Brad: United We Stand

I approached this album very apprehensively, what with the big let down that repeated listens to Best Friends? got me. And when I was greeted with an annoying, taunting “na na na na” on the opener “Miles Of Rope” I really put  up my guard.  However, this ended up being a really nice recovery for the band.  We’re not back to Welcome To Discovery Park or Interiors territory yet, but it’s right up there with Shame.  This album’s high points (probably “The Only Way,” which barely misses full heart status due to a chintzy beginning, “A Reason To Be In My Skin,” and “Through The Day”) aren’t as high as those of their debut, but it’s a more solid, even disc.  A mix of slow tempi and hard, swaggering rock, I end up feeling about this the way I do about a lot of the more recent albums by guitarist Stone Gossard’s other band, Pearl Jam: very satisfied if not shouting-from-the-rooftops inspired.

Rating:
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– “Miles Of Rope,” “Bound In Time,” “A Reason To Be In My Skin,” “Diamond Blues,” “The Only Way,” “Last Bastion,” “Make The Pain Go Away,” “Needle And Thread,” “Tea Bag,” “Through The Day”
Song notes: Below the fold
Continue reading

Counting Crows: This Desert Life

When an album pains me to listen to it, I don’t have a lot of patience for creativity in my review, so I’ma make this quick: this is pretty lousy.  The songwriting shows no advancement or even much of a change from their first two albums, the sound is atrocious, and there are moments, particularly at the start of the last track and the ends of the first and last, where they seem to be intentionally annoying.

There are some decent songs on here and, while they probably manage to squeak out a couple of keepers, there’s nothing I couldn’t do without.  The best feature of the album is the lyrics, which seem to be almost exclusively about lead singer Adam Duritz’s dissociative disorder, an affliction that’s captured much of my imagination lately as I cannot seem to get my head around what it means to be so dissociated from oneself.

Anyway, meh songs, ass sound.  Sucks.

Rating:
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– “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby,” “Four Days,” “All My Friends,” “I Wish I Was A Girl,” “Speedway,” “St. Robinson In His Cadillac Dream”
– “Hanginaround,””Amy Hit The Atmosphere,” “High Life,” “Colorblind,” “Kid Things (Non-Album Version)”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

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

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

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.

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.

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.