2009 is over and what’s more, so is the decade of the aught. It didn’t occur to me to compile a “Best Of the 00s” until I saw some other folks were doing so. And having said as much, a) this is not that and b) I may or may not get around to such.
What this is though is my fourth quarter update of new music and general listening. Of the former I finally picked up most of the recent releases I mentioned back in my Q3 update, and of the latter I’ve once again been dabbling in nostalgia that’s a bit all over the board.
Here we go!
The Church – Untitled #23: Continuing the trend they began with 1992’s Priest = Aura, the best of the best from down under have provided yet another solid outing of epic, textural landscape pieces. The great thing about the Church is that they’re always forward thinking, focusing more on the music than the dollar or even the fan base, expecting that the latter (especially after all this time) will be confidently on board with wherever they’re now heading on their sonic journey. The result is that each release sounds fresh and inventive, never relying on successful sounds of the past or once-tried gimmicks. This gives one the feeling that their best album is still the next album ahead, and that the latest is only a sketch of future brilliance, therefore making each new effort as relevant today as they were when Under the Milky Way was a minor rock hit on college radio 20+ years ago. And of course Untitled #23 is no exception. From the steady throb beats that open Cobalt Blue to the droning pianos and hypnotic vocal swirls and horns of Operetta, everything is delivered with precision and promise. This is elegant music, but not fragile, and even in the most beautifully sensitive moments there lurks an air of dark mystery, of calm foreboding, which is never more evident than on cornerstone track On Angel Street. But the abilities of past pop glory aren’t entirely left behind, just stretched further and to the next level of accessibility, as evident by Deadman’s Hand and the almost funky Space Saviour. As with all bands who care more about imagery than image, The Church is one of those near forgotten secrets that will slip by in the shadows if you don’t keep your finger to the pulse. Don’t miss a beat.
Mission of Burma – The Sound, the Speed, the Light: I hate myself for this, but I listened to this album once, said “eh…” and never put it back in. I think the problem was not being in the mood for Burma (blasphemy, I know!), ‘cos after that disappointing listen I put in some classic MoB and was still “eh…,” which is just silly. So I’ll come back around when I don’t have a million other things going on.
The Bats – The Guilty Office: When the Bats ended their 10 year silence in 2005 with At the National Grid, I was beyond thrilled and rented a couple extra pairs of arms so that I could more properly embrace that album. As I’ve said in previous posts, the Bats pretty much have a sound/formula that they never, ever, ever stray from. So when The Guilty Office came out this year I expected more of that same melancholy jangle…which is delightfully what I got. But even more so, I got a “return to form” in a sense. The Bats have always been a rather “loose” outfit, more interested in strumming open chords along to a basic rhythmic pace than wowing fans with stops and starts, elaborate time changes or inventive sounds. And even when rockin’ out with riffs and solos buzzing all over the place, it’s with a laid back whimsy that gives the impression they might just stop playing at any moment and go have a snack (ok, maybe that’s a stretch). But with The Guilty Office, the Bats seem to be more focused. This feels more like “the next album” rather than some old friends getting together to run through and record a few songs and call it a comeback (which is essentially what they did on At the National Grid). The result is a set of concise and bittersweet pop sing-a-longs that stand up very well to the band’s classic and most essential work – which basically makes this album both classic and essential to any Bats fan. Everything you’ve come to expect from Robert Scott and company is here, from plaintive rockers (Steppin’ Out) to broody ballads (The Guilty Office) and, I’m sure just for me, further support that any song with “satellite” in the title is fantastic (Satellites).
Colin Hay – American Sunshine: Any child of the 80s is at least a marginal fan of Men at Work. If you don’t like Land Down Under or It’s a Mistake or Overkill, you’re flat wrong and you hate music, spring days, your mom and a fresh glass of cold, cold milk from an iced mug. For most all of you who likely don’t know, Colin Hay was their cockeyed front man. His solo career has been very low key but very rewarding for anyone willing to seek out any of his ten or so albums. Admittedly I only own a couple, but when Daytrotter had him in for a session to record some scaled down versions of new songs, I knew I had to get whatever album they were own…enter American Sunshine. A truly gifted songwriter and a truly emotive singer, Hay delivers thirteen tracks that are thoughtful, observant and provide a fresh, unbiased perspective to love, life and the land we live in. I’ll tell you up front that it sounds a bit adult contemporary, but we all have to grow up sometime.
New to Me
My friend April who works for Warner Bros again let me in on their super cheap friends and family sale. I got about 30 CDs for about $20 (these are rounded numbers, kids), everything from the Afghan Whigs retrospective (which works quite well as an “album” despite my dislike for best ofs) to a couple of the Depeche Mode reissues from a couple of years back. I was pleased with most everything I got, but a few discs stood out above the others.
Grant Lee Buffalo – Storm Hymnal (2001): One of those groups I’d always heard of but never heard, this two disc best of culled from their four albums (plus a slew of rarities) will pretty much whet the whistle of anyone looking to see what this LA-based trio was all about. A bit punk, a bit folk, they created a sound that was both large and contained, and delivered it with a raw power equally paralleled by Grant-Lee Phillips’ open, passionate singing. The Shining Hour is simply one of the greatest songs of all time – cryptic, forbidding and catchy as all get out. Jupiter Teardrop takes your heart and wrings out every last drop of moisture in a repeat listen way that makes the pain more sweet than bitter. And even later on in their career, sappy love ballads like Truly, Truly make “theme-based” tunes played over montages in the likes of The OC and One Tree Hill seem almost legit (and right here I’ll point out that Phillips was a recurring character on Gilmour Girls…but they had Sonic Youth on too, so…something). If you like good music that’s as infectious as it is unobtrusive, you need to at least pick this one up.
Mudcrutch – s/t (2008): This is Tom Petty here so it has to be at least pretty good. And that’s not a question, but a statement. Anyone who knows anything about TP likely knows that Mudcrutch was his Florida-based outfit that he took to LA, cut a few singles with and then morphed into the Heartbreakers. To say that the two bands sound similar would sorta be stating the obvious, but, just like most any Heartbreakers and/or TP solo album, the differences are apparent enough to certainly call this a different band. Tom moving back to bass and allowing second guitarist Tom Leadon to supply an additional lead unbridled by vocal duties provides a more intricate, fleshed out sound, while the fact that many of these songs are “roots” based gives the album a leaner, even looser feel than most Petty outings. He goes places here he usually doesn’t on his own or with the Heartbreakers, like the pick-n-grin of traditional Shady Grove, the psychedelic meandering of Crystal River (which takes you all the way “out there” and back again in 9 minutes and 28 seconds) and the honky tonk-esque Queen of the Go-Go Girls, featuring, I believe, Leadon on lead vocals. And of course there are plenty of great this-could-be-on-any-Tom-Petty-album standards like Scare Easy and Orphan of the Storm. Really, if you’re a Tom Petty fan, you’ve already had this for over a year and I’m just preaching to the choir, but even the casual listener who likes the hits on the radio will find this album rewarding.
Foxboro Hot Tubs – Stop, Drop and Roll!!! (2008): I picked up this album solely based on the cover. It looked fun and promising, and for a dollar was worth the risk. I was so pleased to be right. This is simply upbeat, raucous garage rock in its purest, most endearing form. Mother Mary, Broadway, the Pedestrian – it’s the best of any retro revival act out there, and worth the price of admission for the spooky as spooky can be Zombies-like Dark Side of Night. And the big surprise? This band is Green Day…just a fluke, one-off side project. Why can’t they be this good in there more commercial form?
Cinderella – Night Songs (1986): As I’ve said before, hair metal was never my thing, but certain variations of glam rock, especially in the 80s, were a very close cousin, and so in 1986 when Cinderella rocketed to fame on the coattails of Bon Jovi’s success, I overlooked their “genre” and got down to the rock of the matter. And really, their debut is straight to business rock n roll. From the infectious Shake Me to the brooding Nobody’s Fool to more obscure album tracks like the balls out Hell on Wheels, Night Songs slows down only enough to be menacing, but mainly just rocks your face off. More than cool riffs and catchy choruses, the refreshing thing about this album is that Tom Keifer’s lyrics are observant without being preachy, indulgent or self-important, and a few songs (Once Around the Ride, Nothin’ for Nothin’) touch on the fleetingness of life – something that definitely set Cinderella (despite their “look”) apart from most all of their party-till-it-hurts contemporaries.
Rush – Moving Pictures (1981): I listened to Rush back in the day because my friends did. I listen to Rush now because I did back in the day because my friends did. So that means I’m really not much interested in anything they’ve done in the past 20ish years, and I only want to revisit what I enjoyed when I was younger. And that’s not to demote the worth of anything this triumphant trio have done at any time, because I did and do truly love me some Rush. Fans all have their preferred albums/eras, and most all would certainly put 2112, Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures somewhere in their top 3-5, so it’s really up to the individual to decide which is the best of those three (or Farewell to Kings or Hemispheres or Signals…). But I picked up Moving Pictures again a couple or so months back and listened to it nearly solid for ten days, and then just within the past couple of weeks, did that all over again. Man, what an album! I believe their biggest seller, Moving Pictures contains Rush’s most familiar song, Tom Sawyer, their most infamous song, YYZ, and their most pop-tastic song, Limelight. And all three of those songs (plus the nostalgio-futuristic Red Barchetta) make for a stellar side one. But for me, side two really takes things to the next level, and none better than the side-opening, 11-minute epic The Camera Eye. Really folks, put all your pretensions aside, ‘cos these guys can do it all and still not bring their egos to the table. If you like well-written, well-performed, intelligent, vibrant and accessible music, then this album is where you need to begin.
Queen – Crown Jewels (1998): Queen is one of those bands that truly defy categorization – glam, metal, pop, ragtime, camp, show tunes, experimental – essentially, RAWK! They’re also one of those bands that everyone (including my mother) likes at least one song. And since their creative heyday was pretty much contained to the 1970s (though there are some songs and even albums of merit later on), all you really “need” is the Crown Jewels box set that came out a few years ago. If you’re only familiar with the hits, this can be a lot to swallow all at once (TWSS). This was the problem I had a decade ago, so while some albums (Queen II, A Night at the Opera, Jazz) really jumped out and stuck with me for repeat listens over the years, others (A Day at the Races, News of the World, the Game) sorta fell flat despite some outstanding singles and album tracks. And while Queen is a band that can have a lot going on at any given point, that doesn’t necessarily mean they beg to be examined – at least not right from the start. Sometimes you have to let an album run its course in the background while you focus on most anything else, and only then will the slight and subtle nuances of songs like Drowse, My Melancholy Blues and Need Your Loving Tonight set themselves apart and give you a reason not to skip to Somebody to Love or Another One Bites the Dust. So with this most recent revisit, while busy feeding, playing with or cleaning up after Fox, I was really able to get in the right zone and enjoy, for the most part, those albums that I once sorta panned. And of course since Queen never ages or fades, those albums that I’ve loved for years now only proved themselves again, especially cuts like The March of the Black Queen, Seaside Rendezvous and Don’t Stop Me Now.
U2 – The Unforgettable Fire: Of all the U2 re-releases so far, this is the one I was most interested in simply ‘cos it’s the one I thought would benefit most from a good clean up. And while that’s not necessarily untrue, at the same time the new bright spots are much more subtle. There are really no hidden guitar chimes or bass snaps now released from the murk of mid-80s quality production, just a cleaner, crisper sound for a phenomenal record that was already pretty darn clean and crisp to begin with. Having run through their first four albums several times recently, it’s amazing to me that this one is so far removed from the logical steps forward of Boy, October and War. Truly, it’s a record in and of itself, a breathtaking anomaly, a beautiful freak of nature. And yet this is where the “classic U2 sound” was truly realized and also where it pretty much ended, as aside from about three songs on Joshua Tree (another album pretty much born and bred of its own accord) and a few moments on Achtung Baby, that echo that still haunts my soul has disappeared into the haze of mainstream overindulgence (but Dave, I still love you, man). Also, of the all the other releases, this possibly has the most exciting treasure trove of tracks on the bonus disc -- namely all those fun and funky b-sides from the singles, two previously unreleased tracks, Disappearing Act and Yoshino Blossom, the two studio tracks from the Wide Awake in America E.P., Love Comes Tumbling and The Three Sunrises, and a live re-working (also from WAiA) of A Sort of Homecoming that absolutely brings a tear to my eye. In a word, rejoice!
The Beatles – Let It Be: I’m still not a Beatles fan. But because I’m a fan of music I need to listen to them. So when the reissues came out I was like “interesting, but…evs.” But then I decided to pick up A Hard Day’s Night since Target sells the reissues for only $13.99 (which is a good 5 clams less than you could ever pick up the original CD releases any time, anywhere). When I put the disc in the car CD player I said, “Impress me.” I admit it did. From there it was sorta on…Abbey Road, Please, Please Me, Sgt. Peppers…I’m about halfway there, but the one that’s really, really standing out and impressing me is Let It Be. I traditionally don’t like this album even by Beatles standards. But, as with LA Woman, I just needed to be in the right place at the right time. At last I was (that place was the kitchen). And while it still doesn’t make me happy like AHDN, or keep me singing along like Abbey Road or even intrigue me more than it should like Sgt. Peppers, it has endeared itself to me in a way that I can’t fully explain. Here was a band, so the legend tells us, literally falling apart at the seams, and yet they were still able to come together (Ha, yes! Wait, wrong album...) and bring the rock in ways like no other band could or can, as well as produce some of the most thoughtful, memorable ballads the likes of which we’ll never hear again. And that’s worth $13.99 any day of the week.
The Feelies – Crazy Rhythms/The Good Earth: Like an idiot, I still haven’t picked these up.