Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Artists Whose Stories Beg for a Biopic (Pt. 1)

1.  Fleetwood Mac - I'm surprised that a major Hollywood biopic hasn't been made about one of the world's biggest-ever selling acts, whose story behind Rumours is tailor-made for the soaps - the two couples breaking up at the same time, with the romantic tensiions fueling their best-ever set of songs that catapulted them to superstardom with the-then biggest-selling LP of all time.  And the drummer slept with both Stevie and Christine.  Lucky freakishly tall dude.  I suppose what's holding them back is that they're all still alive.  But hey - '70s rock superstars!  One word:  c-c-c-cocaine!  Scarface mountains of it.

2.  Lynyrd Skynyrd - These guys were gen-u-wine Huck Finn archetypes from Deliverance country, with Ronnie Van Zandt not so much a bandleader as a boxing referee constantly being called to service backstage to sort out fistfights between the members.  The story of how rednecks in the 1970s South came to embrace long-haired hippie rock'n'roll.  And the horrific plane crash punctuates a dramatic career arch.  The aftermath of the survivors would be an interesting story, too, but perhaps too dark and depressing (I'm looking at you, Artimus "Pedo" Pyle).

3.  Robert Johnson - Hellhound on my trail, sold my soul to the devil to play the blues, died from drinking poison whiskey from messing round with another man's woman.  Yes, they sort of made a movie about this called Crossroads, but come on - Ralph Macchio guitar dueling with Steve Vai?  They can do better than that.

4.  The Stranglers - Dark and sleazy does it every time.  This one's got it all:  punk, karate, hard drugs, wifebeating, prison sentences, flatmates getting raped, dangling journalists from the Eiffel Tower, taking on the Clash and Sex Pistols singlehandedly in a bar brawl, strippers onstage at a major rock festival (and the bass player joining in the naked fun), acid-damaged UFO conspiracy theories, the European Union, ice cream vans.  Poetic license would have to be taken by having Hugh immediately quit the band after being beaten up backstage by JJ Burnel, instead of hanging around for a few years to provide a shitty album as his finale.  And to be an honest portrait it's definitely got to be at least NC-17.  

5.  Badfinger - Depressing?  Um, yes, which is why this movie shall never be made.  Hollywood demands a happy ending and there's no way the two main frontmen committing suicide (several years apart) is going to give filmgoers that coda.  But a compelling story of how talented musicians get fucked over by the biz - that it is.  Plus there's the Beatles connection.

6.  Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young - Speaking of drugs, how could a story involving David Crosby, Stephen "Steel Nose" Stills, Neil "Airbrushed Cokebooger" Young, and um, that other dude, not be interesting?  And personality clashes galore with those four massive egos in the room!  The story even has a perfect opening scene, with Neil and Stephen running into each other on a traffic-jammed LA freeway as one of them travels cross-country to find the other and form a band.  (I forget which)  Five decades in which we witness the hippie generation growing older, and four men drop or maintain friendships.

7.  The Byrds - Surprisingly, the biggest-selling American rock band that has not had a major film made about them (the Beach Boys and the Doors and the Temptations all have theirs; CCR's story simply isn't all that interesting).  Watch as Roger McGuinn struggles to maintain a band named The Byrds as every single original member quits in succession!  Feel Gene Clark's fear of flying!  Catch trust-fund hippie Gram Parsons invent country-rock!  Weep as the original lineup reconvenes in the mid-'70s only to sabotage their comeback by saving all of their best songs for their solo albums!

8.  The Velvet Undergound - Maybe this shouldn't count.  Nico has her own film about that vapid, uninteresting, and highly dislikable racist Aryan bitch (an objective description), and there are several films that deal tangentially with the Velvets scene; but there's not a film directly about the band itself.  The backdrop of Andy Warhol's Factory and his circus of freaks alone makes such a film a must-make.

9.  Jefferson Airplane - I view this as a rom-com in which our heroine, Grace Slick, proceeds to fuck every guy in the band in her quest for true love.

10.  Pink Floyd - Other than the fact that the former members of Pink Floyd are all as bitter and litigious as hell (and rich enough to back it up), I can't see why infamous history of constant feuding can't make for great entertainment.  With the sad, slow decline of a musical genius descending into drug-fueled insanity.  Shine on, you crazy, bitter old diamonds.  You can't be sued for defaming a dead person, so maybe then this flick shall be made.

P.S.  The Band don't count because of The Last Waltz.

This has more or less turned out to be the boomer edition of this list - tune in next week (or the next couple days, whenever) for the post-punk candidates.  And just to get things straight, I mean major Hollywood biopic:  all of these bands have videotape releases of grainy interviews and concert footage, but who cares except for fanboys?  Pink Floyd almost don't count because of The Wall, but then I decided that rock operas shouldn't count, either.  Appearing in Woodstock: The Movie doesn't count, either.  No, I want Anne Hathaway or some other foxily vampish brunette to play the role of Grace Slick - that's the sort of thing I'm talking about. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

Tommy Keene - Crashing the Ether

Crashing the Ether (2006) ***

In which the most strikingly consistent man in showbiz comes perilously close to making a bad record.  The problem isn't so much the songwriting - when he's on, he's on, as "Quit That Scene," ranks among his finest ever, and the Based on Happy Times-ish "Driving Down the Road in My Mind," sits well next to any random melancholy Keene ballad of wistful listlessness.  The sprightly "Warren in the '60s," and the lovely "Wishing," (which unfortunately emphasizes his annoying habit of lazily tossing off obvious rhymes) are up to his usual standards as well.  But the album's misfirings are apparent from the first track, "Black and White New York," which lives up to the crashing part of the album's title, in more senses than one:  it's a thuddy metallic drag that sorely lacks Keene's usual melodic touch, substituting loud rock dynamics for pop tunecraft.  Things right themselves swiftly with "Warren in the '60s," and the first half of the album is mostly excellent, containing all the highlights I've previously mentioned.  But the second half is much, much weaker, with the final three or four songs a complete mess - a string of unpleasantly noisy rockers that makes one wonder if Keene had misplaced his talent by fancying his strengths were that of a guitar hero rather than tunesmith.  "Texas Tower 4," drags on its hard rock bombast for over six excruciating minutes, closing the album on a harshly bum note.  Maybe all those Mission of Burma records rubbed off on Tommy the wrong way, or he's trying to keep current with grunge fashion ten years too late, and while experimentation and fucking with the formula are important directions for any artist to pursue, as a hard rocker Keene's always made a much more compelling Alex Chilton than a Ted Nugent.

Youtubes?  No puedo encontrar los videos.  Tommy Keene videos are extremely hard to find, period, much less any for songs from one of his least popular albums.

Keene Brothers - Blues and Boogie Shoes

Blues and Boogie Shoes (2006) ***

Essentially what you get is a Tommy Keene record sung by Robert Pollard.  I don't know whether they were there together in the studio or whether Keene mailed in the music and Pollard recorded the vocals over the tapes (it may very well have been the former, but too often sounds like more of the latter).  Keene's guitar playing is keen as keenful and his melodic arrangements are as intact as ever, and Pollard is Bob, haphazardly tossing off his trademark ready-made vocal melodies to infectious effect.  The problems are twofold:  the post-Isolation Drills uniformity of sound (all steely guitars cruise controlled at midtempo except for a few acoustic balladic breathers), and as I implied in my second sentence, the fact that Keene and Pollard don't quite mesh.  Keene's music sounds as meticulously crafted as usual, but Bob's vocal melodies sound as slapdash and written in five seconds as usual - which can work if Bob's going for spontaneous and lo-fi, but Keene's work is hi-fi and carefully non-spontaneous (look at how long the man takes between albums.  Now, compare and contrast with Pollard's recording release schedule.)  Long point made short, I can't hear these songs and not wonder how much better they'd be if they'd had Tommy singing them.  And for all his obvious rhymes and romantic cliches, at least that's preferable to lyrics that make literally no sense at all, as is Pollard's stock in trade.  So, no emotional heft, that's one point off.  It's not as if this 40 minute, 12 track longplayer doesn't have some fine tunes up its sleeve, and in GBV (but definitely not Keene) tradition the highlights are scattered all over the place in non-chronological order.  Thus, it blasts off on a classic 50-second GBV rocker note, "Evil vs. Evil," which is catchy and strong in large part because of its breathless brevity - a sheer jolt of caffeine.  "Death of a Party," happens to be one of the stronger tunes Pollard has put his name to since GBV broke up, and buried near the tail end of the CD is "This Time Do You Feel It?" which contains a brilliant vocal hook (so I see that Pollard's good for something).  Bob's not needed at all on "The Camouflaged Friend," which is a guitar instrumental.  "Island of Lost Lucys," is a pretty ballad, and tracks like "A Blue Shadow," rock anthemically, but you'd expect all of those things from a GBV album (Tommy Keene, too - "The Naked Wall," being the most Keene-ish of these tracks).  As most of Pollard's post-'90s albums have been, the music is non-lo-fi, unadventurous jangly hardish-rock -  but we can hardly blame Bob for that in this instance, now can we?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Gene Clark - Firebyrd

Firebyrd (1984) ***

Sadly, the '80s got to Gene the same as they did to every other '60s dinosaur, but since Clark was on a low, low budget (and does it sound like it) the results aren't nearly as bad as they could have been.  On first listen, you might be forgiven for thinking you've picked up the wrong CD by mistake, as the low-rent sound and performances make it sound like one of those generic re-recordings of Classic Songs By Classic Artists that were floating around during the times - y'know, the Temptations as performed by the California Raisins, with a tinny glossy sheen shorn of the passion and a tinny glossy drum sound.  At first I wasn't quite sure if it was Clark at all, as even his trademark shakey baritone sounded distressingly generic on the harmonies, but relax - it is him.  This is a funny little album, and I do mean little:  at only nine tunes, four of which are quite unnecessary covers, it fits the definition of skimpy.  But '80s Gene Clark fans had to make do with what little (very little) he had to offer that decade, and considering the scarcity of post-'70s Gene Clark material, this is grudgingly essential for diehards.  Bad news first:  the remakes of Byrds classics are OK enough ("Mr. Tambourine Man," "Feel a Whole Lot Better,") but will never, ever, never displace the sterling originals and are beyond superfluous, the spitting definition of totally non-essential.  "If I Could Read Your Mind," likewise is a fair reading, but I've already got Gordon Lightfoot's (a god amongst moosejockeys) greatest hits; "Vanessa," isn't that bad, but I have no idea what the original sounds like.  Of the five remaining Clark originals, "Rodeo Rider," is too hickily country for my tastes, and "Blue Raven," is a less successful sequel to "Silver Raven," in which Clark rejoinds his darkly lit No Other classic with a tune swearing to his love that these days he's in a sunnier mood.  That leaves three Clark winners:  "Something About You Baby," "Rain Song," and "Made For Love," which land him back on his feet as a fine pop-rock/country songwriter.  Like I said - mighty skimpy.  But this album is a never less than pleasant listen, and if it's short & lightweight, who doesn't mind hearing "Feel a Whole Lot Better," for the 50th time, even in this alternate '80s version?

Killing Joke - Ha

"Ha" (1982) **1/2

This is a brief mini-LP so I'll keep this brief:  the original incarnation offered six songs - one each from their first three albums + three non-LP songs.  "Pssyche," is beyond essential, so if you haven't downloaded the original single version....wait, wait - this isn't 1982 anymore, so I guess you don't really need this.  Vinyl/cassette era Joke fans had to take what they could grub up, so if they couldn't get their claws on the original "7 of "Pssyche," then this live version would have to make do.  And it does make do!  Almost as awesome as the studio version.  For such a technological band, KJ aren't noticably different in a live as opposed to studio setting, because their songs are more about raw, rhythmic drive and crushing guitar power than anything else.  The lyrics to "Pssyche," are well worth quoting, hysterical in both senses:

Look at the controller
A Nazi with a social degree
A middle-class hero
A rapist with your eyes on me
Increase your masturbation, three cheers for the nuns you fuck
You'd wipe out spastics if you had the chance,but Jesus wouldn't like it

WTF is Jaz going on about?!  That was originally the B-side of "Wardance," which you get here shorn of its somewhat silly R2D2 vocal effect.  I suppose I was incorrect about Revelations being weak mostly due to the production, as "The Pandys Are Coming," still sucks in its much raw powerer live version, and "Unspeakable," might not be the ideal selection from wTf! but who can tell any of those "tunes" apart, anyways.  Of the remaining two live tracks, "Sun Goes Down," was an unexceptional but not-bad B-side, and "Take Take Take," was an outtake for good reason - it's a slow-slow grind devoid of much interest other than the fact that it's considerably slower and grindier than most other Joketunes.  Oh, but that's not all:  reissues append three bonus studio tracks.  The original studio B-side of "Sun Goes Down," still isn't that memorable, but you do get "Birds of a Feather," which sounds like XTC, of all things.  Well, not exactly, more of Killing Joke accidentally imitating XTC and getting it all horribly, horribly wrong, but in a good way.  "Flock," is just some dubby version of the same, but not without the merit of a good listen.  Once.  Or maybe twice.  

P.S.  The most disappointing aspect of this release is that Killing Joke, sadly, do not live up to their name.  There is no - absolutely nada - stage banter.  Jaz Coleman can obviously be a very funny guy, as the lyrical snippet of "Pssyche," testifies, so where's Having Fun With The Killing Jokesters Onstage?   

Monday, August 22, 2011

Killing Joke - Revelations

Revelations (1982) **

Stylistically this is more or less a carbon copy of the preceding album - a bunch of tuneless tribal vamps - with more of an effort on the songwriting side (i.e., some of these are actual songs) but curiously, all the energy seems to have been sucked out of the band's performances, leaving it a pale and weak followup.  The problems reside perhaps more in the presentation than the material (I mean, hell, who cares about the software input, this band is all about the hardware - KJ are the definition of a sound-not-song band).  What the band steps forward with glossier production is muted by several giant steps back in.....wait, wait, that metaphor isn't quite working.  Let me just nix metaphors and say that the production sucks.  The drums don't pound like steamhammers, they pound like....drums.  Ordinary rock drums.  The guitar doesn't scream and tear with the crushing power of 10,000 wasps.  It buzzes like 100 angry bees muffled in a cloth-covered jar.  And the bass?  It's still there, but it's buried, and only really makes itself noticed in a few song intros.  Jaz Coleman still rants the same as "normal" (ha ha) and he's actually writing verses with real lyrics - but who cares?  Minus the inhuman power of technology behind him, he's just another mentally deranged conspiracy theorist jabbering into the void.  Oh well, at least the dark atmosphere is retained, and it's even darker - "We Have Joy," has to be the least joyful song ever written with that title.  Y'know, if Killing Joke were a classic novel, they would be Lord of the Flies.  This is very Lord of the Flies rock, to coinage yet another useless genre rock-crit term.  (Please, don't let any emo band [i.e., ordinary pop-punk dressed up in fancy twelve-dollar words] or heavy metal band [i.e., the genre with 1,000 microgenres even though all the bands dress the same, look the same, act the same, sing similar lyrics, and play the same damn kind of music] get ahold of this review.  Somebody might actually try to fob off their band as WilliamGoldingCore).  "Chop Chop," has a nice drone to it and will do as my pick for the best track (as if I'm ever actually going to listen to this thing willingly again to confirm).  The spare and strummy "Good Samaritan," is the worst track.  "Dregs," contains the sounds of Coleman simulating vomiting.  And that's as much thought as I intend to ever give this album again for the rest of my natural life.

P.S. After this album was released, the band broke up and several members fled to Iceland to shelter from impending nuclear apocalypse.  That Bjork was sired from the loins of a tryst between Jaz Coleman and Mark E. Smith is entirely an urban legend, at least in the one urban center of that entire island (Reykjavik, pop. 120,000, and over 200,000 in the Greater Reykvajik Area).

Friday, August 19, 2011

Gene Clark - Two Sides To Every Story

Two Sides to Every Story (1977) ***

After the excessive ambition of No Other, Clark returned after several years' layoff with its polar opposite:  Two Sides reeks with non-ambition, and thus goes down much easier than its more difficult predecessor.  It is nothing more or less than a straightforward country album with a few mild (read: mild) pop and rock leanings (and the latter only shows up on the swangin' Elvis-boogie of "Marylou," which is gratingly suckjobby).  So Clark wanted to issue a mainstream country album in the mid-'70s after the commercial debacle of No Other, and get back to his Kansas small town roots after all that high falutin' rock star psychedelia.  It didn't work, and this album still remains unissued on CD after it bombed even worse.  I suppose after the unsuccessful ploy for massive ambition that this was the logical direction for Clark to recoup his standing:  this is a very modest album of moderate pleasures.  It certainly isn't the place to start if you're wondering where the genius of Gene Clark lies, because there's little of that in evidence here.  It's simply a modest collection of ten country songs, and by the standards of mainstream country albums, it's clearly superior to most.  This is Gene Clark, after all - how could it be any less than a pleasurable listen?  The inconsistencies are less glaring than on his previous straight country albums, perhaps because he focuses more on the soft balladic tear-in-my-beer side of country than hicksville stomps.  That doesn't stop his cover of Leadbelly's "In the Pines," from sounding like a Dillard & Clark outtake, but most of the other tunes consist of soggily beer-soaked honky tonk laments - George Jones country, if you will.  The songs do feel soggy, as it's clear that Clark's talent is slowly fading away, but it's a gradual, graceful fade.  The centerpieces are situated side by side in the center of the album:  the lovely "Sister Moon," which sounds like an outtake from No Other and is the closest Clark approaches mystical pop territory; and the album's clear highlight, a desolate reading of James Talley's "Give My Love to Marie."  At six minutes, it has the feel of an offhand country epic in its grim, glacial pace, and is the only track that appears to reach for ambition:  this wrenching tale of the cruel pressures working life have set upon a coal miner's black lungs will leave you close to tears if you have any affection for country laments or the plight of the working man at all.  The rest of the songs feel anti-climactic in comparison; as for those - well, there's not much to say about them.  Which isn't to say that this isn't, in fact, a fine collection of country songs in a low, modest key.  Just be prepared for the mood of underwhelming and everything'll work out fine.

Magazine - After the Fact

After the Fact (1982) ***

It's difficult to see exactly who this record is intended for.  The UK version, which is distinguishable with a green cover, is a straightforward greatest hits career overview.  This US version with the red cover is radically different, substituting many of the hits with B-side obscurities.  Thus, the American version operates as a confused mish-mash that will satisfy neither the neophyte nor the hardcore fan.  The inclusion of sub-par material in the form of B-sides make it a rocky listen and hardly an ideal introduction to the band.  And hardcore fans looking for a round-up of obscurities will frustratingly have to deal with the overlap of material culled from albums that they already have.  Actually, it's not so bad:  of these 13 tracks, four hail from Magazine's regular studio albums:  two from Album #2, and one each from Albums #3 & #4.  Nothing from the debut, you ask?  Well, yes, there is "Shot By Both Sides," but it's presented here in its original single version form, which is radically different from the LP version - instead of drenching the main hook in an engulfing sea of synths, it's the non-New Wave hardcore punky version with screaming guitars!  Both the keybs/guitars versions are awesomely great, so flip a coin to decide which one you prefer.  Then after that opener you get as a bonus its followup, "Touch and Go," another worthily punky/hooky A-side that's almost as catchily strong.  From therein out, the B-side material wildly swings from godawful to goodness, with the atonal sax-honking "TV Baby," possibly the worst track Devoto has ever set his name to.  Or is that the concluding track on this disc, the pointless spoken word piece, "The Book"?  You get a pair of kitchsy covers, "Goldfinger," courtesy Jimmy Bond, and "I Love You, You Big Dummy," courtesy Cap'n Beefy.  Both sorta suck, with the latter particularly grating (duh-err, it's Beefheart, it's supposed to be unlistenably abrasive).  There's another punk era raver, "My Mind Ain't So Open," that takes issues with those so liberal-minded their brains fall out.  To round things out, there are two quite good B-sides in the traditionally epic Magazine style, "Give Me Everything," (essential) and "Upside Down" (mellower and not quite so essential) that would've fit in fine as album tracks on any of their first three LPs.

In short, you certainly don't need this disc, period:  as a career overview you'd be better off picking up Rays & Hail, and as a collection of rarities it's been superseded by Scree.  But this was their first career overview disc released, and is still widely circulating.  Besides, I don't have either of those other two discs.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Pet Sounds vs. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band


Once again, the Beatles easily score on the LP art front:  what the heck is that Beach Boys cover (and title) supposed to represent?  It's not as if it's an album full of animal noises (which only get thrown on for a few seconds at the end).  Now, All Summer Long - that was a cover.  So, we have paired up the two first "important" rock "concept" albums, even though neither one particular coheres as a concept (the Beatles do fare much better conceptually, though, even if it's half-arsed).  But basically no one would care if they didn't have the songs, and ultimately (like all pop albums) they boil down to collections of songs, good and bad and indifferent.

1.  "Wouldn't It Be Nice" vs. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" - The Beatles tune is a nice little ditty, but that's all it amounts to.  The Beach Boys frontloaded their album with its leadoff single and catchiest tune (which for the Beach Boys is saying something).  BBs 1, Bs 0.

2.  "You Still Believe in Me" vs. "With a Little Help From My Friends" - Who can resist this homely yet rousing Ringo showcase?  The Brian Wilson tune is pretty and pleasant but rather nondescript and unmemorable in comparison.  BBs 1, Bs 1.

3.  "That's Not Me" vs. "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" -  LSD (har dee har) contains one of the most obnoxious and grating verse to chorus transitions in pop history, with the verses much superior to the hectoring chorus.  The most overrated song in the Beatles catalogue?  However, those issues aside, the Beach Boys tune is once again a rather hookless if pretty ballad.  BBs 1, Bs 2.

4.  "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)" vs. "Getting Better" - The third meandering self-pity ballad in a row from Mr. Wilson!  Yet its sheer, breathtaking gorgeousness and "heartbeat" bass line outweigh all other considerations.  The Lennon/McCartney tune (one of the instances where it's clear exactly who wrote exactly which line; you know the John verse I'm talking about) is a nice jaunt, but... BBs 2, Bs 2.

5.  "I'm Waiting for the Day" vs. "Fixing a Hole" - The first entry in the boring midsection of the Beatles' most grotesquely overrated LP.  It may not be a masterpiece, but the Beach Boys' thundering drum arrangement handles the lovely, quiet verse seguing into a bombastic loud chorus trick much better than the Beatles' LSD.  BBs 3, Bs 2.

6.  "Let's Go Away for Awhile" vs. "She's Leaving Home" - Interesting that both titles deal with someone going away.  The Beatles handle the generation gap far less acutely than Ray Davies would on "Nothing to Say," but sentiments (I do mean sentimental) are there and the lyrics are a considerable cut above the usual Paul McCartney standard - which isn't saying very much from one of rock's worst-ever lyricists, but these aren't particularly embarrassing and actually tell a coherent tale.  Oh, I haven't talked much about the Beach Boys instrumental so far.  That's because it's not that memorable.  BBs 3, Bs 3.

7.  "Sloop John B" vs. "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" - The most delightful and fun tune on this Beach Boys record (which means a lot - we're talking about the Beach Boys!) vs. a real "eh" Lennon tune that doesn't have much to recommend itself beyond the creepy circus atmosphere.  BBs 4, Bs 3.

8.  "God Only Knows" vs. "Within You Without You" - You know, this isn't really fair.  I've noticed a pattern so far:  when the Beach Boys win, they absolutely BLOW AWAY the Beatles, but when the Beatles win it's much closer to a tie.  I don't even have to discuss this, we all know which track easily, EASILY wins.  BBs 5, Bs 3.

9.  "I Know There's an Answer" vs. "When I'm 64" - The Beatles tune is a fair slice of music hall fluff, which is a compliment - Paul's good at this stuff!  However, Brian is pouring his heart out here to upbeat Christmasey music - and it works.  Ever noticed how the second side of both of these albums is stronger than the first?  BBs 6, Bs 3.

10.  "Here Today" vs. "Lovely Rita" - Finally, the first uptempo rocker (well, by Beach Boys standards) on the record!  Great bass line and organ fills, and love the break.  The Paul tune is sheer rollicking fun!  Really hard to decide here.  The Beatles tune wins because it's a tune that gets stuck in my head; the Beach Boys tune isn't catchy enough to do that.  BBs 6, Bs 4.

11.  "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" vs. "Good Morning Good Morning" - The John tune is a lot of fun if a bit abrasive (how much better would it have been without those blaring horns?  Well, I guess that was part of the intentional 'alarm clock' effect).  Once again Brian Wilson wrenches his emotions out from his heart and it's stunningly moving.  BBs 7, Bs 4.

12.  "Pet Sounds" vs. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)" - An instrumental that's impossible to hum (the liner notes actually brag about this) up against an 80-second segue intentionally designed as filler (which for once is not an insult - it may be there merely to fill up space, but it does so effectively in service of the loose concept).  I'm not wild about either but at least the Beach Boys give us an actual song.  BBs 8, Bs 4.

13.  "Caroline No" vs. "A Day in the Life" - Against any other album closer bar "Waterloo Sunset," the Beach Boys absolutely KILL.  Against what is arguably the finest five and a half minutes of Western Civilization (I'm hyperbolizing, of course, but only a little)?  BBs 8, Bs 5.

But wait, we're not finished!

14.  Closing sound effects:  Choo-choo train and dogs barking vs. that final, crashing piano chord.  No contest!  BBs 8, Bs 6.

So the Beach Boys are the clear and undisputed winners of this contest, at least on a song by song basis.  However, it should be noted that Pet Sounds suffers from a monotony of style and sound, while Sgt. Pepper's contains a surfeit of variety.  However, if such variety means that we must suffer through George Harrison's carpetbagging Indian music bores...  Pet Sounds is still clearly the superior album, lack of variety and family scrapbook cover notwithstanding.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tom Verlaine - The Miller's Tale

The Miller's Tale: A Tom Verlaine Anthology (1996) ***

Verlaine's post-Marquee Moon career has been the definition of anti-climactic, perhaps proving that maybe Neil Young did have a point about burning out rather than fading away:  Tom didn't blaze out in a flame of idiotic punk "glory" like Sid Vicious or Johnny Thunders, but kept on plugging diligently along with a string of critically acclaimed solo albums throughout the '80s with his devotion to professionalism, craft, and surfeit of clear talent never wavering.  Which is exactly the problem:  Verlaine seemingly morphed into an Alternative Rock Eric Clapton, presenting a series of faultlessly professional and tasteful records that lacked excitement, blood, and soul.  What's baffling is how this is definitively NOT clear on the first of these two discs, which consists of a ridiculously smoking hot live date in 1982.  The ten songs culled from the live set (including a breathtaking 14-minute take of Verlaine's signature epic, "Marquee Moon," its very self) reek with the fluid assurance and hard, punchy drive of a highly polished garage band; it easily ranks in the top tier of classic rock live albums, and is essential, essential, essential listening for any fan remotely interested in the man and his music.  The tragic flaw is that in a non-overdubbed live setting Verlaine is revealed as the appallingly shaky vocalist that his natural voice is, but you're too often so distracted by what an amazing guitarist his natural fingers make him that you won't care....well, that much.

The vocals prove much more problematic on the second disc, which consists of eighteen selections from his career in Television (one each from Marquee Moon and Adventure; two from their 1992 reunion LP) and his solo albums.  One can easily envision nearly all of these tunes being vastly improved with the addition of a real vocalist, one whose throat doesn't constantly strain like a tomcat scratching against a chalkboard.  As you'd expect, most of the decent material is concentrated chronologically near the first half of the second disc, as slowly Verlaine's talent (like all rock artists) peters out over the passage of time.  He can get off some tightfisted rocket launcher rockers ("Grip of Love") as well as essay a few tender love ballads ("Foolish Heart," "Anna"), and comes with '50s bop, too ("Lindi Lu"), not to mention that lyrically and moodily his military history narratives can be somewhat intriguing ("Words From the Front," "Stalingrad").  But overall, I simply can't get into this music:  it doesn't move me, it doesn't excite me, it doesn't make me want to sing or dance, it doesn't blow my mind with its brilliance, it's just there - a collection of paint-by-numbers pop-rock songs in the patented Tom Verlaine style that anyone familiar with the second Television album should expect with no surprises.  The pleasure I do get consists almost entirely of charting the twists and turns and flows of Verlaine's consistently interesting and ocassionally dazzling guitar runs.  So if you are a budding guitarist, up this grade a notch and transcribe the solos for your practice sessions. 

P.S. Tom Verlaine's real name is Thomas Miller, hence the title.

There are better songs, but this one's the only one I could find with an actual promo video!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Madness - s/t

Madness (1983) ****

Oh, ska - one of the few musical genres where I feel fully justified in completely loathing 95% of it, with its polka-bounce seemingly designed for smarmy frat-boy drunken singalongs.  Second-wave ska focused around Two-Tone records in "Ghost Town"-era Thatcherite Britain was something of an exception, with the political edges mitigating a lot of the inherent drunken smarminess of the medium and the New Wave influence helping make some of the music somewhat musically interesting.  Anyway, the main reason I like Madness has nothing to do with ska.  It's because they sound like the Kinks.  Of the early '80s U.K. ska bands, they stood out by clearly owing far more to Ray Davies than Prince Buster, making them come across as much whiter if not quite more Anglo-Saxon than the Specials or the Beat (U.K.) - which, while it may or may not be a good thing in itself (it's quite neutral), it does mean that the focus of their craft is crafting catchy singalongs.  Oh, wait a minute, that's the purpose of all ska.  Anyway, this is a mess of a compilation consisting of about half of the previous year's Madness Present the Rise and Fall LP and assorted singles from the previous three or four years; it was designed as an introduction for the American market after the fluke success of "Our House," a totally rollicking smash of a barrelhouse tune that endeared us Yanks because not in spite of its deeply, deeply Englishness.  A totally rollicking, barrelhouse tune defines around half of this twelve-track disc, and it's delightful despite the true lack of sonic variety (there are a few ballads, and they're surprisingly good, but most of this is upbeat, jolly singalongs - you know, ska).   OK, there's one Rat Pack-esque swing tune to close the album, "Madness (Is All in the Mind)," but it's the album's sole bummer - the other eleven tunes are all more or less ace.  And I notice upon glancing back over the tracklisting that they followup "Our House," with three slower-tempoed ballads in a row.  Oh well, a surfeit of ballads doesn't alter the main impression:  Madness obviously don't possess the genius of the Kinks, but they work hard (play hard?) in their limited, chosen genre and succeed with a string of jolly musical hall singalongs that I'd easily get seasick from if extended far too long, but in small doses (i.e., the length of this disc) are quite F-U-N.  Just think of them as the ska Ramones, except that would imply wilful stupidity, and Madness' lyrics are anything but D-U-M-B - in the Ray Davies/Squeeze tradition, they're sharply detailed, wittily ironic yet empathetic portraits of working and middle class British life.  Except for "Night Boat to Cairo," which is an instrumental.  "House of Fun," in which a 16 year old lad naively ventures into a condom shop, may be the wittiest, unless you mention the string of blameless excuses in "Shut Up."  Anyway, this is a very, very, very FUN album that should delight any pop consumer unless the words BOUNCY and LIGHTWEIGHT and POP and ROLLICKING and BRITISH make you cringe. 

The House of Love - s/t

The House of Love (1990) ***1/2

This is actually their third album of the self-titled name, with a collection of singles and a debut album preceding it.  Caught between shoe-gaze, post-punk, and Brit-pop somewhere in the vicinity of Madchester without quite fitting into any of those genres, this band likewise fell between the cracks commercially, despite "I Don't Know Why I Love You," receiving substantial American airplay.  Thus it's become an overlooked gem if not quite a lost classic; the band don't quite forge a unique sonic signature out of their melange of U2-meets-the-Smiths-meets-J&MC-etc. influences, and guitarist/vocalist Guy Chadwick's songwriting is competent but only ocassionally stunning.  Aside from the lead single, the remake of a previous single, "Shine On," is easily the second highlight, and those two tracks are such standouts they threaten to overshadow the rest.  But there's also the dreamy, Church-like (as in the band, dummy) "Hannah," that opens the album on a jangly atmospheric note, as well as the quietly evocative tribute "The Beatles and the Stones," which sounds little like either and is actually more of a tender nostalgia piece for the flower-power era (I suppose this is the appropriate place to point out that Chadwick's lyrics can sometimes be a bit dodgy - "Put the V in Vietnam"?).  "Hedonist," in particularly grates with its insistent Jesus references, but hey, the Stone Roses did "I am the Resurrection," and let's not even begin to mention U2.  There are a few too many listless ballads like "Blind," and "Someone's Got To Love You," that I can't quite remember even after glancing back over a lyric sheet, but overall the album is a solid, pleasant listen for those hankering after the missing link between Echo & the Bunnymen and Oasis.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Funkadelic - Standing On the Verge of Getting It On

Standing On the Verge of Getting It On (1974) ***1/2

So, these guys did some drugs.  Did I say some drugs?  As if you couldn't tell from the cover, which looks suspiciously like some pothead's doodling while on acid, but just wait till you drop onto the first few seconds of the album itself:  an Alvin and the Chipmunks voice sputtering very, very obviously stoned gibberish about picking boogers ("that's a gross motherfucker") and giggling about it, as well as the memorable couplet, "If you were a dog and I were a tree, I'd let you pee on me."  Songs entitled, "Jimmy's Got a Little Bitch in Him," are only conceivable if we assume that they were written and recorded on drugs, though it's reassuring that Funkadelic are tolerant of queerness even if they can't help giggling about it (I blame the marijuana).  This, their fifth or sixth album under the Funkadelic banner (who can keep track; my reviews of the band's discography are going to follow as haphazard a manner as the works themselves) is their hardest rocking, with guitarist Eddie Hazel dominating the fretworks.  The album gets off rock solid with two DY-NO-MITE! rockers (say it in that Good Times voice!  You don't remember Good Times?  Kids today, sigh....) "Red Hot Mama," and the even better, "Alice in My Fantasies," which you can tell are great just by the titles.  Unfortunately, those are followed up with over seven minutes of the slow doo-woppy, "I'll Stay," which is followed by the not-much-better "Sexy Ways," which adds up to over 10 minutes of the album consisting of a boring waste smack in the middle, seriously throwing out of whack any possible flow of goodness that the band had been building up to.  Frustrating.  Frustrating, frustrating, frustrating.  Especially that the next song is the titular track, which ranks up there as one of P-Funk's catchiest funky-groove chants EVAH - yeah, YOU just TRY to get that chorus out of your HAID!  Finally, this platter closes with "Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts," which is practically an identical twin sequel to "Maggot Brain," consisting of little more than Eddie Hazel soloing like Jimi's long-lost kid brother.  Like most sequels, it's somewhat inferior to the original, but in this case, only somewhat - it's great!  Thus, we have yet another frustratingly inconsistent P-Funk LP:  four GREAT songs and three THAT SUCKS songs.

Funkadelic - Maggot Brain

Maggot Brain (1970) ***1/2

The '70s equivalent of the Wu-Tang Clan, George Clinton and his merry psychedelic pranksters seemed bent upon defining the term, "spreading yourself too thin".  Talented and influential Parliament-Funkadelic were (the fact that they felt the need to split themselves into two separate bands speaks volumes, and those were only the main two - keeping up with all of their offshoots can be dizzying), I highly doubt that when tackling their massive discography, many of their albums are going to get very high ratings for that reason.  This album begins and ends with two lengthy tracks that each hover around the ten-minute mark, one of which is a masterpiece, and one of which is a rip-off.  The title track is nothing more than an extended guitar solo courtesy Eddie Hazel, but it's one of the most jaw-dropping post-Hendrix guitar solos in rock history.  It doesn't quite add up to, "play it like your mama died," but what could?  After the ten minutes of that opening track are finished, the rest of the album seems like an afterthought - not that the five shorter songs aren't worthwhile, it's just that the ten-minute guitar solo casts such a deep, brooding shadow over the entire album.  How could it not?  The closing track, "Wars of Armageddon," is a waste of space, a slightly funkier take on "Revolution #9," that was either thrown on hastily at the last minute to fill out the running time, or the result of too many drugs, or most likely both.  In between you get three OK-ish songs that have their funky moments and two really good songs that stand on the verge of great:  the ripping post-Hendrix/proto-metal "Super Stupid," and the gospel-from-funk-groove-freakout, "Hit It and Quit It".  To add it up:  around 18 minutes of this album are great, another 10 minutes of this album are fairly good, and the remaining 10 minutes are awful.  So it's definitely worth the investment of your listening pleasure but it's nowhere near a masterpiece, despite this being revered as one of their best albums.

P.S.  This album was originally entitled Faggot Brain and was filled with homophobic rants - the "drown in your own shit," cover was supposed to represent a gay man literally taking the Hershey Highway.

P.P.S/  Kidding am I?  Guess you may. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

XTC - Nonsuch

Nonsuch (1992) **1/2

In which XTC's march to bland sissy-pop mediocrity continues unabated.  Like Pears & Dragonfruit, it's over an hour's worth of music, but unlike Kiwis & Strawberries, there is precious little sonic variety.  Instead, it's merely one tastefully arranged, acoustic guitar or piano based mid-tempo "rocker" or ballad after the other, reaching for the thematic consistency of a formerly quirky New Wave band aiming for bland alternative rock for aging menopausal 30something ex-hipsters.  The music is fundamentally uninteresting.  There aren't any overblown arrangements or production excesses or wild failed experiments and Andy & Colin even sing somewhat better than before (I said somewhat).  It's just a collection of songs.  17 songs, in fact, and all falling into roughly the same style, I find myself....zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz........

Where was I?  Oh, yes, this is certainly the dullest album XTC have ever recorded.  It's not as if some of it isn't alright, it's just that there's too much of it, and it's all DULL DULL DULL.  Did I mention that this album was dull?  Let's break it down track by track:

1) The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead - When the strongest cut on the album is entitled The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead, you're in trouble.  Oh, that wacky Andy and his totally NON-OBVIOUS metaphors!  IT'S NOT LIKE HE'S HITTING YOU OVER THE HEAD WITH THE SECRET SUBTEXT OF THIS SONG!  Hint:  it's about JESUS!

2) My Bird Performs - Colin obviously would have had no way of knowing that in Chinese, "my bird," is slang for "my penis".  Nevertheless, this song has me in stitches because of that.  That's the only redeeming feature of this song.

3) Dear Madam Barnum - This song is boring adult contemporary crap and you know what, screw it, it's only track #3 and I realize that no way am I going to get through analyzing all 17 of these songs one by one.  That would be almost as tedious and boring for me and my dear readers as actually listening to all of these 17 songs would be.  "Smartest Monkeys," is yet another PAINFULLY NON-OBVIOUS slice of social criticism performed 1,000x better when Ray Davies wrote it under the title "Apeman".  "Crocodile," is another animal song and it's good.  "War Dance," sadly, is not a Killing Joke cover.  "Omnibus," sadly, is not a Move cover.  "Bungalow," has some appealingly creepy melodics to it, at the very least, but is sadly, not a W. Somerset Maugham cover.  "Books Are Burning" - who the hell does Andy Partridge think he is, Sting?  Ray Bradbury?  Burning books is wrong.  Is that the message he's trying to get across?  Hmmm, I don't know if I agree, Mr. Partridge.  I'm all for book burning if it's the wrong kind of books.  Like, for instance, all copies of the inside booklet containing the lyrics of this CD. 

P.S.  I forgot to mention "The Disappointed".  That's a lovely little tune.  There are actually five-ish or so decent songs on this release, in fact.  But whether it's worth the bother to dig them out from underneath the other dozen, that's a good question.  Are you an XTC fanatic?  Yes!  Are you merely a casual fan?  Fuck that shit!  We're drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon!

Tears For Fears - Songs From the Big Chair

Songs From the Big Chair (1985) ***

The most queried question in pop has always been, "I really like that song I heard on the radio, but is the rest of the album any good?"  This has long occupied pop consumers' minds since the dawn of radio singles and the invention of the long-playing record.  This album/cassette/CD (released in 1985, so the vast majority of purchasers would own this in the cassette format; I said 'would' because I can't imagine many pop listeners not physically around in 1985 actually giving much of a damn about this album) contains three smash hit singles, each deserving its own special star, thus bringing this album up to the three star rating you see above.  You've heard them, either by constant overexposure during the '80s or by constant overexposure by movies/TV shows during the '00s trying to instantly signify that '80s feel.  The angry young survivor of abuse anthem, "Shout."  The dreamy, creamy adult contemporary swoosh, "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," in which the titular chorus seems like an afterthought.  "Head Over Heels," which isn't so much a song as an extended swoon, and is the most-played out song in the history of that much-mined pop subject when you're feeling those exact same feelings (well, at least I always wear that song down to the nub when I'm crushing).  After that, you get a big fat nothing.  Songs that define the term 'filler'.  This is particular obvious on side two, which starts off with a snoozefest of an adult contemporary ballad, "I Believe," that defines forgettable before it's even over, which then proceeds to "Broken," which seems to exist solely as a teasing intro to "Head Over Heels," and after you've swooned your heart out, you're left with nearly seven minutes of "Listen," which consists seemingly of fragments of tunes and samples that go nowhere and is seemingly designed simply to fill up the remaining seven minutes of space on the tape.  Side One is a little more substantial, which isn't to say that its two non-hits are really worth your time.  "Mothers Talk," is just boringly stereotypical '80s funk, complete with obnoxious black female soul backup singers being stereotypical, and "The Working Hour," has a lengthy sax solo intro designed to pad out the song's length and that's about the only truly memorable thing about this boring AOR ballad.  Even the hits seem padded out to stretch the album's thin supply of material, being longer than the single versions.  In sum:  this album is only eight songs long, two of which don't even count as real songs, which actually only leaves six songs, of which only three are good.  In other words, buy it cheap if you see it used - those hit singles are great! if you haven't gotten sick of them already. 

P.S. No toilet jokes, please.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Gene Clark - No Other

No Other (1974) ****1/2

Man, this is one weird album.  Not so much the music, which is actually fairly conventional; it just feels like a weird one, for several reasons.  The music is considerably removed from Clark's usual rough-hewn but genteel country-rock:  it is excessively produced and overarranged, with gospelly backup singers and a cast of cameo musicians that seemingly included every session cat in L.A. at the time (perhaps they had the same coke dealers).  Yet it doesn't feel overproduced or excessively cluttered despite the fact that the music is obviously cluttered and at more than a few points bombastically overblown.  Perhaps the closest comparison is if Led Zeppelin had taken the style of "No Quarter," and decided to run with that mood for an entire album - and yeah, if comparing Gene Clark to Led Zeppelin sounds out there, that's to underscore just how weird this album feels.  While the underlying tunes appear to be rooted in basic country-rock, Clark slathers on elements of gospel, glammy pop, and what I can only describe as 'heavy psychedelia'.  Thus, it sounds like nothing else in the Clark canon, and one gets the sense that Clark clearly intended this to be his magnum opus, a great statement encompassing various styles of his own personal synthesis of Gram Parsons' "Cosmic American Music".

It didn't work out that way, and to understand why this album fails just short of the masterpiece it was intended to be, one has to look at its history.  Recorded under a cloud of cocaine and an excessive recording budget (how much went to the lavish production and how much to the musicians' dealers is anyone's guess), No Other was originally intended as a sprawling double album, but Asylum Records balked and issued a painfully truncated eight-song version instead.  A commercial and critical flop, the album wasn't even released on CD until 26 years later, and caveat emptor, without the missing tracks.  Thus, the only version still available is the eight-song cycle, which makes this album seem oddly short for an album with such overblown scope.  It's as if they cut The Wall or whatever sprawling double album rock magnum opus in half - sure, they might have cut out some dross, but it just doesn't feel right.  It's comparing the two-hour version of Once Upon a Time in America that was released in theaters and rightfully reviled, to the masterwork that the uncut four-hour version turned out to be.

So, sigh, we must make do with what we have.  Only one song clocks in at under four minutes, with "Some Misunderstanding," running over eight - and it predictably does meander, but not as much as you'd expect from the length.  So the songs are bloated, but the bloat fits the ambition of the album well.  The melodies are translucent rather than direct, but after they sink in prove to be consistently among Clark's finest, while the lyrics - well, I did mention that this feels like a very under the influence album recorded by a large group of coked-out L.A. session musicians, didn't I?  Which makes the beautiful, "From a Silver Phial," all the more powerful, I suppose, as its drug casualty observation obviously comes from close and direct experience.  The album's probable highlight, the indescribably haunting, "Silver Raven," appears to be about some drug experience, as well; appears because Clark's metaphorical obtuseness prevents the listener from grasping what he's trying to get at on certain songs, not that he isn't lyrically direct and poetically forceful on certain others ("The True One," "Life's Greatest Fool").  But it's not so much the occasional lyrical references as the hazy, sepia-toned feel of the performances and unconventional song structures on tracks like the weirdly, creepily, flakily bombastic "Strength of Strings":  this album is as coked-out California pop as classic Fleetwood Mac.  Perhaps it's not surprising, however, that brilliant as much of this music is, it was a commercial failure:  the title track, which oddly and creepily admixtures a soul gospel backup chorus to a Bowie-esque creeping synthline hook, is the closest to single material on here, and it clearly would've been a bit too 'out of it' to be a hit in 1974.   Maybe baby, they'll see fit to release the rest of the sessions and we'll finally to be able to judge Clark's attempted double album as the sprawlingly complete mess it was intended to be.  Until then, we'll have to accept this sprawlingly incomplete mess as a poor man's substitute.

Magazine - Magic, Murder, and the Weather

Magic, Murder, and the Weather (1981) **1/2

Who would've thought guitarist John McGeoch, who departed to join Siouxsie & the Banshees in 1980, would prove to be so crucial to the band?  Or perhaps the band as a whole were just exhausted.  The good news:  it's not horrible, or particularly embarassing.  The bad news:  it's not very good, and actually quite boring.  Classic Magazine were overblown, pompous, pretentious, and overproduced; this music is low-key, underproduced, and seemingly determined to keep its hooks non-obvious.  But at least Howard Devoto's lyrics are still pretentious as hell!  The major problem seems to be the complete and total lack of any real energy or excitement; the songs come across as rehearsal demos, not merely in the underproduction, but in the spiritless band performances - as if they needed to run through these songs a few more times to fully jell as a tight unit.  There's a new guitarist on board, but I'm not even going to bother looking up his name; the music is dominated by Dave Formula's brittle keyboards with Barry Adamson's chunkily crooked basslines burbling like a porpoise a few centimeters from the surface.  That all said, it's not truly a bad or wretched album, simply a very, very boring one:  you can tell that some of the songs would've had potential with better presentation or least a smidgen of some goddamn energy.  On second thought, McGeoch's departure was a symptom not the underlying malady:  the band are clearly going through the motions here, and Devoto's breaking up of the band immediately after this album's release was, in hindsight, one of the least shocking breakup announcements ever.  The lead-off track (and single), "About the Weather," stands out as the brightest and most compellingly performed tune here, even if in comparison to earlier Magazine singles it's a muted, low-key, non-obviously hooky affair - but it's good!  After it grows on you, that is.  I wish I could say as much for the other tracks, but while it is true that the album does eventually grow on you after a while as its cold, muted hooks slowly reveal themselves, even after all that effort there's precious little to compel the listener to return to them, not after the second honest-to-goodness-actually-good track, "So Lucky".  OK, "The Honeymoon Killers," and "Suburban Rhonda," have their moments, as does "Come Alive," - "Pepsi Cola brings your ancestors back from the grave," is a clever way to write a chorus.  It's based on a Chinese mistranslation, I surmise. 

Killing Joke - what's THIS for...!

what's THIS for...! (1981) ***1/2

This album was written in the studio and it shows.  If you're looking for song songs, you won't find any.  What you will find are endless vamps that were obviously written around in-the-studio band jams, which means that vocals, verses, and lead guitar take a backseat to Paul Ferguson's tribal drums, which are for all intents and purposes the lead instrument on this particular KJ LP.  Sprinkle on top washes of ultra-heavy, distorted guitar that's so pure rhythm to call it rhythm guitar is understatement, and shouted gang choruses that provide the songs' sole attempt at a centered structure, and you have the recipe for every single track on this album.  Unlike the debut LP, this platter contains zero, and I mean Z-E-R-O, sonic variety:  it's one of those albums that all flow along as one big, fat track.  To bring back the Sabbath comparison, if the debut was Paranoid with a handful of classic tracks + filler, this is Master of Reality:  the band have settled into their patented style of maximum heaviosity a little too consistently, but if you're looking for skull-crushing power, 'real' songs be damned.  The extreme repetition is a serious drawback, and no, I don't necessarily mean from track to track in the same style (though that is a problem), it's also that the individual tracks are themselves extremely repetitive, all based upon repetitive riffs that repetitively repeat throughout repetitively.  The biggest offender is "Madness," as it drags on for nearly eight minutes with Jaz Coleman bellowing, "This is madness!" over and over in what appears to be the song's sole lyric.  You see, because unlike the debut, this time out Coleman seemed to not particularly bother with verses, but simply wrote choruses for every, ahem, 'song' on the album.  Anywhatever, plus sides are that it's more sonically original and distinct than the debut, with this album probably more than any other defining the klassik Killing Joke 'sound'; and like I said, it's the type of album that when you want to envelope yourself in a cocoon of a pure wash of tribalistic, crushing yet danceable heaviness, this is a mood piece that no other album can compare with. 

P.S.  The acronym for this album is WTF.  I have no idea if that was intentional or not.  Just thought you'd like to know if you hadn't noticed already.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

XTC - Oranges and Lemons

Oranges and Lemons (1989) ***

In which XTC give full way into the sissy pop band always lurking inside.  One glance at the cover should tell you what this is:  a Saturday morning children's cartoon version of '60s "psychedelic" pop.  This is Chips From a Chocolate Fireball performed with a straight face, and that's only half the problem:  the other halves are the glossy late '80s production and the 15-song hour-long length (making it a small footnote in history by being one of the first double-LPs that was issued as a single CD/cassette).  OK, that's 150%, which adds up to excessive, but so does this CD.  (Actually, I've had it on cassette for years, but only listened to it for the first time in a decade this past week.)  The problems are apparent from the first track, "Garden of Earthly Delights," which hearkens unpleasantly back to Big Express territory with its ludicrous rococo excess attempting its best to hide whatever tune there may be underneath massive layers of over-arrangement.  Eventually, a bright and simple tune does make itself very clear and bright, but even then, you're so blindsided by the horns and pounding drums that all you'll remember is the overblown arrangement.  Fortunately, the rest of the album isn't (for the most part) within that style; in fact, the next two tracks are the album's clear highlights.  Moulding chips in with his A-side for the B-level sidekick he is, "King for a Day," which is very pleasant, easy-listening pop-rock that superficially resembles Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," (not that's a bad thing, mind), which was the non-hit followup to the album's big hit song (and only U.S. Top 40 entry) "Mayor of Simpleton," a song about a retarded person trying to get into some girl's pants.  It's an extremely catchy slice of pop classica, but I have to take issue with the vile sentiments.  Andy is arguing that he deserves to get laid even though he's ugly (ever taken a good look at him?) and stupid.  I'm afraid that I'm going to have to introduce Mr. Partridge to the concept of Darwinian selection.  Contrary to the song's sentiments, stupidity is never a turn-on.  The protagonist of the song lacks brains, charm, and good looks - so why should any woman want to be with him when there are so many better choices available?  Does Andy have anything to offer?  Oh, he claims that his love is so strong that she should ignore the fact that he's a moron, but that's never been a convincing argument in the history of courtship.  If intensity of feeling were an argument for romance, stalkers would make the best lovers.  Let's face it, some people just don't deserve to breed.  I know this sounds harsh, but have you taken the bus lately?  Our society is being overrun by dumb, trashy, not even particularly good looking people breeding like rabbits.  These people do not need to be encouraged.  Thus, "Mayor of Simpleton," despite its catchiness, ranks as possibly the most morally irresponsible song ever written.

After track #3 the album grows very inconsistent, starting with track #4, the painfully obvious (and I do mean pain) "Here Comes President Kill Again," which does nothing as a song and is the first entry in this album's song cycle of overwrought, simplistic political posturing.  I know that sort of thing was trendy in the late '80s and early '90s, but c'mon, XTC are no Midnight Oil, or even R.E.M.  It's not so bad when essaying lovely trifles as "The Loving," but not when he's getting po-faced and serious on "Scarecrow People," - is that a metaphor?  Whoah, could that be a metaphor for something?  Speaking of idiotic metaphors, "Pink Thing," is universally regarded as the album's lowest low point, and I'm going to quite predictably agree.  It's about a dick.  And it's not even funny - that's the real crime.  Anyway, to save this from being a lengthy track by track review of a 15 song LP, let me conclude by noting that the closer, "Chalkhills and Children," is a semi-haunting recreation of Surf's Up-era Beach Boys and that most of the good material is concentrated on the first side (as conventionally expected).  There are some crappy lounge-jazzy things on Side Two and some Garbage Pail Kids (remember the '80s!) children's music in "Hold Me Daddy," that sounds like a senile David Byrne.  I would counter with the cliche that this is one good LP stretched out to a double LP length, except that there are 15 tracks and only about 5 actually constitute good music that I might want to hear again, so that only makes for 1/3.  A good EP, then.  If you bothered to read my review, you know exactly which tracks to download for the iPod era.