Anyway, to get the party going we've got a a treat:
We mentioned in the past that we’d be putting together a retrospective to commemorate our first half-a-decade eloquently titled, 5: The Reviews (2001-2006), remember? Well, here it is: the best of our general record reviews. (The themed lists--‘80s, jazz, covers, etc.--we'll post soon enough.)
Yes, we know what you're saying, "Hey, wasn't your fifth anniversary last year?" Yeah, well...whatever. Here's the list...
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5: The Reviews (2001-2006)
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AUDIOSLAVE (self titled) [Epic-2002]
From the ruins of two of the biggest acts of the ‘90s rose Audioslave; the kind of pairing that back in the ‘70s necessitated the coining ofthe term "supergroup" to define the magnitude of such an encounter. To say that the expectations levied on this group--comprised of former Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell and Rage Against The Machine’s instrumental trio of stunt guitarist Tom Morello; bassist and award show spoiler Tim C (yeah!); and drummer Brad Wilk--were high is an understatement akin to stating that Black Sabbath may have influenced a few metal bands along the years.
We all know that it’s almost impossible to live up to a staggering level of hype --warranted or not-- but unfortunately Audioslave doesn’t really hit the mark. However, let’s get this straight: for the vast majority of posers and half-assed songwriters out there, the weakest tune on this record is worth pimping their 12 year-old little sisters for. But we expected more from these guys. In the end, Audioslave’s debut is merely good, not great.
BARE JR. Brainwasher [Immortal/Virgin – 2000]
The son of a ‘70s country star, the work of Bobby Bare Jr. with the group that bears his name is some of the most affecting music ever made under the so-called 'bourbon rock' umbrella. An alt-rock and country outlaw of equal measure, his is the kind of music Dave Grohl would’ve probably made had he grown up in Nashville with a honky-tonk pedigree in addition to his punk rock aspirations.
On Brainwasher, veteran producer Sean Slade (Buffalo Tom, Sebadoh, Juliana Hatfield, The Lemonheads) gives the tracks a nice balance: an in-your-face production that never gets in the way of the tunes (the humorous “If You Choose Me”, the hard-rocking “Kiss Me (Or I will Cry)”, and the mournful “Miss You The Most”, are the highlights) making it a great listen on various levels. We’ll drink to that.
THE BEATLES Let it Be … Naked [Capitol-2003]
Undoubtedly, Let It Be is the most controversial of all Beatles albums. And with this latter version–-which bears a different track listing and running order-- the controversy rages on.
First, a little background: the boys, instigated by John Lennon, decided on a no-overdubs approach for the album. To get back, as it were, to their roots as a live combo and to film their exploits for later use. When the music really didn’t pass muster, they dropped it and went on to record Abbey Road. But there was all that film footage to deal with (including the famous Apple Records rooftop performance with keyboardist Billy Preston). So Lennon, and to a certain extent George Harrison, hired producer Phil Spector without Paul McCartney’s knowledge to go about getting the audio part in shape. The end result was Let It Be.
Both long-time Beatles producer/arranger George Martin and McCartney were appalled by Spector’s over the top orchestrations–-specifically on "The Long And Winding Road"--which were done without McCartney’s consent, even though he was in the studio next door when the work was being done. And that’s not taking into account Lennon’s sloppy bass playing on the track in question. It may be true that McCartney did not put the same effort into the others’ songs as he did his own, but he never ruined their work like Lennon so gleefully did with his partner’s songs on Let It Be. Over the years McCartney never let his immense displeasure for the end result diminish one bit. It was only a matter of time before he did something about it. 33 years, as it turns out.
Which brings us to McCartney, the Revisionist, right? Perhaps, but he "was not the only one": Lennon had repeatedly talked about re-recording Beatles tracks during the ‘70s. So, does it work?
Indeed. Naked’s running order has “Get Back” as the leadoff track, making for a better start than “Two Of Us” on the original version. The title track was made the appropriate closer and the forgettable "Dig It" and "Maggie Mae" are replaced with the stellar "Don’t Let Me Down". Also gone are Lennon’s "I hope we passed the audition" quip and his unnecessary mean-spirited "angels" barb that was the intro to the title track on the original album.
Meanwhile, yet another version of “Across The Universe”–-the third, at this point--appears on Naked. While it was obviously done with his blessing, McCartney did not actually work on Naked directly (a team of three engineers were given free reign with the master tapes). Warts and all, this Let It Be is as close as to the original concept as possible. And for what it’s worth, the respective widows of the deceased Beatles gave their approval to this reissue while Ringo went on record praising the results. But in the end, Let It Be was the Beatles’ biggest musical lapse. And while you can’t polish a turd, Naked does take away the stench.
THE BLACK CROWES Amorica [American-1994]
When the Black Crowes debuted in 1990 their sound was as out of step with the mainstream as the alt-rockers that took over little more than a year later. Hair bands ruled the day, but changes were afoot: on the strength of “She Talks To Angels” and the Otis Redding classic “Hard To Handle”, The Crowes sold 5 million copies of their first disc and established themselves as one of the ‘90s biggest acts.
With no big singles to its credit, Amorica, their third album, is best remembered these days for the close-up of the Stars’n’Stripes bikini and overflowing female pubic hair that graces its cover. However, it would be foolish to dismiss a high caliber album such as this solely on the basis of controversy and a lack of chart-busting action. This is The Black Crowes at their best, for Amorica is pregnant with bluesy riffs, tasty grooves, and great songs that distill their Stones/Faces/Allman Bros. influences into one very fine brew; at once both heady and intoxicating. Drink up, baby.
BLINKER THE STAR A Bourgeois Kitten [A&M-1996]
Blinker The Star is Jordan Zadorozny, an artist whose influences are always readily identifiable but whose music is the sum of these, rather than slavish imitation. Which is why on his band’s first major label release you can hear bits of Sonic Youth, Nirvana and The Pixies strewn about, enough to be recognized but held back just before they can be chalked up to plagiarism or worse, laziness. A lot of that has to do with Zadorozny’s knack for capturing a good melody (he co-wrote “Reasons To Be Beautiful” on Hole’s Celebrity Skin album), although truth be told, he’s no Brian Wilson–-or Kurt Cobain for that matter.
Midway through the album, Zadorozny serves up the best songs back to back: “My Dog”, “Jack's Peak”, “Undergrowth”–-on which friend and former Hole/Smashing Pumpkins bassist Melissa Auf Der Mar sings backup--and “Earman”, although there are solid tunes to be found elsewhere as well. A decent post-grunge record, A Bourgeois Kitten could’ve been a big seller two years prior, but at the time of its release this kind of music was starting to be displaced by the rap/rock mess of Limp Bizkit and the faceless corporate rock of Third Eye Blind and Matchbox 20.
BOUKMAN EKSPERYANS Voudou Adjae [Island/Mango-1991]
While the international debut from the Boukman Eksperyans ensemble was greeted warmly by the world music faithful, its defiant message of freedom and self-determination was met with downright hostility by the powers that be in their native Haiti. An uplifting and celebratory record despite its strong positions on the pitfalls of their society--with wonderful cover art, to boot--it's chock-full of great guitar work and tunes that won't let go of you anytime soon. (We've always had a soft spot for "Pwazon Rat", in particular.)
CAFÉ TACUBA Vale Callampa [MCA-2002]
After the experimental leanings of 1999’s Reves/Yosoy [WEA], popular Mexico City art-rockers Café Tacuba laid low for the next three years plotting their next move, which gave birth to all sorts of rumors and speculation in the process. With their lineup intact but now signed to a new label, they resurfaced with this 4 song EP in 2002.
Like Avalancha de Exitos [WEA-1996], Vale Callampa is also comprised of covers.This time, however, the focus was on one particular artist: defunct Chilean rockers Los Tres. While their lack of international recognition and ample sales figures would denote the contrary, Los Tres were one of the most gifted bands ever to emerge from South America. Its obvious that Café Tacuba not only acknowledge this, but are fans as well. The latter would explain the origins of this EP, while the former would be the reason why they chose to make Vale Callampa their first release after a semi-lengthy absence, guaranteeing these songs--and Los Tres--the kind of press and attention the originals never garnered on their own.
And speaking of the originals, please make an effort to seek them out. Vale Callampa may be a nice introduction--and not much more than that, unfortunately--but ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.
CAFÉ TACUBA Cuatro Caminos [MCA-2003]
In the decade since they first thrilled Latin American fans with the clever antics and hooky charms of their uneven, self-titled debut, Café Tacuba have made sure not to make the same album twice, and grow artistically in the process. Four years after the sprawling two-disc Reves/Yo Soy (with a slight, 4-song EP detour to cover Chilean rockers Los Tres) the boys came out of their prolonged hibernation with one of the most anticipated Rock en Español records of the time. It’s also the one to get most exposure, regardless of its content, due to the presence of producer David Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev) and Ween collaborator Andrew Weiss, alongside longtime producers Gustavo Santaolalla and Anibal Kerpel.
Kicking off with the most straightforward rock song they’ve ever recorded--which is appropriate enough since this is Tacuba’s first time with an actual drummer on board throughout--the band takes full advantage of the muscular playing of a bonafide skinsman on “Cero y Uno”, “Que Pasara?”, “Recuerdo Prestado” and “Tomar El Fresco”, recalling vintage XTC circa ’84. Elsewhere, the album takes on a familiar herky-jerky approach (first single “Eo”) and settles into their usual musical hopscotch, with fine results (“Despertare” even flirts with the post-Beatles balladry of Chilean ‘70s heavyweights Los Angeles Negros).
While we disagree with the mainstream U.S. publications that practically pegged Cuatro Caminos as the Second Coming –-calling it “the Mexican Kid A”--and unclassifiable --Beck, Cornelius and Tacuba themselves, among others, had been making cohesive, genre-jumping records for a while at this point--the album is indeed a bold, joyous statement from a band that accustomed us to expect nothing less.
THE CARDIGANS First Band On The Moon [Mercury-1996]
Given the "space age pop" moniker by critics, this Swedish quintet's third album is so much more than what that simple description could ever convey. Brilliantly produced by veteran Tore Johansson (A-Ha, Saint Etienne) First Band On The Moon succeeds in uniting all of its diverse stylistic threads--among them indie rock, classic pop, dance--with the kind of cohesion that such an ambitious record might have not obtained in lesser hands.
Aside from Johansson's direction, special mention should go to guitarist Peter Svensson--who wrote all of the music--as well as the rest of the band's great musicianship, clever arrangements and alluring vocals of frontwoman Nina Persson. Interestingly, just below the shiny surface are lyrics that range from dark to relatively disturbing, further underlining the complex nature of these songs.
And while the album's best known tunes are the hit single "Lovefool" and the lounge/trip-hop cover of the Black Sabbath classic "Iron Man" (a favorite of Ozzy's no less), there's no filler to be found here, baby. Routinely overlooked, First Band On The Moon is a '90s classic.
CARTEL Safety In Numbers [self-released EP-2004]
An update of the dense, dream-like guitar work and solid bass/drums foundation of The Church, Safety In Numbers’ five tracks are a refreshing counterpart to much of the current crop of mainstream dreck that pollutes the airwaves. You know, the crap heard on the endless parade of WB teen dramas spawned in the wake of Dawson’s Creek. Or your average "modern rock" radio station. In any event, the EP is an auspicious debut for Washington DC’s Cartel, whose sound may not be typical of their hometown’s musical offerings, but does it proud nonetheless.
THE CLASH Cut The Crap [Epic-1985]
After inexplicably firing vocalist/guitarist Mick Jones--a fiasco which Joe Strummer later very publicly regretted--Strummer and bassist Paul Simonon recruited three other guys and recorded this unlistenable mess. Thus, with one pathetic whimper, ending the recording career of one of the most important and influential rock bands of all time.
NY alt-rockers Too Much Joy were once moved to write a lyric stating that "Every band should get shot/Before they make their Combat Rock" (alluding to the Clash's 1982 hit album). Wonder what they thought about this one?
THE CURE self-titled [Geffen-2004]
The announced pairing of the kings of mope rock with the sonic architect of nü-metal surely gave many Cure fans pause. And with reason: producer Ross Robinson’s credits include W.A.S.P. Korn, Limp Bizkit, and…Vanilla Ice. Not a first choice by a long shot. Of course, this meant that either Robert Smith had lost the plot or had an ace up his sleeve. As it turns out, in Robinson he had a life-long Cure fan who he hoped would give the band the swift kick in the pants it needed after 2000’s pleasing but ultimately formulaic Bloodflowers.
Guess what? He was right.
What Robinson has done is strip the band’s sound to its core, cutting through the effects-laden density of previous releases without losing any of the magic elements that make The Cure unique. The best examples of this are opening track "Lost", the defiant "Us Or Them", and "Before Three", a track that would not sound out of place on, say, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, and is surely destined to become a classic among the faithful. But past and present goth adolescents are not the only ones to enjoy this album, for its strength lies in showcasing why legions of bands have looked to The Cure for sad, dark inspiration. Despite being self-titled this is not at a definitive Cure album by any stretch of the imagination--Disintegration still reigns supreme--but it’s a welcome effort from an influential band approaching its 30th anniversary.
ROBERT DOWNEY JR. The Futurist [Sony-2004]
The haunting piano instrumental that Robert Downey Jr. plays at the end of the movie Two Girls and A Guy  piqued our interest in his then-unbeknownst to us musical side. Scanning through the film’s end credits we were even more intrigued when we learned it was one of his own compositions.
That particular song, "Snake", is not included in The Futurist. What can be found on this album is mostly piano-driven singer/songwriter material reminiscent of Elton John’s "I Want Love", in whose video Downey Jr. appears as the protagonist. While his singing is pleasant, he doesn’t have much of a vocal range, sounding at times like a cross between Joe Cocker and Sting with hints of Bruce–-both Springsteen and Hornsby--along the way. Which makes his cover of the Yes classic "Your Move" a desultory affair. Despite dueting on it with the song’s original vocalist, Jon Anderson himself, Downey Jr. doesn’t even come close. That said, The Futurist is a moving full-length debut from a talented musician better known for his day job and run-ins with the law, and one that should appeal to an audience looking for mellow, more adult-contemporary fare.
Guests include legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden, who performs on a heartfelt cover of Charlie Chaplin’s "Smile".
EARLIMART Treble and Tremble [Palm Pictures-2004]
Let’s cut to the chase: if the casual fan were played this album and told it was Elliott Smith’s awaited posthumous release–-which was released three weeks after Treble and Tremble--we honestly believe only the very discerning would’ve caught on. Really.
So, is it any good? Well, actually, yes. If you can get away from the fact that deliberately or not –-we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for now-- it is practically a carbon copy of the late Mr. Smith’s work, then you’re in for a treat and quite possibly, the next best thing. Otherwise…
FELA & AFRICA ‘70 Live with Ginger Baker [Celluloid-1971]
Let's break it down for ya: 4 extended-length tracks that never lose their spark; monstrous grooves and tight-as-a-fist playing from the dozen-strong Africa '70; masterful drumming by ex-Cream Ginger Baker; and the shamanic presence of the one and only Fela Kuti, on vocals and saxophone.
Although it happens to be a concert recording, in many ways this album became the blueprint for much of Fela's subsequent studio work. It's always been said that Baker's billing on the album was a commercial ploy to attract a wider audience (ie, rock fans). Perhaps, but Baker's performances are unreproachable and his is a worthy presence on this disc. And the irony is that even among Fela's fans, this is not one of his best known releases. Remarkable, considering that Live with Ginger Baker has always been in print. However, it has never been given the deluxe re-issue treatment that much of the Fela catalog has received.
FINN BROTHERS (self titled) [Capitol-1995]
The Brothers Finn are New Zealanders Tim and Neil, of Split Enz/Crowded House and respective solo fame. This hauntingly beautiful album is performed almost in its entirety by the singing siblings and given an understated but effectively moody, atmospheric canvas by noted producer Tchad Blake (Los Lobos, Pearl Jam, Peter Gabriel).
Reminiscent of American Music Club circa Mercury, the album’s highlights include "Only Talking Sense", "Last Day of June" and "Where Is My Soul?" (Both the brothers as a duo and the non-US version of this album are simply known as Finn).
FLAMING LIPS The Soft Bulletin [Warner Bros-1999]
Hailed as, arguably, the best rock album of 1999, it’s hard to believe this album has been in and out of our CD player--mostly in--for the last few years. Time flies when the whimsical but never precious sonic fabrications of Oklahoma City’s finest surround you. "Where’s the old noisy Flaming Lips I knew and loved?" you may ask.
Well, the feedback and white noise that made them infamous have gradually given way to keyboards, strings and other assorted sonic landscapes. A risky, but artistically viable--and subsequently, fruitful--step in the right direction, as far as we’re concerned. But not everyone feels the same way: we came across a review that disparagingly referred to The Soft Bulletin as a misstep where seemingly "… Led Zeppelin and Yes joined forces to back Neil Young…" Nothing wrong with that in our book.
THE FUTUREHEADS self-titled [Sire-2004]
Favorably compared to–-and spawned from the same scene as--their touring mates Franz Ferdinand, The Futureheads tread precariously on the line that divides influence from nostalgia on their debut full-length release. Combining elements of post-punk, new wave and pop in one package is a recent trend that has borne some interesting and even great results. Perhaps--and hopefully--it’s just the natural shortcomings of a first album, but the problem here is that sometimes the influence of such bands as early XTC, The Jam and Gang of Four (whose guitarist, Andy Gill, produced the album) is a bit too close for comfort.
PETER GABRIEL (self-titled) [Mercury-1980]
Two albums into a solo career--with the previous studio outings self-titled as well--the former Genesis frontman delivered what is widely regarded as his finest record. The third Peter Gabriel album is quite avant-garde in its sound and approach but not in its accessibility, making it the rare collection of songs that function as both a work of art and a pop album. Albeit, a pretty dark pop album.
Much of this has to do with its production and the mood-setting arrangements. But many of the details involved in the album's sonic approach were quite risky--such as Gabriel's instructions to drummers Phil Collins and Jerry Marotta to completely forgo the use of cymbals--yet not only did they work, they seem as integral to the songs as the chords they were written on. A close cousin to David Bowie's Scary Monsters--also released in 1980 and featuring the talents of guitar whiz Robert Fripp, as well--this album is best known for the moving anthem "Biko", but also includes such highlights as "Games Without Frontiers", "I Don't Remember" and "No Self Control".
One of the great albums of the '80s and highly recommended.
GIGOLO AUNTS Pacific Ocean Blues [Q Division-2003]
Released on Spain’s Bittersweet Records a year prior, this was the newly L.A.-based Gigolo Aunts’ first U.S. release in three years. Dually known for their Who-like rockers and Big Star-influenced ballads, Pacific Ocean Blues--its title a nod to late Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson’s long lost solo album--is a nice balance of both of the band’s stylistic pursuits and strengths. Highly recommended for those of you out there jonesing for something in the Matthew Sweet, Posies or Teenage Fanclub vein. Definitely worth the wait.
GONZALEZ Vox Populi [La Viuda Negra-2004]
Probably the last place where the average brit-pop fan would think of as a source for their favorite tunes, the Dominican Republic is best known for its merengue, beautiful beaches, and the army of notable major league players it’s contributed to baseball. But Santo Domingo’s Gonzalez is a notable exception and a good one at that. Although on Vox Populi they sometimes wear their influences too prominently on their sleeve –-the allusion to the Smiths in their name; "Superstar" resembling your average Oasis-type rocker, almost uncomfortably so--they manage to cook up some decent tunes, most notably "Espiral".
Running a little over 30 minutes, Vox Populi makes a good case for Gonzalez’ future. Let’s hope they can live up to it.
STONE GOSSARD Bayleaf [Epic-2001]
Talk about bad timing: after much speculation, the rock (heh, heh) upon which the Pearl Jam foundation rests, Stone Gossard finally released his own solo album on Sept. 11th, 2001. A much more laid back affairthan those by his sadly overlooked side project Brad, Gossard goes for a Stonesy, funky vibe, even dabbling in reggae on the infectious “Cadillac”. Assisted by a handful of buddies that include singer/songwriter Pete Droge and one-time Pearl Jam drummer and studio mainstay Matt Chamberlain, Gossard plays guitar, bass, piano, drums as well as singing lead on seven of the albums ten tracks.
This is a solo album, in the best of ways: loose, unpolished, with good songs and a bunch of talented friends doing them justice. Bayleaf may only be of interest to staunch Pearl Jam fans which is too bad. This one's got some groovy tunes for one and all.
DAVID RYAN HARRIS (self titled) [Columbia/57-1997]
After going the punk/funk/ska route as frontman for Atlanta rockers Follow For Now--their name a nod to Public Enemy’s "Bring The Noise"--and performing/producing duties for Dionne Farris, Harris proved himself to be a very engaging singer/songwriter on his self-titled debut. Assisted by friend and über producer Brendan O’Brien--whose label, 57 Records, released the album--Harris steers clear from the stereotyping that routinely plagues a soulful artist like himself: rocking with conviction, swooning like a lovebird, and grooving like nobody’s business.
Basically, this is the album Lenny Kravitz wishes he could make. Fortunately for the former Mr. Bonet, this is yet another lost gem. Unfortunately for the rest of us, the album’s poor commercial showing has in all likelihood hampered his ability to produce a followup. David Ryan Harris may not sound that innovative or groundbreaking these days, but take into account that it was released in 1997, when guitar-playing neo soul artists were still something of an anomaly. Yes, once again the accursed ahead-of-it’s-time syndrome rears its uglyhead.
In any event, do seek out this one, especially if the music of Ben Harper, Jeff Buckley and Terrence Trent D’Arby (remember him?!) have ever tickled your fancy. Highlights: the beautiful ode to heartbreak "If I Had A Dime"; the rocking "King Karma"; the joyous, Stevie Wonder-influenced "Tricks Up My Sleeve"; and closing track "Genie".
HELMET Size Matters [Interscope-2004]
Perspective is an interesting thing. In the seven years since their last release and the five years that have transpired after they disbanded, listening to a Helmet album is quite an experience in hindsight. Notably, it brings to light the fact that their brand of melodic hardcore is an undeniable influence on nü-metal, as bands like Korn, Limp Bizkit (ugh!), and Deftones have readily admitted. But before those of you–-like us--who like their music heavy but never really cared for nü-metal jump to the next topic, bear in mind that dismissing Helmet for this arguable sin is practically akin to dissing Led Zeppelin for the horde of faceless bands that aped them. (And we like the Deftones, anyway.)
So, is Size Matters a return to form? Partially. But only in the sense that while vocalist/guitarist Page Hamilton has written some of his best songs on this release, the album is a bit like Helmet on steroids: a heavier sound and slicker, shiny production–-courtesy of Nine Inch Nails acolyte Charlie Clouser--that just might alienate some. Others feel the band has stuck to a tried and true formula and are seemingly less adventurous this time out. Valid concerns, sure. But these are minor gripes in our book. The bottom line: Size Matters is a kick-ass record from an influential band no longer missing in action. Welcome back, boys.
JAMES IHA Let It Come Down [Virgin-1998]
The Smashing Pumpkins rhythm guitarist and occasional vocalist (mostly on a few b-sides) had always hinted at his love for '70s singer/songwriters and southern California fare like that of the Eagles and latter-day Fleetwood Mac, but on Let It Come Down he left no doubt in anyone's mind. As it turns out, not only does Iha have a soft spot for the music but he performs it quite admirably.
While the motivation behind this outing was to kill some free time during the Pumpkins' Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness tour and before the recording of the Adore album, with the Pumpkins no more hopefully we'll get a chance to enjoy the music of Mr. Iha on a much more regular basis. Guest appearances: Adam Schlessinger (Fountains Of Wayne) and Nina Gordon (Veruca Salt).
ILL NIÑO Confession [Roadrunner-2003]
The shadow cast by Sepultura–-and their groundbreaking Roots album in particular--is indeed quite long and wide. New Jersey’s Ill Niño use the landmark metal album as a template for their own hybrid sound, deftly incorporating latin rhythms and a melodic sensibility rarely found in their colleagues, as evidenced in “How Can I Live”, “This Time’s For Real”, and “Numb”. Confession is a respectable sophomore effort despite its occasional shifts into neutral and detours into stock nu-metal territory (Linkin Park comes to mind). But as far as reaching their goal of being "…as heavy as possible and as melodic as possible--with a Latin twist", Confession is certainly a step in the right direction.
INTERPOL Antics [Matador-2004]
After all the acclaim that accompanied their debut, Turn On The Bright Lights, it’s not hard to assume Interpol must have been thinking long and hard about the dreaded sophomore slump. The good news is that they’ve dodged the bullet. Whether or not there is more good news within Antics is entirely dependent on how you felt about the band in the first place.
For one thing, the Joy Division-meets-The Cure circa Disintegration blueprint on which they based Turn On The Bright Lights has lost the latter half of the equation. Antics retains the angularity of the former while ditching, for the most part, the majestic sweep of tracks like "Untitled" from the debut. It seems like Interpol may have been taking a few musical cues from those other NY darlings, The Strokes, in crafting a more rocking, muscular record (for Interpol, anyway), but in the end the real question is, have Interpol moved forward? Kind of sideways, actually.
JOBRIATH Lonely Planet Boy [Sanctuary/Attack-2004]
Glam rocker Jobriath is considered to be the first openly gay rock star. But the way we see it, to be a star you have to at least be popular. And to say that both his–-at the time--incredibly over-hyped albums, Jobriath (1973) and Creatures Of The Night (1974), sold poorly is a kind assessment. After failed attempts at kick-starting his career, Jobriath faded into music business oblivion for almost a decade, until dying of an AIDS-related illness in 1983. In the years since, both releases have become hard to find and highly sought after collector’s items. At the same time such high profile fans as the Pet Shop Boys and Morrissey have spoken glowingly of the man and his music, keeping the cult of Jobriath alive.
Thirty years after Creatures Of The Night, Morrissey’s Attack label has compiled this 15 track album from Jobriath’s two records. Although lauded as a visionary artist–-and often compared to David Bowie-- Jobriath’s music is little more than Hunky Dory-era Bowie. Which makes the visionary tag hard to defend, especially when Bowie’s classic predates Jobriath’s debut by two years. That aside, Lonely Planet Boy is a well-crafted amalgam of mid-‘70s glam rock and show tunes that may be quite pleasant and enjoyable, but certainly not as ground-breaking as we may have been led to think.
JUMBO D.D. Y Ponle Play [BMG US Latin-2001]
The exact opposite of what is commonly known as a sophomore slump, the follow-up to Jumbo’s tentative 1999 debut Restaurant is quite a spirited affair. Chock full of soaring choruses, solid playing and held together by a finely tuned production approach that gives the proceedings its underlying fluidity, D.D. Y Ponle Play is a rousing rock and roll record from start to finish.
Fans of Sloan and Teenage Fanclub will surely find a lot to like in a record that would kick-ass in any language, with even the most cursory of listens. (D.D. Y PonlePlay actually includes two songs in English: "Happy High" and "FarOut".) In the last few years, the northern city of Monterrey has become Mexico’s de-facto rock and roll epicenter. This album--and Jumbo itself--are a big reason why.
Oh, and by the way, the title translates as Sleep, Awaken and Press Play.
SALIF KEITA Soro [Mango-1987]
A distinct, expressive vocalist who decided to sing rather than be king--he is a direct descendent of Soundjata Keita, 13th century founder ofthe Malian Empire--Keita's Western debut is a must have for anyone remotely interested in Afropop. Recorded upon his move to Paris--world music capital of the world--and produced by African music stalwart Ibrahim Sylla, Soro captures the nascent sound of a talented artist delivering strong perfomances throughout but with his sights clearly on the future. Personal favorite: closing track "Sanni Kegniba".
NUSRAT FATEH ALI KHAN The Supreme Collection Vol.1 [Caroline-1997]
Posthumously released and dedicated–-ironically--to then-recently deceased and devoted fan Jeff Buckley, this is probably not the place to start for those who are not familiar with Pakistan's King of Qawwali. (Nusrat's more accessible collaborations with Canadian guitarist/producer Michael Brook are better suited for this purpose.) But if you are of an adventurous spirit, you will be amply rewarded bythe man's hypnotic vocals and the trance-like music. A 2-CD set.
KING’S X Dogman [Atlantic-1994]
After three promising albums (including Gretchen Goes To Nebraska, which many consider their finest moment); opening slots on tours with the likes of AC/DC and Pearl Jam, not to mention a kick-ass performance at Woodstock ’94; prominent MTV exposure --the video for “It’s Love”--and the backing of a major label, it seemed that the Texas-based hard rockers would finally get their due with Dogman. After all, über producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Rage Against The Machine) was on board for this one and King’s X’s top-notch songwriting and playing were very much in evidence.
Oh, yes: the kick-in-the-stomach whomp of the title track; the monster riffs and spot-on harmonies of “Shoes”; the sadly beautiful “Flies and Blue Skies”; the defiant, funky “Black The Sky”; and the made-for-radio “Fool You”, just to name a few. But it was not to be: Dogman did not “perform” (ie, sell) as well as Atlantic Records had hoped and were soon dropped from the label's roster.
While they’ve never again reached the levels of their mid ’90s exposure, King’s X remains active and is the object of affection of one of the most devoted and loyal fan bases out there. If you already own Dogman take it out for a spin and remember why you got it in the first place. And if you’re checking it out for the first time, don’t be surprised if you find yourself wondering why the hell you didn’t get around to it before.
RHETT MILLER The Instigator [Elektra-2002]
Like Ryan Adams--to whom he’s often compared to--Rhet Miller has also been involved with a leading alt-country band and recorded solo albums. Alas, the Old 97s vocalist has not become the media darling that Adams has worked so hard at becoming. What he has done is craft a collection of alt-country ballads and rockers that rival and perhaps even outshine anything by the aforementioned Mr. Adams.
Produced by the multi-talented Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, Jellyfish) and featuring guests appearances by Robyn Hitchcock and David Garza, The Instigator is simply a wonderful alt-country/singer-songwriter gem that just gets better and better with repeated listenings.
MANDY MOORE Coverage [Sony-2003]
Mandy Moore occupies an interesting place among contemporary teen-pop divas: she lacks Britney’s widespread popularity, but is a far better actress; doesn’t give off Christina’s skanky stripper vibe, but is no match in the vocal chops department; her girl-next-door appearance may not make her as lust-worthy as Jessica, but unlike Ms. Simpson, Moore is actually smart and talented.
Further reaffirmation of these qualities can be found on Coverage, where she makes an attempt at career longevity by seemingly ransacking her parents’ record collection and covering, for the most part, choice singer/songwriter fare from the‘70s and ‘80s. Surprisingly enough, she scores big on this one. Producer John Fields does a great job at updating these songs for Moore’s target audience and does so without resorting to any of the heavy-handed miscues that have marred other similar and recent releases in the same vein.
But make no mistake: this a glossy, mainstream production aimed at conquering the charts and the teenyboppers’ allowances. But a record that kicks off with solid, modern versions of cult favorites like “Senses Working Overtime” (XTC), and “The Whole of the Moon” (The Waterboys), classics such as “Can We Still Be Friends?” (Todd Rundgren) and “I Feel The Earth Move” (Carole King), and also includes songs by Joan Armatrading and Joe Jackson --not to mention cameos by Evan Dando and Jellyfish vocalist/drummer Andy Sturmer--definitely has its heart in the right place. Plus, “it’s about time these kids heard some good music”, said Grandpa.
NADA SURF Let Go [EMI-2003]
Avoiding the frequent comparisons to Weezer that plagued them since the release of their hit single "Popular" (which was also produced by former Cars frontman Ric Ocasek), Brooklyn-based rockers Nada Surf returned from a 3 year hiatus with an engaging, gimmick-freecollection of top-notch guitar pop.
Yes, the crunchy guitars are in the mix, but there’s a lot more subtlety, maturity and definition to theirsound on Let Go. That doesn’t mean the tunes don’t rock: au contraire, mes amis. This is what a band sounds like when they’ve assessed their gifts and weaknesses, balanced them out, and delivered their very best. Our favorite album of 2003.
MILTON NASCIMENTO & LO BORGES Clube Da Esquina [EMI Brazil-1972]
One of the undisputed classics of Brazilian music, Clube Da Esquina is still a fascinating listen three-plus decades after its release. Armed with solid songs and wistful, ethereal melodies, Nascimento and Borges assembled a cast of talented cronies--among them legendary keyboardist/arranger Eumir Deodato and virtuoso guitarist Toninho Horta, as well as Wagner Tiso, Beto Guedes and Fernando Brant--that masterfully delve into late ‘60s/early ‘70s Beatlesque pop, jazz, South American ballads, and traditional Brazilian sounds.
This is definitely a record of its time but one that has aged quite gracefully just the same. Highly influential in and out of Brazil--one listen and you can immediately surmise both Sting and Pat Metheny have paid close attention to this landmark album--Clube Da Esquina includes the widely-covered Brazilian standard "Cravo E Canela".
NIRVANA (self-titled) [DGC-2002]
After all the legal wrangling and insult hurling from both sides--Courtney “the Black Widow” Love vs. ex-Nirvana members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, for those of you keeping score--the release of the much-touted and long-awaited Nirvana box set was pushed aside. Instead what appeared was a single CD anthology rumored to be patterned after The Beatles’ highly successful 1 that, unfortunately, noticeably misses its mark from the very beginning.
Why was the previously unreleased–-and reportedly last song ever recorded by the band, “You Know You’re Right”, erroneously placed as the lead-off track, diluting the effect of an otherwise chronological compilation? And where the hell are “Aneurysm", “Something in the Way","Serve the Servants", "Verse Chorus Verse”, "Drain You", "Lake of Fire", and "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" Nirvana’s debut album, Bleach, is solely represented by “About A Girl”. (What happened to “Love Buzz” or “School”?) Nevermind and In Utero are stripped down to their respective singles plus one album track apiece (“Dumb”, but not “Serve The Servants”? Huh?), respectively.
And as far as the band’s prodigious well of kick-ass b-sides and outtakes, only “Been A Son” and “Sliver” were deemed worthy of inclusion. A Nirvana box set could be a bit much, but a 2 CD set would’ve definitely made it possible to have a much better overview of the band, decidedly more than a single CD collection that leaves a lot to be desired in what it omits–-and even in what it does ultimately include. What a wasted opportunity. We know we’re right.
OWSLEY (self titled) [Giant-1999]
After his band The Semantics--an early version of which included Ben Folds on drums(!)--floundered after Geffen Records decided not to domestically release their debut album Powerbill (it sold 20,000 copies in Japan with no promotion whatsoever), Wil Owsley became a sideman for the likes of Amy Grant and Shania Twain.
With the income from his guitar-slinger day job, Owsley started work on his self-titled debut album, which he recorded at home over the space of three years. This is an un discovered gem littered with old-school pop hooks, catchy guitars and muscular drums. The top-notch songs may benefit from the spot-on mixes by über-engineer Tom Lord-Alge, but like Nirvana’s Nevermind, this is one of those albums where the songwriting and arrangements are too strong for you to notice how polished it is--until it’s too late: by then you’re hooked for good.
LIZ PHAIR (self-titled) [Capitol-2003]
The one-time indie queen has stated that this album was an attempt to "befriend [the] record company" and her move to California from Chicago just an effort to land soundtrack gigs and “work”. Don’t buy a word of it: Phair had her sights on being a pop star. Great. Perhaps she was deathly afraid of what her Wicker Park co-horts would say to her face regarding her collaborations with Avril Lavigne producers the Matrix and brought Michael Penn on board for some cred. No dice.
And she had every reason to worry: this is an album that is alienating, contrived and polarizing in a bad way (nothing like hedging your best and proceeding to lose old fans and failing to gain any new ones). We waited five years for THIS?!
PINK Missundaztood [Arista-2001]
Yeah, we know: too easy. But we would've let this one slide had it not been for the fact that we've accidentally come across incredibly favorable reviews for what is essentially cookie-cutter, standard-issue, bullshit, lowest-common-denominator pop, whose delusional protagonist fancies as somehow artistically relevant. That a few respected music scribes have joined in on this farce, just makes it all the more surreal. And pathetic.
But they're not alone: Linda Perry, former vocalist for 4 Non Blondes--remember those annoying one hit wonders? No? Good for you--and recently reincarnated as a teen-queen songwriting mercenary, had a hand in this mess. So do Steven Tyler and Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora. Granted, that's not that big a deal. What counts is the actual music, right?
Well, if by music you're perhaps referring to songs like the repetitive dancefloor dud known as "Get The Party Started", or the painfully self-conscious, personal diary-like dramas of "My Vietnam" and um, "Dear Diary", we don't know what to tell you. Actually, we do: the album is a fair representation of Pink herself. Arrogant, obnoxious, tacky and talentless.
THE POLICE Outlandos D'Amour [A&M-1978]
Masquerading as punk rockers, these well-trained but furiously hungrylads harnessed punk's energy, fused it with a love for reggae and the ability to write undeniably catchy, guitar-based pop tunes to come out of the gate kicking and screaming on their debut.
Produced by the band and Nigel Gray--who according to lore never produced anything before or since the first three Police albums--Outlandos is essentially a studio document of the band's now-legendary, early live sets (a perfect example of which is a 1979 Boston show captured on disc 1 of their 1995 Live album).This is more than evident on the blistering rockers "Next To You", "Truth Hits Everybody" and "Peanuts". (The latter a particularly nasty dig at a jet-setting rock star rumored to be Rod Stewart. Wonder what Sting thinks about it one now?)
Among other gems on Outlandos are fan favorites "So Lonely", "Hole In My Life" and their fist hit, "Roxanne"(all of which would remain in The Police's live set until the band's demise). Curiously, the instrumental break in "Can't Stand Losing You" would resurface on Regatta De Blanc as that album's title track and earn a Grammy in the Best Rock Instrumental category.
THE POLICE Regatta De Blanc [A&M-1979]
Bearing a faux francais title--it's supposed to translate as "white reggae"--the trio's sophomore effort is definitely a step forward sound-wise from its predecessor. Its punchy bass, crisp drums and aggressive, but well-defined guitars came to be known collectively as "the Police sound"--widely imitated but never quite equaled. Kudos to producer Nigel Gray.
While Andy Summers has no solo-penned songs on this one, Stewart Copeland contributes three, two of which are among his very best: the humorous birthday nightmare "On Any Other Day" and the jazzy "Does Everyone Stare?" Of course, once again Sting wrote the bulk of the material--including such live staples as "Walking On The Moon", "Bring On The Night" and the all-time favorite among non-casual fans, "Message In A Bottle"--but Regatta is the most collaborative of Police albums as far as songwriting is concerned.
It also includes their best attempt at straight-up reggae, "The Bed's Too Big Without You". Legendary reggae producers/sidemen Sly & Robbie produced a cover of this last song, while The Roots' drummer ?uestlove is on record stating that "no pop album is more perfect than side two of Regatta De Blanc." Talk about props…
THE POLICE Zenyatta Mondatta [A&M-1980]
From the ominous intro to "Don't Stand So Close To Me" to the fading, elongated bassline, scratchy guitar and trademark hi-hat-kick-and-snare pattern that closes "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da", this baby does not let up. And when it does bring some respite, it's in the form of "Behind My Camel", Andy Summers' avant-garde, Grammy-winning instrumental. (This second Academy nod was for a song Sting initially wanted removed from the album, by the way.)
Reportedly despised by Sting, Zenyatta is the one that broke them internationally and took them for the first time to such non-rock and roll itinerary stops as India, Egypt and--at the time--South America. Their presence in the latter is definitely a big reason why The Police is arguably the most influential rock act in the Spanish-speaking world. Just ask Soda Stereo, Mana, Caifanes, Los Rabanes, Fabulosos Cadillacs, Los Pericos or Desorden Publico. Or even Brazil's Paralamas or Skank while you're at it. A classic.
THE POLICE Ghost In The Machine [A&M-1981]
The band's weakest effort; cold, uninviting and saddled with a generous amount of filler. (The frigidness of Ghosts' aural sheen is quite ironic considering that it was mostly recorded in the Caribbean.) Anyway, a few of their very best songs are present ("Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic", "Invisible Sun" and "Spirits In The Material World", along with Summers' and Copeland's sole songwriting contributions: "Omega Man" and "Darkness", respectively) thereby saving the day and rescuing the album from the steely grasp of mediocrity found elsewhere.
This is most assuredly not one of renowned producer Hugh Padham's shining moments, who took over for Nigel Gray and is mostly responsible for the slick, dated '80s sound. He would redeem himself on their next album, however. A bit of trivia: this is the only Police album to ever feature a musical guest: Jean Roussel on keyboards.
THE POLICE Synchronicity [A&M-1983]
The last and best-selling of all Police albums dethroned Michael Jackson's Thriller from the top spot upon its release in 1983. (It wouldn't be the first time that a Jacko record would lose the chart crown to a blonde-led rock trio: Nirvana's Nevermind ousted Bad less than a decade later.) Leading the charge was "Every Breath You Take", which has gone on to become the most played song in U.S. radio history.
But aside from statistical matters, Synchronicity--named after the Carl Jung theory and book of the same name--is a very solid album that manages to both sum up and revisit all of the band's previous quirks: from the fun, goofy and undeniable catchy Stewart Copeland-penned ditties (the anti-Thatcher "Miss Gradenko"); to Andy Summers' twisted sense of humor and avant-guitar excursions ("Mother") and forays into jazz ("Murder By Numbers"); to Sting's odes to dysfunctional relationships ("King Of Pain", "Wrapped Around Your Finger"), it's all here.
Incidentally, the original vinyl release featured various different covers. This is the sound of going out on top, boys and girls. Sort of.
RADIOHEAD Hail To The Thief [Capitol-2003]
The initial burst of faux studio verité–-a guitar being plugged intoan amp--may well be an inside joke, signaling to Radiohead fans that the quintessential rock and roll instrument--and a big part of theband’s early sound--was back to the fore. But the fact that the very next sound is a skittish, programmed beat is what’s most telling: the promised return to The Bends-era guitar play was not to be this time out.
However, the beloved six-string is featured more prominently than on the previous two releases and ultimately lets Hail To The Thief come across as a more conventional record--for Radiohead, anyway--than either Kid A or Amnesiac. This isn’t a dig: in fact, the songwriting and arranging are both close to the same level of artistry found on their masterpiece OK Computer, with Hail To The Thief including some of their very best work (“2+2=5”, “Sail To The Moon”, “Go To Sleep”,“There, There”, “A Punch-up At A Wedding”). But this is the work of a band trying to find a compromise between classic songwriting and progressive/avant-garde experimentation; struggling between being true to the muse and not alienating and leaving its loyal fans behind.
In lesser hands, this could spell death to a promising career. But Radiohead succeeds way more often than not, and in the end that’s what makes this album such a wonderful listening experience: a love/hate relationship between man and machine that humbles one and humanizes the other. And we get to sit back and enjoy it.
TODD RUNDGREN Liars [Sanctuary-2004]
It’s been such a long time since the release of a new Todd Rundgren album resembled anything close to an event that you get the feeling some scribes out there are patiently waiting to jump on anything semi-decent the pop mastermind lobs our way these days. Looks like they found one: Liars has been hailed by the rock press as Rundgren’s best effort in 15 years. Which it is. However, if you examine the man’s mediocre to bad output of the last decade and a half–-since 1989’s widely acclaimed Nearly Human–-you’ll realize just how empty that praise really is.
The album does have its moments–-the blue-eyed soul of "Past"; the drum’n’bass groove and especially clever lyrics of "Future"–-but with a series of half-baked tunes coupled with both individual song and overall length routinely passing the tolerable mark functioning as the album’s anchor, Liars ultimately fails to reach the heights that many of its defenders have ascribed to it. Too bad, we could’ve used a good one.
RUSH Feedback [Atlantic-2004]
What a great concept: instead of yet another repackaging of your catalog, how about celebrating your 30th anniversary by releasing an EP of rock classics that inspired you to start a band in the first place? Cool, huh?
Unfortunately the leaden renditions given these covers would’ve made Feedback more suitable as a fanclub-only release, rather than general consumption. Nice try, though.
SCHOOL OF FISH Human Cannonball [Capitol-1993]
With a college radio hit--"Three Strange Days", from their self-titled debut--a strong buzz and a reputation for putting on a killer show, these guys were poised to be a big part of the then booming alt-rock explosion of the early '90s.
Unfortunately, their follow-up album was practically the text book definition of a sophmore slump: no songs, no spark, no spirit.They broke up soon after with guitarist Michael Ward later joining the Wallflowers. Sadly, vocalist/guitarist Josh Clayton-Felt died of testicular cancer in the late '90s, after releasing one solo album in 1996.
MATTHEW SWEET Kimi Ga Suki [Superdeformed-2004]
In the quarter century since The Police’s 1980 world tour took them to such exotic locales–-for rock and roll, anyway--as India, Egypt and South America, the music has expanded from its mostly US/British base and truly gone global. Long gone are the days when "big in Japan" was a euphemism for washed up and possibly only being able to score a gig in some forsaken backwater.
Matthew Sweet and the land of the rising sun have conducted an equally requited love affair for some time now. So, in 2003, four years after his last official release (In Reverse, 1999), Sweet got together with most of the crew from his landmark album Girlfriend--with the exception of the late, great, guitarist Robert Quine--returned to the studio and delivered this power-pop valentine to his Japanese fan base. Recorded in a week and produced, engineered and mixed at home by Sweet, Kimi Ga Suki is a raw, loose and a wonderful showcase for the man’s plentiful songwriting talents.
As such, it comes across as the flip side to his official American release, Living Things (2004), which was a more acoustic and subdued affair. In the end, this album was too good to remain an exclusive Japanese release, which would’ve deprived his stateside fans of a stellar record that in fact outshines its US counterpart. This is Matthew at his best, living up to his surname in a big way.
TEENAGE FANCLUB Bandwagonesque [DGC-1991]
Despite Spin magazine bestowing the Album of the Year crown upon Bandwagonesque--edging out Nirvana’s Nevermind, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, and R.E.M.’s Out Of Time, mind you) this early ‘90s classic has been largely--and unjustly--forgotten. Produced by indie rock kingpin Don Fleming (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Hole, The Posies), the Glasgow quartet’s second full-length release takes their Big Star/Neil Young obsession to its logical conclusion: a raucous, grungy mix of distortion and feedback-drenched guitars with the kind of heart-aching melodies that would make Brian Wilson proud.
Nowhere is this sonic marriage better brought to startling effect than on “Alcoholiday”, a bittersweet tale of doubt and regret underlined by three-part harmonies, chiming guitars, a magnificently melodic bass line, and capped off with a blistering guitar solo. All within the span of five glorious minutes. Wow. In addition, the one-two punch of opening track “The Concept” and the tongue in cheek, pseudo-metal instrumental “Satan”--along with “Star Sign” and “Metal Baby”--still hold up quite well and give an inkling as to why Spin would choose this baby over the other aforementioned albums.
Although they have remained consistent and unwavering in their devotion to their music, Teenage Fanclub has not been able to recapture the magic and attention they once had. (The Fannies were the opening act on much of labelmates Nirvana’s Nevermind tour and even performed on Saturday Night Live that same year.) A shame, really. Go out and buy this one. Your heart will thank you.
U2 How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb [Interscope-2004]
Bono, you misspoke.
The Irish band’s tenth straight-up studio album is not the rocking affair that the U2 vocalist had promised us in interviews but instead a textured and more restrained record than 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind. After the in-your-face oomph of lead-off track and first single "Vertigo"–-which echoes The Clash’s Spanish background chants on "Should I Stay Or Should I Go"--How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb settles into a leisurely pace that offsets the energy level of the aforementioned track and renders it slightly out of place with the rest of the record. But this being a U2 album there is no shortage of anthem-like tracks, with "Miracle Drug", "City Of Blinding Lights", "Original Species" and album closer, "Yahweh", nicely fitting the bill.
How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb does share with its predecessor a lack of dance beats and the wanton experimentation that characterized U2’s ‘90s output. What we have here is a further return to the band’s roots, albeit one marked by the craftsmanship of seasoned veterans who obviously know their way around a hook and a melody. Sonic revisionism, if you will. While the jury’s out on whether this is a good move artistically–their last musical detour, Pop [Island-1997], is the only commercial and critical flop in their catalog--it has indeed revitalized their sales and profile. One thing is certain: long-time fans along for the sonic rollercoaster ride of the ‘90s (including U2’s own drummer, Larry Mullen Jr.) are delighted with this reacquainting. And while we also enjoy(ed) Achtung Baby, and Zooropa, we are pleased as well. We just wish How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb rocked a little harder, is all.
VAN HALEN self-titled [Warner Bros-1978]
Like Are You Experienced? a decade prior, Van Halen’s self-titled debut ushered in a world-class, and ultimately, hugely influential electric guitarist that changed the rock and roll landscape irrevocably. But it’s just more than Eddie VH’s jaw-dropping chops that made this album a hard rock classic and one of the greatest debuts of all time. It’s also the larger-than-life David Lee Roth persona, the locked-in rhythm section, the criminally overlooked vocal harmonies, and--most importantly--tunes, tunes, tunes. Among them, such classic rock radio staples as “Running With The Devil”, “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love”, “Little Dreamer” and the incendiary covers of “Ice Cream Man” and The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”.
VAN HALEN II [Warner Bros-1979]
Typical of a second record, VH’s sophomore platter suffered from the obvious rushing into the studio to capitalize on the buzz of the first album without enough worthy material. Not much to recommend on this one–-parts of it are actually dreadful--but the band was hungry and beginning its climb to the top, so the good stuff--mainly, the Top 20 hit “Dance The Night Away”, “D.O.A.” and “Beautiful Girls”--is top-notch.
VAN HALEN Women And Children First [Warner Bros-1980]
You won’t find any big hit singles like on the previous two releases but the first VH album of all self-penned material is arguably their most cohesive and representative. Just check out the stomp and swagger of “…And The Cradle Will Rock”, “Everybody Wants Some”--immortalized in the ‘80s teen flick Better Off Dead--“Fools”, “Take Your Whiskey Home” and one of the band’s very best songs, “In A Simple Rhyme”. The faithful were not disappointed in the least (which by this point was a rapidly growing mass due to VH’s newly-minted status as concert headliners).
A highly underrated hard rock treasure.
VAN HALEN Fair Warning [Warner Bros-1981]
Despite Eddie Van Halen being the sole writer of the band’s original songs--disregard what the credits say: yes, Diamond Dave wrote lyrics, but Michael and Alex did not actually contribute much in the way of songwriting despite getting a very generous and equal cut of the royalties--it was rumored he was restless and not altogether happy with the band’s direction at the time of this release. Which would account for Fair Warning being such a dark album (no other Roth-era album includes such decidedly murky fare as the misleadingly-titled “Saturday Afternoon In The Park”). Nope, no party anthems here, boys and girls. Just a lot of great, in-your-face, high-octane rock and roll from one pissed off dude and his cohorts.
VAN HALEN Diver Down [Warner Bros-1982]
A sunnier and recently regained sophomoric disposition--evidenced in the album’s title, and the band dubbing their attending concert schedule the “Hide Your Sheep” tour--was present for Diver Down, perhaps due to Fair Warning’s overcast vibe and not as strong sales figures as its predecessors. Whether this had to do with 5 of the album’s eleven tracks being covers --including another stroll through the Ray Davies songbook with “Where Have All The Good Times Gone?”; Roy Orbison’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman”; the awkwardly out of place Motown classic “Dancing In The Streets”; and a Roy Rogers tribute, closing track “Happy Trails”--is up to conjecture.
The originals do stand up, thankfully, especially the vintage VH rocker “Hang ‘Em High”, and the more pop-oriented singles “Secrets” and “Little Guitars”. The end result is Diver Down being the most diverse album of the DLR era and one that although not a classic, should be revisited with fresh ears when in the mood for some fun, ballsy rock and roll.
VAN HALEN 1984 [Warner Bros-1984]
The one that took them from rock stars to pop stars, VH’s last album with Diamond Dave was one of those occasional blockbusters that just happen to be loaded with primo tunes. Sure, synth-heavy tracks “Jump” and “I’ll Wait” went Number One and Top 15, respectively. But the unstoppable “Panama”, fan favorites "Top Jimmy", "Drop Dead Legs", the Rush-influenced "Girl Gone Bad", and the funky "House of Pain" more than held up their end of the hard-rockin’ bargain, while the humorous video for hit single “Hot For Teacher” opened plenty of new doors and made sure every pop music fan in the Western Hemisphere recognized their mugs.
Oh, and as far as production goes, this is the band’s full-on dive into the ‘80s: big, effects-drenched guitars and processed, cannon-like drums all over. (Not as big as Def Leppard’s but…)
For many 1984 is Van Halen’s last hurrah; their final brush up with the hard rock gods. Well, at the very least it’s their final stand before adding Sammy Hagar to the lineup and going all-Bon Jovi on us.
VAN HALEN III [Warner Bros-1998]
It must've gone something like this: "Well, we did it with Dave and Sammy; we can do it with Gary too".
WRONG, Eddie. This was the first real flop for the mighty Van Halen, the undisputed heavyweight champions of late '70s to mid '80s American hard rock. And it's not entirely the fault of vocalist Gary Cherone (ex-Extreme)--although he did try way too hard to emulate Sammy Hagar on this record instead of giving it his own stamp (We know; that's debatable at best). The main culprit here is Mr. VH himself who in the past had given his stellar guitar playing a place to shine among his equally inspired compositions, which separated VH from the plethora of second-rate hair-metal of the time. No luck this time.
THE WEBB BROTHERS Maroon [Warner Bros-2000]
Sons of legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb ("MacArthur Park", "Wichita Lineman", "By The Time I Get To Phoenix"), James and Christiaan played the Chicago club circuit extensively before going the same route as Jimi Hendrix, Chrissie Hynde and The Strokes: conquer Britain first, then return home as heroes. While things did go rather smoothly in the U.K. (a deal with WEA International; a slot at the Reading festival; hooking up with producer Stephen Street of Smiths and Blur fame), the homeland was not as kind to the Webb siblings.
Here in the U.S. they remain virtual unknowns whose lone full-length release has become a record store bargain bin staple. The critically lauded Maroon is undeserving of such neglect, for among other things, its catchy, sophisticated pop occasionally suggests a cross between Ben Folds and latter day Flaming Lips (especially on the last third of the album). Lyrically, the Webb Brothers have a finely developed taste for the bittersweet: the hauntingly beautiful "All The Cocaine In The World" takes a "God Only Knows"-type motif and marries it to such musings as "All the cocaine in the world / can’t bring back the girl" (which incidentally, are the song’s entire lyrics).
Other highlights include the shoulda-been hit "I Can't Believe You're Gone"; "Are You Happy Now?" and "Marooned". Engaging and rewarding, Maroon may be just one more in a long line of hidden gems out there, but its dreadful commercial fate does not diminish its power and beauty one bit.
WEEZER "Keep Fishin’" (single from Maladroit) [Geffen-2002]; video directed by Marcos Siega
Released exactly a year--364 days to be precise--after their comeback-inducing, self-titled disc--aka The Green Album--press and fans alike whole-heartedly embraced Weezer’s follow-up album Maladroit. To be honest, we’ve never dug much by the band other than their first hit single "Buddy Holly". And frankly, we can’t get past the cock-rock posturing of the first couple of tunes on Maladroit, not to mention the well-meaning, but ultimately unsatisfying forays into emo and punk towards the end of the disc. But this song drove us CRAZY!!!
Simply put, it's three minutes and five seconds of pure ear-candy bliss, in the same vein as Cheap Trick’s Live At Budokan classic "I Want You To Want Me". That a song like "Keep Fishin’" would garner mainstream exposure in 2002 is, on its own, nothing short of remarkable.
Which brings us to the equally ebullient Marcos Siega-directed clip. A faux Muppet Show episode, it features Kermit and the gang panicking over the disappearance of Weezer drummer Patrick Wilson--who’s been kidnapped by none other than Miss Piggy--moments before the band is due to perform.
Siega put together a cute, nostalgic little trip--with head Weezer Rivers Cuomo quite visibly amused throughout the whole thing--that holds up after repeated viewings/listens. Trust us: the last time we were this enthusiastic about a song and its video, Ronald Reagan was president.
PAUL WELLER Illumination [Yep-Roc-2002]
Despite a loyal and sizeable cult following in the US--many of whom are followers dating back to his days as leader of The Jam--The Modfather has not been bestowed with anything resembling the amount of press and sales he’s garnered back in the UK. But one thing that is common to both sides of the Atlantic is the amount of respect accorded to Weller’s solo output and the anticipation to which his fanbase responds to every new release.
A slight departure of sorts from his trademark folky, soulful, prog-leaning pop, Illumination finds Weller investing more in the R&B part of the equation, even more so than in the past. First single “It’s Written In The Stars” actually features a horn loop as a hook, an unheard of development from someone as fiercely retro as Weller and who has steadfastly avoided anything even remotely resembling modern sonic accoutrements in his work. Very cool, nonetheless.
[Initial US pressings included 3 bonus tracks and a DVD with live performances and videos for 2 songs.]
BRIAN WILSON Smile [Nonesuch-2004]
As the aborted follow up to the Beach Boys’ classic Pet Sounds album, for 37 years Smile was the most talked about non-entity in the world of music. While those involved with the work in progress always considered it a musical landmark, the crushing episodes of self-doubt and mental anguish that Brian Wilson endured from his bandmates’ lack of support for the album–-who weren’t even that keen on Pet Sounds, as a matter of fact--and his debilitating drug use, put an end to any chance of Smile’s completion. Until now.
Nearly 40 years after the fact, Wilson and his collaborators –-among them, original Smile lyricist Van Dyke Parks and L.A. popsters The Wondermints--have gone back to the vaults to rescue what is inarguably a vintage piece of psychedelic Americana. Those that have been clutching their bootleg versions of Smile as pieces of the Holy Grail, might be surprised to find that Wilson, in fact, wasn’t that far from completing the album in 1967. Sure, Wilson’s voice has felt the ravages of time and the heavenly Beach Boys harmonies are often missed, but how often is a worthy, unfinished work given a second opportunity to secure its place in the canon? And by its creator, no less.
STEVIE WONDER Journey Thru The Secret Life Of Plants [Motown-1979]
Ambitous, complex and hardly commercial, this is the kind of record that NO ONE--save Marvin Gaye--could have ever gotten released on Motown. It's a testament to Stevie's status as a musical genius that (Motown founder) Berry Gordy even put it out.
Written from the perspective of plants, this misunderstood concept album earned the Wonderkid the first negative reviews of his career and led him into a creative slump that with a few minor exceptions, he has failed to overcome.
ZWAN Mary, Star Of The Sea [Reprise-2003]
Did you enjoy Smashing Pumpkins? No? Then kindly skip the rest of this review.
In 2003 Billy Corgan returned with a kinder, gentler Pumpkins: think "1979" or "Perfect" as they would’ve sounded on Gish--especially "Lyric" and lead-off track and first single "Honestly"--and you’re in the ballpark. Make no mistake, the big guitars and bone-crunching solos are all around, but there’s much more depth and spirit on Mary than on the last couple of records by Corgan’s former band. As a matter of fact, some of the lyrics and imagery found throughout the album could be interpreted as the musings of someone who’s found religion. Hmm...
Featuring such indie rock luminaries as guitarists Matt Sweeney (Chavez, Skunk) and David Pajo (Slint, Tortoise); Argentine beauty--and a recurring crush of ours--Paz Lenchantin (A Perfect Circle) on bass and background vocals; and of course master skinsman and Pumpkins alumnus Jimmy Chamberlain, Zwan seemed like the band Corgan always wanted: a creative outfit comprised of an equally talented bunch of musicians where he’s always in control, but much more willing to share his vision and accept their contributions as bandmates.
That they broke up after this lone release, with Corgan stating that his "heart was in Smashing Pumpkins", was sadly ironic. Powerfully intoxicating and melodic, Mary, Star Of The Sea is one of the best rock records of 2003. Yup.
VARIOUS ARTISTS Music For TV Dinners [Scamp]
Despite its title the music collected on this album is more reminiscent of supermarkets than supper. You know, the kind of tunes that made Muzak the evil purveyor of bland songcraft it has become known for. Still, there’s a nostalgic charm attached to many of the tunes included herein. Quite a few did in fact make it to TV, but if you’re over thirty you’re more than likely to recognize them as the soundtrack to many a food shopping experience. We know we do.