Friday, December 9, 2011

It's late and I'm tired...

Awhile back it was announced that the Cranberries, who got back together a couple of years ago, are releasing a new album in 2012. For all intents and purposes, I am a Cranberries fan. And while in recent years only their first two efforts find active rotation on the player, I enjoy all of their albums, and there are a handful of worthwhile songs to be found even on the post heyday "we've heard this before" of Bury the Hatchet and Wake Up and Smell the Coffee. I even picked up the first Dolores solo outing and dug it quite a bit. So, yeah, I'm certainly interested, maybe even excited about them putting out their first new album, Roses, in a decade.

With a release date for Roses of February 14 (aww...), it's not surprising that there's already some artwork available, and even that it's also up on Wiki. What was surprising, to me, and the whole point of this post, because it's late and I'm tired, is that the album cover is very reminscent to me, because it's late and I'm tired, of the back cover photo of Black Sabbath's Heaven and Hell.

And really, that's all I have to say about that.

New Old Music Review

So yesterday I took my mom to McKay Used Books, CDs, Movies and More. I was there for the CDs. She was there because I was her ride.

Anyway, I was trading in quite a bit of stuff and took the cash, half of which I promptly turned around to make a few new purchases. I may go over some of those in the future, but right now I want to talk about the new Chris Isaak. Say what? Yeah, me either, but there it was, Beyond the Sun, about three selections back between two rather worn copies of Forever Blue. And since I’m an unapologetic Chris Isaak fan (really, does anyone need to apologize for that?), I made a quick glance to make sure it wasn’t some goofy best of and put it on the stack.

Never an overly prolific artist, the 00s and on have been pretty quiet for Isaak and new music. The borderline abysmal Always Got Tonight (that I’ll one day give another chance) and the even worse Christmas were enough to make me believe that he’d lost his songwriting gift. But 2009’s Mr. Lucky (which I’m listening to as I write this) was an absolute return to form, his strongest album since Forever Blue and as underrated as San Francisco Days. So, picking up Beyond the Sun was not a purchase of skeptical trepidation, but rather of pumped expectation.

However, when I gave the track list a better look, I realized this was a covers album (oh, brother…), and with a touch more delving, learned that it was a tribute to the artists of Sun Records – Presley, Cash, Orbison, Perkins and Lewis (though not all the songs are from that era). I guess the title should have given me a clue to that.

Like I said about She & Him in my previous post, Chris Isaak is in many ways a tribute rocker, nodding especially to Roy Orbison in “feel” over his nearly 30 year career, but arguably all of the aforementioned artists have their thumb in a slice of Isaak’s pie, and especially their Sun Records days. Likewise, he’s no stranger to covers, delivering a fiery rendition of Heart Full of Soul on his self titled sophomore album, a haunting Solitary Man to close out San Francisco Days and several low key ditties on his back to the basics Baja Sessions.

But an album of all covers? Well, I guess so. As I’ve lamented before, it’s a bit of a lazy move. Plus, Isaak wears his influences on his sleeve. There’s nothing diverse or left field here, like say a reworking of an old Germs tune, though it’s cool to hear Chris give his interpretation of some undisputed classics. The problem is that his interpretation isn’t really far from the original, well known versions, and with a couple of very minor exceptions, it’s almost as if Chris is doing a karaoke Rich Little impersonation set and not re-imagining these venerable relics for a new audience and century. (Karla actually thought it was Johnny Cash singing I Walk the Line, and it’s obvious why.)

In a way I certainly get that, because these songs are in many ways the gospel and unquestionably the blueprint of everywhere rock n roll music has gone over the past half a century. And as I’ve already said, these influences are all over his own songs, so really, what else is he gonna do?

Having said all of that, this really is a strong set of songs, some of the best in recorded music, and his band has never sounded better, and frankly neither has his voice. This in and of itself makes Beyond the Sun a worthwhile purchase. But when it’s all said and done, this album was probably more fun for them to make than for us to listen to, outside of a live setting anyway, and it’s ultimately enjoyable but unessential Chris Isaak. And that’s not a bad thing either.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Indie Christmas

I’ve said something along these lines before, but if an artist sticks around long enough (especially a singer/songwriter type get up), a release of cover songs displaying the diversity of their influences is often inevitable, almost obligatory. Along the same lines and almost as inevigatory (yes, it’s a word now), is the Christmas album. Bah, humbug!

Chris Isaak had one a few years ago, and I hated it. Various other artists from Queen to Cocteau Twins have released one or two tracks here and there, and they’ve ranged from enjoyable to acceptable to awful to surprisingly good.

But I’m not here to dissect all of that (today at least). What I want to go over is the latest offering from that predictably enigmatic pairing of indie rock and indie film, stars in their own right, and yet still quite earthbound about it, She & Him.

To me, a Christmas album is a very tricky deal. There are two reasons for this:

First, without going into the very personal and often trite issues I’ve had with Christmas over the years, I will say that some of my all time favorite songs are Christmas songs. These are timeless, canonical classics like Oh Holy Night, I’ll Be Home for Christmas and the like. And part of me wants to say, “Well, a good song is a good song, and you can’t ruin that.” Yes, you can. Too much cheese, not enough cheese, indifference, irreverence, messing around too much with lyrics or melodies, all of this can kill a good Christmas song.

Second, writing your own Christmas song is usually a bomb. Lots of artists do it, and most fail in comparison with the classics. There are exceptions, and a notable one is the Pogues’ A Fairytale of New York (talk about irreverence), but for the most part these are weekend throwaways, something to toss onto a compilation for MTV or VH1 and forget it exists. And as long as the proceeds go to a good cause, no (real) harm done.

So, back to She & Him… Long time readers know of my ins and outs with this group, and that after seeing them perform live a year or so ago, I discovered a new respect for them, even if I keep them at arm’s length. Zooey’s new (girl) show has (eventually) done a lot to win especially her back into my warmer affections, but that’s as much to do with how she bounces off her co-cast as anything else. (Divorcing Ben Gibbard isn’t hurting either, but that’s tacky so I’m not going to mention it.)

Anyway, when I saw that they were releasing A Very She & Him Christmas, I sorta laughed and shrugged and rolled my eyes and said “That’s cool” all at the same time. The cynic in me will always initially say that a Christmas album is a cash in for folks like Celine Dion and Michael Buble type acts to just squeeze a few more dollars out of a demographic that can, well, probably afford it, but that isn’t the point. So of course I’m thinking, “What is a critically respected indie group on a madly respected indie label doing putting out a Christmas album?” Was this a joke? Was this a cash in? Was this a winky-wink nod to their roots? Well, maybe a bit of all of that, but per my “revelation” after seeing them perform, I want to think it’s mainly the latter.

As I said then, She & Him is a group that is more than retro, they’re almost a tribute act, vibing the bubblegum sounds of the 50s and 60s in a way that more plays the part than uses the elements in a new and unique sound (I’m not sure that made sense, but I’m not changing it). And a lot of those artists put out Christmas albums, so it’s only fitting, even logical, that She & Him do the same.

And with that all aside, listening to the album itself, well – if you’re a mad rabid fan of She & Him (like my 16yo niece and all her little friends), then you will eat up this reverb soaked affair like confection and wait for Volume 2 with spoon in hand. Otherwise, you’ll view this as a pleasant but unessential collection of classics from both yesterday and the other day to throw in with Elvis and Frank and Nat to change the pace a bit, but not really too much.

The song selection is superb, from the Christmas Waltz to the Christmas song; these are picks that set aside much of the holiness of the Holy Days and lean more on the rollickin’, festive, upbeat good times. Blue Christmas, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and two of Brian Wilson’s 60s offerings (Christmas Day and Little Saint Nick), close to becoming canonical classics themselves, do much to prove this point.

And when She & Him are a-rockin’ and a-rollickin’ is when this album is most believable and enjoyable, and the playful back and forth of Baby, It’s Cold Outside is certainly the album highlight. But more often than not, the low key, understated production of say just Zooey on ukulele or with M on guitar, means that a lot of this is rather samey, and sometimes her delivery is seemingly phoned in, almost indifferent.

Ultimately, these shortcomings are minimal and do little to distract from the overall enjoyment of this album, especially as a background listen, which is essentially what Christmas music is for in most settings. And while She & Him do pretty much keep with the standard renditions (mad props for “presents ON the tree”), those of you wishing to sing along may want to pull out some Johnny Mathis or Dean Martin for a ‘round the fire sing along.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Over and Under Special Edition: The Best & Worst of Queen

One of the factors in sculpting the diversity of Queen’s sound was that all four members were capable, distinctive songwriters. And while Freddie Mercury and Brian May tackled the bulk of those duties, John Deacon and Roger Taylor certainly contributed some excellent tunes, some of which were hits – even if they shouldn’t have been (written). They all shared common elements, but also carried telling characteristics as to who penned what, as Freddie was often the more theatrical, Brian the more technical, John the more plain spoken sentimental and Roger just straight up brass balls rock n roll. Sometimes these traits made a great song classic, and other times they just hampered a tune to death.

Here’s the best and the worst and the underrated from all involved:


Best – Ok, part of me wants to say, “the entire Black side of Queen II,” and be done with it. For all intents and purposes, I’d be absolutely correct. But this is one song here, so, without a doubt, it has to be Bohemian Rhapsody. I don’t care how many times you’ve heard it or how many more times you will, this song is amazing…for 1975, for 2015, whatever, just to have that all in your head and manage to get it out is a feat in and of itself. The fact that so many people in the world GOT IT and continue to GET IT…well, even if we don’t get it, we love it. If you don’t start rockin’ Wayne n Garth style after the operatic interlude, you’re dead, and if you don’t shed a tiny tear when Freddie laments “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all,” you’re also dead. Basically, everyone alive should like this song.

Worst – I think this one is just a personal dislike for me and not really a bad song, but I can’t stand Liar on the debut. It’s just so forced, so lesser than what Freddie was capable of, that it’s almost intolerable. And in its defense, that’s what a lot of Queen’s first album is; they had a developed sound without fully finding a voice, and an attitude without truly knowing which outlet to funnel it through. There are some extreme and underrated winners on that album, but there are enough “Oh please” moments to drop it out of the top 5 of their albums, and Liar is the trump card.

Underrated – Seriously, here is where I could honestly say, “the entire Black side of Queen II,” 'cos it's just SO overlooked, but again, focusing on just the single song, I’ll refer to my previous paragraph and offer up My Fairy King, which is certainly one of those “extreme and underrated winners.” It starts off with a bit of a hustle and flow, acts like it’s gonna take off and then drops down to a barely whisper before changing gears yet again and morphing into one of the most moving build ups in rock n roll and a running piano bit that seriously brings me chills. In addition, this is an early showcase of what these boys could do vocally, winding in and out and overlapping each other with crescendos and cadences enough to prove that Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t just come out of nowhere.


Best – Hear me out. Yes, there are LOADS of KILLER Brian May tunes, from Now I’m Here to Dreamer’s Ball and so much in between and everywhere else. But listen, my boy wrote a song that you can play and sing the entire thing by just stomping and clapping. And EVERYONE knows it. Yes, even my mom. We Will Rock You is THE (i.e. TEH) quintessential arena anthem, an in-your-face to anyone and everyone who isn’t worth your time, but you’re gonna thumb off to them anyway. And with that raw, crazy solo at the end, this really isn’t a pop song or even a rock song, it’s an experimental rant, an Avant-garde diatribe, and you’ve been bouncing it off the bleachers since you were in knee pants.

Worst – Ok, I’m gonna be sort of a jerk here, and yeah, I get what it’s all about, but Teo Torriatte is a bit of a snoozer. I guess Brian’s got worse songs out there (I’m looking at you, Tear It Up, you too, Dancer), but this one just tries way, way too hard. It’s a nice song, got a good melody, and the adoring shout out to their Japanese fans is awesome, but coming at the end of two albums worth of big chorus epics, I don’t know if it’s just the final straw on the proverbial camel, or if I’m missing something or if this song really isn’t all that. And ok, yeah, really, it is all that, I mean it’s excellently performed, but at the end of the day it’s too textbook, too sterile, too just there. But hey, it still beats over half of News of the World.

Underrated – This is a bit of a goofy choice, but I’m gonna say She Makes Me (Stormtrooper in Stilettos). After a mostly blistering (in all the ways Queen can) side two of Sheer Heart Attack, this sweet, low key “stomper” really takes things to another level, even blissful, with nice layers of Beatles-reminiscent vocals and a persistent if unobtrusive melody taking things quite literally up and out into the ether. Of course they couldn’t let it end with quite such reverie, and a nice revival of In the Lap of the Gods shakes the needle off the groove.


Best – Again, sometimes you have to go for the obvious and You’re My Best Friend is John’s without question. Never has a sweeter song been written to, for or about anyone (and lucky is the gal to whom it nods), and yet it still maintains elements of apprehension and longing due to the absolute vulnerability displayed. And though these are John’s words and melody, it’s Freddie who brings them to life, gives them feeling and makes what could have been cheesy scribbling to a high school crush on the back of a notebook one of the greatest songs ever written, not just to love, but absolute companionship.

Worst – In a previous post I lauded John as the quiet but reliable weapon in the Queen songwriting arsenal, and you can go here for those thoughts. But even as I wrote that article, I realized he delivered some clunkers, and I Want to Break Free just might be the worst. Honestly, the video for this song is one of my earliest memories of Queen and I thought they were a joke band. Of course now I get the joke, but the song still doesn’t do much for me. As I’ve lamented before in these pages, far too often production will kill a good tune, and through the 80s tell-all gloss I can hear what this song would have been like on say News of the World…but it would have still only been an enjoyable but unessential ode to pent up frustration – which is essentially what it is in present form.

Underrated – To again mention the previously written post, one of the “hidden gems” on an album that delivers track after track of big, boisterous and fantastic songs (yes, I’m talking about Jazz), In Only Seven Days takes the cocksure audacity and quirky elegance of the album’s first half and turns it over on its ear with a delightful, straightforward and simply beautiful ditty about finding (and losing) love while on vacation. As a gawky kid turned awkward adult, it’s more than easy to slip into the role of the protagonist and be overwhelmed by the unforeseen, unprecedented circumstances of having the casual apple of your eye think you’re quite a peach yourself – and then lose it all to the inevitability of circumstances. I like to think he got her email address before they had to go home…or maybe he can look her up on Facebook.


Best – My lost buddy Tim, who really got me into Queen, was never much of a fan of Roger’s efforts. Initially that tainted my view as well, but over the years I’ve come to really enjoy his basic, bad boy bravado approach to rock n roll with songs like Tenement Funster and Sheer Heart Attack. But for me, his greatest songwriting offering is I’m in Love with My Car, a flat out love song to his current speedster, full of clever innuendos and boosted by a bombastic backing track of big guitars and grand choral arrangements, that is, when broken down, quite a beautiful song. It’s cocky and it’s unapologetic and it’s absolutely one of Queen’s greatest moments.

Worst – Look kids, Radio Ga Ga is complete twaddle. I guess Roger was trying to keep up with the current sounds of the New Wave, and he succeeded in delivering a radio hit, but bombed in creating a memorable or worthwhile song. This isn’t even cheese, it’s just sterile synth and certainly Queen’s weakest single.

Underrated – I love Drowse because it’s the exact opposite of your typical Roger tune. As the title would suggest, it’s a subdued, hazy rollick, and those phased out, dreamy slide guitars really bring the magic. To me it feels like an indie rock song that could have been written and recorded anytime in the past 15 or 20 years, instead of over 35 years ago, and I think, like the majority of their work in the 70s, that’s a testament to the timelessness and longevity of Queen at their most forward thinking best.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Queen is Dead, Long Live Queen!

Twenty years ago this week the world lost a major voice in rock music. I can remember exactly where I was when Kurt Loder announced on MTV News at 10 minutes before the hour that Freddie Mercury had died. It was a Thursday afternoon and I was 18, a senior in high school and had just gotten home. I stood in front of the television in my room with my arms crossed and a perplexed look on my face because just 24 hours before, Kurt had announced that Freddie was HIV positive. I turned off the TV, put Queen’s Greatest Hits on the record player and listened to it several times in a row before my mom called me to dinner.

While at the time I was not near the Queen fan that I am today, it was the first time a major rock celebrity had died in my cognizant existence (i.e. Lennon and Bonham I was too young to take note/care) and it struck me pretty hard. These rock stars were, after all, quite mortal.

It took me a few more years to really begin to appreciate Queen for more than a slew of super hits, and I’ve touched on that a bit on a previous post. But something Queen showed me and the world was that you could be sexy without being sleazy, and you could be campy and effeminate without being weak or really any less manly; that there is laughter amongst heartache and sobriety within joy; that you can sing about every day things like vacations and cars and cats and rock just as hard and with as much purpose as when you sing about girls, fairies, death or someone you despise; and that at the end of the day it’s all about enjoying what you do, so that you can do it well.

Queen embraced over the top rock and combined it with over the top fashion, creating a style of music that was everything and yet nothing else all at once. I don’t believe there was a major musical genre that they didn’t at least touch on, from straight rock to jazz to calypso to country to rag time and on and on, and yet all with a certain flair that was distinctly and unmistakably Queen.

The focal point in all of this was of course Freddie. Even on the songs he didn’t take lead on, his presence was known, lurking, hovering, giggling in the corners of fills and the spaces between notes. You cannot say the word “queen” in reference to anything without me first thinking of Freddie and then moving on to whatever the subject at hand is. That’s how much of an impression he made not only on me, but on the world of popular music. His was a voice so distinctive that, to my knowledge, no one has even attempted to imitate it, to incorporate it into their own self. No one else could be quite so passionate and tender, so brazen and feisty, so immediately capable of croons and venom within the same album, song or verse. Even when he was blowing the roof off, he did so effortlessly, as if he were just toying with the idea of completely annihilating the entire room with one note from his throat. And all the way to the end, making those last three albums, when the band knew what was going on, his voice never quavered, never lost that majesty, that thrill, that absolute sincerity that made the cheesiest lines convincing, even gospel.

And even when Queen began to, in my mind, lose vision and lag and begin to put our more “market” material, there was still that twinkle in Freddie’s eye that said, “You know you like it.” Yes, it’s true, even the stuff I don’t care for I certainly don’t hate, and that’s all because Freddie Mercury made me a believer.