Thursday, December 31, 2009

All is quiet...

Not that any of you sluggards will be around to get this for the next couple of days, but I hope you have a happy and a healthy 2010...and rock on!

And now, the obvious.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Random Release: Up Their Plaid Sleeves

One of the “positive” results of grunge hitting the big time in the early 90s, and subsequently dragging alternative music into the mainstream, is that a lot of hardworking acts who had teetered on the fringes of success touring the “college rock” circuit finally got enough exposure to have a bit of a payday. A few that come to mind would include Sonic Youth, the Connells, Juliana Hatfield, Dinosaur Jr., (possibly) the Breeders and others, but the one that stands out most to me is the Lemonheads, led by indie heartthrob party boy, Evan Dando.

Deny those eyes...I dare you!

A lot of my friends in college really, really hearted the Lemonheads. I mean a lot. I liked a couple of songs here and there, but mainly spent a lot of time making fun of the Lemonheads ‘cos I was sort of a jerk and I had nothing else better to do. But when I got older and a bit bored with what I was listening to, I gave their “breakthrough” album, It’s a Shame About Ray, another go and decided it's not half bad -- in fact it's quite good. I then explored the remainder of their catalog only to discover that aside from a handful of songs (the ones I’d liked previously), the Lemonheads are pretty bleh up until Ray. (There J-Mower, I said it.)

However, I’m not really here to talk about It’s a Shame About Ray, but their 1993 follow up (really, 1993???), Come On Feel the Lemonheads. The difference between Ray and Come On Feel is in ways marginal and yet noticeable. I mean at the end of the day, this is a Lemonheads album, but while Ray feels like a slew of songs written during a rush of (dare I say) divine inspiration, Come On Feel is a more grounded, thought out, even mature album. Evan had a bit o’ brass in pocket and so the time on his hands necessary to further develop ideas. Not to say that anything on Ray is what I would consider half baked (drug reference intended) or fragmented, but many of the songs are rather short and abrupt, while Come On Feel, though in no way “epic” like a Rush or a Genesis, is somewhat broader in scope, richer in tone, more filled out around the edges. What’s more, while Ray maintains a consistent tone, picking up, taking off and landing in just under 30 minutes, Come on Feel dabbles and meanders for close to an hour (which, granted, does include wading through a bit of dead space for a bonus track), exploring power pop, country rock and acoustic balladry that, while producing some fine moments throughout, leaves the listener a touch unsettled by the closing notes of the rambling (and rather pointless) The Jello Fund.

Evan, again, wears his heart on his sleeve for the majority of this album, weaving tales of love and infatuation and rather sordid times (drugs, fame, etc) into 2-3 minute pop ditties. Though never quite as confessional or true-to-life “gritty” as some of the darker, more memorable moments of Ray, Come On Feel still maintains a sense of “been there,” as if Dando is writing at least from observation if not experience. This enables quirky and/or potentially awkward tracks like Style (or its counterpart Rick James Style), Big Gay Heart (one of a couple songs featuring Sneaky Pete of the Flying Burrito Brothers on slide guitar) and Being Around a passable sincerity that may have been lost coming from anywhere other than Dando’s sleepy baritone croon. Of course the “standout” track is the straightforward, ballad-rocker Into Your Arms, which I can remember hearing for the first time while riding around in the back of the parenthetically aforementioned J-Mower’s car (and rolling my eyes) and which I know made it onto dozens, nay hundreds upon hundreds of mix tapes between 1993 and, oh, let’s say mid 1995. Ironically, this song wasn’t penned by Dando or anyone else in the band, and isn’t even one of the better tracks on the album, as I’ll take The Great Big No or Favorite T any day.

The important thing about Come On Feel is that it proves The Lemonheads had more than one album’s worth of good tunes up their plaid sleeves. And even though the album has its difficulties, it’s still a worthy follow up to the slightly more accessible Ray. Unfortunately Evan and crew sorta derailed in the wake of Come on Feel, and though 1996’s Car Button Cloth (1996, really???) had its moments, the boat had sailed, the momentum was lost and nobody really cared about the Lemonheads any more (which is what I’d been saying in the first place). As a result, there was nothing but a best of and a Dando solo album to hold fans over until 2006’s self-titled “return to form” – as in hearkening back to their Hate Your Friends/Creator days…but that’s for another post.

Friday, December 4, 2009

There's Only One Volume 1

I got this idea a bit ago from chatting with JT about a list of the Top 30 punk albums of all time as decided by Guitar World. I won’t go off (yet again) on the ridiculousness of that. Plus, with all irony aside, some of the write-ups sounded like they halfway knew what they were talking about (as if I do), but that is not the point at all.

At all.

During our discussion about which albums should have been higher, lower, on there, not on there, JT commented that Never Mind the Bullocks was better than London Calling. I didn’t disagree simply ‘cos while I don’t overly care for Bullocks, I’m not a big enough admirer of London Calling to put up any resistance (even if it is obvious which one is the better album). JT then made the funny-because-it’s-true comment that the Clash are the Radiohead of the 70s. Take that Strummer and Yorke respectively! And from there he argued that if I thought about it, Minor Threat’s Complete Discography album is probably the most influential and important punk album for me (and him), and the one I’ve listened to the most out of any punk album out there. He’s probably right, but even that isn’t the point.

You see, what I was really thinking about during our exchange is that the Clash’s debut really is all that, I mean really it is – even if I did sorta give it a wanky once over in an earlier post. And if I had to scale down my CD collection (and maybe I should), and could only keep one album by each band, that would be the one I chose for the Clash. Hands down, no mistake, no second-guessing.

So the idea with this series is that I’m going through my collection alphabetically and of the artists I have all of, the bulk of or the key-important albums of, I’m going to pick one as my “desert island” or “scaled down for the economy” or “whatever” disc.

Oh, and so these posts aren’t overly long, I’m only doing five at a time (so you’re welcome, Greg).

Apparently I don’t have anything in the As that fits the criteria…hmmm…

The Bats – Fear of God (1991): The New Zealand jangle-pop darlings that you’ve probably never heard of, it’s somewhat true that in a lot of ways one album sounds about the same as another since Robert Scott and team never stray far from their shambling, plaintive and melancholic (though darn catchy) sound. And while most folks hold up their debut, Daddy’s Highway, as their masterpiece, I’ve never really been able to get into that album. I can remember seeing the cover for Fear of God in Camelot Music (or whatever it was by then) in the PC mall when I was in high school and feeling somewhat draw to it, even though I had no idea who or what it was all about. All these years later, now that I do know the who and the what, it’s the album that for me, for what they do (and do so well), is the most immediate, flowing and ultimately fulfilling.

Favored Tracks: Dancing as the Boat Goes Down, Straight Image

The Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night (1964): I’m not even going to argue the merit, worth or overall impact of one Beatles’ album over another. I mean the fact that their hip “misspell” of the word beetle is recognized as legit by the spell checker in Microsoft Word pretty much solidifies their ultimate cultural influence. While I certainly see the worth in many parts of most every album (Magical Mystery Tour, you will always be a big, steamy pile), it’s impossible to pick one that easily identifies, sums up or defines the Beatles’ sound. So what it all boils down to is which album, if any, floats your boat the most. For me it is, has been and always will be A Hard Day’s Night. This is the album that made me seriously listen to the Beatles in the first place, the one that made me consider them as something more than an overrated, overhyped bag of wind, and capable of writing more than two songs that I thought were worth a glass onion. (Until around 1998 I only liked I Want to Hold Your Hand and We Can Work It Out.) But simply put, AHD’sN makes me happy. These songs make me want to dance across the room, to jump in the air, to shout out loud, to fall in love and get my heartbroken all at the same time. In short, AHD’sN reminds me that music can be good and serious but also a lot of fun – not only to listen to but also to make. I hear a lot of joy in this album, and that includes secret smiles behind the tears in heartache numbers like I’ll Cry Instead and Things We Said Today, not to mention the go-go pop anthems like the title track and Can’t Buy Me Love. Bill has pointed out that there are a few clunkers, and maybe he’s right, but by the end of the album you’re glad you took the time and you’ll likely take it again.

Favored Tracks: I’m Happy Just to Dance with You, Tell Me Why

Belle & Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996): Sometimes the popular choice is the obvious choice…and who am I to buck the popular choice? While every B&S album has at least half a dozen songs of absolute genius, IYFS is the only one where from start to finish they consistently build one song on top of the other to create 40+ minutes of lo-fi, twee-pop confection (not to mention perfection). From the less than a whisper beginnings of Stars of Track and Field to the anthem-like sing-a-long of Judy and the Dream of Horses, there are no filler tracks, there are no lulls, there are no mindless rants about dreaming you went to Mars with your dad and your sister (geesh, I hate that song). B&S were never again so innocently quirky, so confident in their insecurity, so strong in their fragility. These are songs that speak to the heart from the heart, without posturing or preaching…and they all carry a nice tune as well.

Favored Tracks: Me and the Major, The Fox in the Snow

David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972): This was actually a pretty tough choice for me. I almost said Low for all the Eno-obvious reasons, I almost said Lodger for the same reasons plus pop-tastic danceability and I almost said Diamond Dogs ‘cos that truly is a spook-tacular chill ride of dark, post-cabaret/pre-disco swoon. But in the end I had to go with, perhaps, another obvious choice. Why? Well, that’s rather difficult to define and sum up as well, ‘cos Bowie is an originator of the stylistic chameleon and over the years has dabbled in just about every type of music out there from folk to industrial. So, as with the Beatles, much of it falls to personal preference and maybe in this case current mood. And while I could just as easily have picked any of those other albums (like and yet unlike the aforementioned B&S entry), from beginning to end Ziggy Stardust builds upon itself, rockin’ and crooning its way through Bowie’s vision of earth’s last days. But concept originality aside, a lot of his most well known, accessible and notoriously great songs are tucked among a slew of lesser known cuts just as worthwhile.

Favored Tracks: Five Years, Lady Stardust

Billy Bragg – Back to the Basics (1987): While Don’t Try This at Home is officially my favorite album, I felt compelled to land on Back to the Basics. This album is actually a collection of earlier material released between 1983 and 1985, so perhaps technically it shouldn’t qualify for this series. However, A) I did not specify that in the rules B) they’re my rules anyway and I’ll do as I please and C) it works quite fantastically as an album in its own right. (In fact, I didn’t even know it was a compilation of previously released material until I’d owned it for a few years.) But to me, this is the definitive B-Bragg sound, the pining of the wandering, electric troubadour. While Back to the Basics doesn’t run like a “greatest hits” as some albums do (many of his best songs didn’t come until later), a handful of these songs – and really you could grab them at random – represent everything Billy was about then as well as now. Religion, love, war, death and of course politics -- it’s all right here, neatly packaged in 21 two to four minute post punk anthems, with usually nothing more than Billy’s voice, guitar and message, but just as raw, visceral and powerful as any full band explosion you’d ever wish to hear.

Favored Tracks: The Milkman of Human Kindness, St. Swithin’s Day