trauma it causes in the nearby seats complete with screams that sound as if they were sampled from a roller coaster.

And then there’s the cats. There are three tracks with sub-tracks credited to what seems like could be Germano’s three(!) cats. And I’m sorry, but this whole woman singing about fucked up relationships and then giving a significant amount of time to her three (three!) cats, one of whom is named Miamo-Tutti(!)…it really plays into a stereotype and WHY THE HELL DO YOU HAVE THREE CATS?

I believe Germano’s most celebrated album is her 1994 release, Geek The Girl, because I think I’ve heard of that one. This seems like the phrase geek the girl ramped up to 11. I can get into some of this some of the time. But, try as I might, I can’t relate to it. At all. I can’t even relate to the guy(?) she’s singing about because she has three cats and, even beyond my allergies, that’s such a red flashing get-out-of-here light that I can’t even imagine getting to the point that I’m like going to have a relationship with this confessional songwriter. So this whole soap opera drama seems so distant and utterly avoidable that I just can’t even.

But honestly the way she takes these slow, determined, sparse songs and makes them sonic landscapes with what feels like minimal effort but obviously is very well thought out is kinda cool.

Rating:
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Like: “Small Heads,” “We Suck,” “Lovesick,” “Singing To The Birds”
Meh: “Baby On The Plane,” “A Beautiful Schizophrenic/’Where’s Miamo-Tutti?’ by Dorothy,” “Bruises,” “I Love A Snot,” “Forget It, It’s A Mystery,” “Victoria’s Secret/’Just a Bad Dream’ by Miamo-Tutti,” “Messages From Sophia/’There’s More Kitties in the World than Just Miamo-Tutti’ by Lisa and Dorothy,” “Big, Big World”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Florence + The Machine: How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

howbighowbluehowbeautifulThis is a bit of a weird entry point for me for Florence + The Machine. I’d heard and been intrigued by parts of 2011’s Ceremonials…I think I even gave it a few spins in the dark, dark early days of 2012…but never quite worked up the momentum around it to commit to giving it a proper review. So then this follow-up album got released in May of this year, right about the time I started peppering my “to listen to” lists with more new stuff than I’d been used to. And so here I am, face to face with this big fat meh-burger of an album, not quite sure what to say about it.

Honestly, the best story I can tell about it is that I was listening to it the other day, and My Baby calls out from another room, “Is this Florence + The Machine?” And that’s not even a good story because you don’t know My Baby well enough to be surprised by that.

Or I could go with the album’s similarities to the last one I reviewed, Cop Shoot Cop’s Release. They’re really nothing alike…they just happened to get into my queue back to back and they both sound much better in earbuds than in overear headphones or speakers.

Okay, fine, let’s really write this thing. The main thing is Florence Welch’s voice, which is strong without being strident and emotive without being fey. She’s got dynamic and frequency range and rocks it over some cool, sometimes cryptic, lyrics. I think there’s a real band here…not a bedroom iPad project, though everything’s produced to sound like it was done on an iPad. There’s synths and horns made to sound like synths and drums made to sound like a drum machine and okay that probably is a drum machine doing the tambo on “Queen Of Peace.”

Everything’s pretty well-crafted, though there’s a tendency to meandering at times. The band hits a variety of tempi and keys. It’s competent. It’s distinct…My Baby can recall the band’s name after having only heard them briefly(?). And yet, despite the lush instrumentation and Welch’s voice, it still rings uninspired. It’s like too much Millenial hipster disaffected coffee shop background music, designed to signify some kind of in-crowd cred without actually snapping you out of your beard-trimming reverie.

There isn’t a bad song on here, and just over half of the 11 tracks are Like. “Caught” gets knocked down to Dislike not because the song is bad but because there’s a drone-y instrument in there that sounds like a fluorescent light, a sound that drives me batty.

When the band rocks, as they do primarily at the top of the album, they’re strongest. Rick Springfield guitars on “What Kind Of Man” and Van Morrison vocal stylings on “Queen Of Peace” are this modern band’s 70’s and 80’s touchpoints. I also hear some True Colors-era Cyndi Lauper. When they slow it down, though, I don’t get angry, I just get bored. I don’t think I could hum “Various Storms & Saints” or “Long & Lost” for you even while they’re playing.

If they’d kept this to the six Likes and then maybe”Queen Of Peace” I’d probably be tempted to push this up a half-clown. This collection as is, though…I’ve enjoyed these listens…but I’m done with this flavor now.

Rating:
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Like: “Ship To Wreck,” “What Kind Of Man,” “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful,” “Delilah,” “St. Jude,” “Mother”
Meh: “Queen Of Peace,” “Various Storms & Saints,” “Long & Lost,” “Third Eye”
Dislike: “Caught”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Cop Shot Cop: Release

releaseTom Waits did a show with The Bad Seeds. They added the horns from Morphine and the industrial-ish tendencies of Girls Against Boys. The result was Cop Shoot Cop’s 1994 album Release. I mean, not really, but if you just told me that’s what this album was and then played it for me, I would have no trouble believing you.

As brilliant as that sounds, all of those four artists have a tendency to clunk at times, and while this album is far from a clunker, or even containing a clunker, this album also reflects some of the limitations you’d get by mimicking those artists too closely instead of pulling in only the highlights from each contributor.

Producer Dave Sardy (who, even though I’ve never heard of him, has quite a storied discography) is a couple of decades ahead of his time here as this album sounds much better in earbuds than in over-ear headphones or speakers. The intimacy resulting from being inside your ear makes the gruff vocals, abrasive samples, and growling basses (there are two in this band) much more impactful. From further away you’re left with songs that congeal into a wash of one combined sound and groove early on and sit there…you can’t appreciate the more subtle touches underneath the more prominent milieu.

You can also tell Sardy has done some work scoring films, as he makes the band’s unique instrumentation (did I mention there are two basses and samples aplenty?) work cinematically. The horns in “Last Legs” act as sirens in a movie scene of a heist gone wrong, with first responders quickly closing in on a chaotic scene of confusion. “Swimming In Circles” is a Morphine-heavy dose of spookiness, and “Turning Inside Out,” with its prominent circular saw sample, is either some kind of dystopic industrial wasteland or a scene out of Texas Chainsaw Massacre or a combination of the two.

I like this a lot. And I love it when I’m listening with earbuds. But I don’t love earbuds. So for me, I’ve got to find some middle ground. And that’s three-and-a-half clowns.

Rating:
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Mix: “Turning Inside Out”
Really Like:
“Two At A Time,” “Any Day Now,” “Swimming In Circles,” “Suckerpunch”
Like: “Interference,” “Last Legs,” “Slackjaw,” “Lullaby,” “Ambulance Song,” “The Divorce”
Meh: “It Only Hurts When I Breathe,” “Money-Drunk”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading