Morning Phase, by Beck (Album of the Week)

May 11th, 2014

It’s hard to believe that this Beck is the same guy who burst on the scene with the catchy “Loser” (“I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?”) 20 years ago. Morning Phase is a mature, thoughtful album by a completely different guy.

Robin and I both have struggled a bit to come up with something to say about this album, except that it’s really good and we both enjoy it. It’s funny – almost everyone we mention it to hear’s something else that they really like in it. Robin hears old Elton John. I hear the powerfully surging vocals of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” – one of my favorite albums of all time. Robin ultimately just tells you to listen for yourself – which is great advice.

A friend last night described Beck as a “shape-shifter“, in the tradition of David Bowie and Neil Young. There’s some truth to that – Beck has changed his sound in major ways, but always comes out with interesting, well-worked music.

Unfortunately, that talent at drawing from different sources to produce something uniquely Beck makes him a target for some awful writing. I almost blew coffee through my nose when I read this sentence in the Rolling Stones’ review of the album – “Beck remains a master of pastiche, and trainspotters can have a field day mapping reference points: ‘Blue Moon’ shares a name with the Rodgers-Hart and Alex Chilton songs, but more closely resembles Bob Seger’s ‘Mainstreet’ getting abstracted by Brian Eno in a Laurel Canyon time share.

If that’s the kind of crap that professionals write about this album, what chance do two middle-aged Kansas Citians have to capture its essence?

One of the interesting facets of this album are two brief instrumental pieces – “Cycle”, which serves as the first 40 seconds of the album and then bleeds into “Morning”, and “Phase”, which provides an aural breath of relaxation about 2/3 of the way through the album.

In the hands of 99% of musicians, these simple but beautiful pieces would have come across as gimmicky and overblown, but Beck makes them work. You know that you’re in the hands of a serious artist when you’re listening to Beck. Not a note is out of place – the sounds are pure and well-engineered. Even the buzzing guitar string on “Heart is a Drum” sounds like it belongs there – a personal reminder that there’s a human behind this slickly produced album.

It’s wonderful to hear this album. It’s absolutely serious, thoughtful music without being ponderous or self-indulgent. It’s polished, but there’s human emotion abounding in it. I liked “Loser” and “Two Turntables and a Microphone”, but this is way better. Beck is an artist, not just a clever musician.

Next up: Songwriter, by Kristie Stremel

Teeth Dreams, by The Hold Steady (Album of the Week)

May 6th, 2014

This album is another in a series of The Hold Steady albums exploring a drug-fueled, violence-prone dystopia with human touches that keep everything just barely this side of despair. The music is solid bar-room rock with plenty of guitars and drums. The thoughtful lyrics are snarled with a mix of anger. contempt and wise-ass swagger.

This is what The Hold Steady does. Real aficionados can discuss major differences among the albums put out by Craig Finn and the band, but the essence of The Hold Steady – bar rock with evocative lyrics spat out with Finn’s distinctive style – doesn’t change a bit. Unless you’re a real student of the group, this is more of the same, but you will like it because it is a truly excellent “same”.

My reference to students of the group is worth emphasizing. The Hold Steady has, over its 6 albums, created a fictional world with recurring characters, plot lines, and references. The annotations over at Rock Genius can help you figure out some of the references, if you’re interested. If you want to dive deep, you can plunge into the 785 entries at The Hold Steady Wiki.

The good news is that you don’t have to be interested in probing the references to enjoy the music. Even if you don’t know who Charlemagne is or that the Cityscape Skins are an imaginary Minneapolis gang, you will catch clever lyrics and solid rock music when you play this CD. Everyone knows the people described in “I Hope this Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You”:

They never care if it’s true
As long as they got something to prove
And they always got something to prove

And you can probably recall that youthful feeling of being slightly out of control like this girl from “Spinners” at some point in our lives:

Once you’re out there every things possible
Even the bad nights aren’t that terrible
Loosen your grip it feels so incredible
Let the city live your life for you tonight

And here’s some good advice for a young woman whose vulnerability after a heartbreak makes her an easy target for the next insincere relationship:

I’m sure they’ll come up in the parking lots and at parties
You know you don’t have to accept
Collecting boyfriends isn’t such a healthy hobby
I’m sorry, but there’s other words than yes

Craig Finn is a sharp-eyed observer of human behavior, and his tales of life on the edge of drugs and violence are approachable because they are so human. It’s not a freak show – it’s more of a voyeuristic look at what humans who are just like you and me might do in harsher circumstances. It’s relevant and relatable, unlike some other albums that require you to learn a whole iconography to make heads or tails of the work.

Robin, over at Deliberate Obfuscation, gets swept away by the poetry, and expresses a real appreciation of the album. She’s right – it’s a darned good album.

Next up: Morning Phase, by Beck.

Acoustic at the Ryman, by Band of Horses (Album of the Week)

April 27th, 2014

This album is a limp handshake from a future friend.

This week, Robin chose to have us listen to Acoustic at the Ryman, as an introduction to a band neither of us know knew, but will be seeing live later in the summer. This is not a band that should be met on an acoustic stage, stripped of the muscle and energy that make them compelling. It’s kind of like watching someone play whiffle ball and learning later that it was Albert Pujols swinging the light plastic imitation of his power.

Now, having gone back and listened to some of the Band of Horses catalog, I can see how this could be a fine addition to a fan’s collection of their work. If you see this album as a fresh version of some old faves, then, yeah, you might rave over it. But I’m here to tell you that it’s a terrible first exposure.

If you saw Mick Jagger plucking away at a banjo and wistfully singing “Miss You”, you’d think it’s awesome, because it contrasts with the “real” version you already know. But if you didn’t know Mick Jagger, and had never heard him do it right, you’d think “Why would anybody listen to that, and that wooooo-hoooo-hoooo-hoooo crap has got to go!”

Take, for example, “Slow Cruel Hands of Time“. On first listen of this album, it is so awful that you will start to snicker at it. The harmonies are slap-your-knee funny, as the two singers awkwardly botch their starts and stops like someone had just handed them a sheet of music for the first time and smashed their metronome. “No, you first . . .,” you can almost hear them muttering. Maybe it’s endearing if you love these guys, but if you’re giving it an honest listen, it is hilariously bad, and the over-wrought lyrics just make it funny. But when you go and listen to the original studio version, it’s actually a pretty good song.

Another song that suffers from the translation to an acoustic version is the kind of dickishly named “No One’s Gonna Love You”. The album version uses a great bass line, crisp drums and electric guitars to suck you into bouncing along with the bitter loss of the song. Slowed down and stripped of the wattage, it’s a pathetic emo psycho piece of crap that would be marked as Exhibit A in proceedings for a restraining order.

It says something major about the album that my favorite parts were the “Thank yous” and the cheering. They are heart-warming. The audience LOVES this band – you can sense that everyone there knows every word to every song, and they respond lovingly. In turn, Ben Bridwell thanks them with absolutely charming “Thank yous” that are so genuine that you have to like the guy. He just seems like a really great guy.

Objectively, though, as a piece of music, this album is kind of awful. Really awkward. Embarrassing, even. But I accept that if you bring enough baggage to the performance, you could have a great time with it.

Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin misconstrues entirely what I’m saying about this album, and offers a completely different appreciation of the work. Robin agrees with me that the audience loved it, though she imagines that I thought they giggled at it (I wrote “they respond lovingly”). She takes a kinder approach to this album, by going back, listening to the studio versions of the songs, and then appreciating these acoustic knock-offs as fun variants. In a sense, she went back, picked up the baggage of a fan of the band, and returned to the Ryman ready to appreciate Mick Jagger crooning an acoustic “Miss You”. That’s great and generous, but if you’re not already a fan, and you listen to this album as an independent work of art, I’m pretty sure you’ll agree with me, not her.

Next up: Teeth Dreams, by The Hold Steady

Reincarnated, by Snoop Lion (Album of the Week)

April 20th, 2014

Haters gonna hate, but that doesn’t deter Snoop Lion from launching out in a new direction with “Reincarnated”, a likable reggae-based album. Can you take Snoop Dogg’s reincarnation as a Lion seriously, or should you dismiss it as a shallow commercial venture misappropriating the religion, culture and even accent of others?

That may be the fundamental question presented by this album, but who are we to ask, really? I can’t possibly judge Calvin Broadus, Jr.’s spiritual awareness or sincerity from my living room in Kansas City. I believe from what I have read that he is at least trying to be genuine, and that’s good enough for me. I like what he puts on the album, and I’ll leave the questioning of his motives and depth to others bolder with their judgments.

The normally nice Robin isn’t so gentle. She has categorized Snoop Dogg as a huckster, and she is not willing to reconsider. She acknowledges that some of the music is great, but it’s all just a novelty joke album to her. Well, mon, I tink she missin da joy, so sad.

As for the music, I have a bias in favor of reggae music. The third beat emphasis just works for me – it has a jaunty, optimistic and kind of cool feel. Coming from my background, it’s a bit exotic, and tends to come across as happy music, even when it addresses the poverty and violence of slum living in third world conditions.

“Reincarnated” delivers a fine dose of reggae. Despite the stiff-necked murmuring of some “purist” detractors, it was nominated for a Grammy as the best reggae album of the year last year, and the album captures the mix of silly fun, word play and spirituality that appear on many great reggae albums.

The album starts with a touchingly vulnerable spoken introduction by Snoop Lion: “It’s so much death, it’s so much destruction and it’s so much mayhem and it’s so much misunderstanding in music, we losing so many great musicians. And we don’t love them while they here. And I want to be loved while I’m here. And the only way we get love is to get love.” This album is presented with love, and it shows.

“Rebel Way” is the first song, and it’s all about an amazing bass line and sinuous lyrics. “Love is the cure and courage is the weapon you can use to overcome.”

“Here Comes the King” is a sun-splashed gem with dance hall power expressed in a bass sound that threatens to blow speakers. It makes you wish you were at one of the massive beach parties launched with massive truck-based sound systems that helped start off the reggae scene in Jamaica.

“Lighters Up” is a unification song featuring actually feuding musicians coming together with brass band. I’ve never heard tubas sound so funky – I don’t know how you could not like this song.

Each of the songs has its own charm. You probably won’t love every one of them, but you ought to find a few new favorites if you have an open heart for a guy moving from Long Beach gang wars to peace-loving reggae.

Some of my favorites are “So Long”, “No Guns Allowed”, the almost embarrassingly sweet and stripped down “This is the Good Good”, and the reassuring and inspirational “Harder Times”.

Next up: Accoustic at the Ryman, by Band of Horses.

Blak and Blu, by Gary Clark Jr. (Album of the Week)

April 13th, 2014

This week’s album is a seminar in sub-genres of the blues. Jumping horns greet you in the album’s opener, but then the second number is smokey like a Texas roadhouse. The third number is a funk groove – followed by a little Jimi Hendrix-style. Each of the songs is completely unique, and each is a great example of its slice of the blues.

I loved this album, and there’s no way I would have come across it if not for this “Album of the Week” series that Robin and I have been doing. I don’t set out to listen to blues all that often, and when I do, I head to one of the classics. Muddy Waters and Stevie Ray Vaughan are my go-to guys, or I’ll listen to a Trampled Under Foot album if I want to recall a live show. I’ve become calcified in my blues selections, but this album has shaken me by the lapels.

More than any album we’ve listened to so far this year, this one makes me want to just tell you to go out and buy it. Just buy it – you will find some songs you will love. I promise.

More than just a demo album of Gary Clark Jr., showing off that he has the chops to play every style of blues that you can mention, he comes up with some songs that ought to become classics in their own right. The title track, “Blak and Blu”, is a smooth funk gem. “Glitter ain’t Gold (Jumpin’ for Nothin’)” is as good a psych-up song as I’ve heard since Living Colour. “Travis County” is just a fun romp with some great guitar licks, a boogie-woogie piano and a drummer having a blast. I want to see this one live! And “The Life” is a piece of introspection by a guy who knows he’s on a bad path.

Robin likes the album, too, and looks forward to seeing him live later this summer. I feel the same way, but cranked to 11. I loved the album, and cannot wait to see this guy live!

Next up: Reincarnated, by Snoop Lion.

Symphonica, by George Michael (Album of the Week)

April 6th, 2014

If loving George Michael’s amazing voice is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.

By all rationality, I should hate this album, but I just don’t. If you want to read a fair, accurate and negative review of Symphonica, George Michael’s album composed of lushly arranged compositions played with a group of musicians (an orchestra?), go read Robin’s much less generous account at Deliberate Obfuscation.

I won’t argue with her. She’s right. This album is a ridiculous, self-indulgent, pompous, self-pitying, over-dramatic, cringeworthy spectacle by a man with a penchant for cruising for anonymous sex and a record of driving while stoned – several times. In 2013, he suffered a head injury when he fell out of his own car on a highway in Britain. Yet he expresses bewilderment:

I guess it’s tough, I guess I’m older
And everything must change
But all this cruelty and money instead of love
People, have we no shame?

Indeed, George, have we no shame? Apparently, “we” have no shame. None whatsoever.

Despite it all, I’ve been a fan of George Michael since the days of Wham. I can’t explain it. Maybe I had a thing for stubble in the mid-80s – I’m also a big fan of Don Johnson, who played Sonny Crockett in those days.

This album offers a few true gems. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is a soaring version of the song that Roberta Flack owns. Michael’s version is somehow bigger, and shows off his impressive range, from rumbling lows to highs that shift on the winds at that altitude. His version doesn’t supplant Flack’s, but it stands right there with it.

“Brother Can You Spare a Dime” is a reintroduction of a truly great American classic song from the Depression era, made famous by Al Jolson and Bing Crosby. It laments the fate of a generation suffering from economic turbulence not of their making. I hope that the presumably very-well-heeled crowds in the halls where this album was recorded caught its message of empathy for the poor.

Yes, this album is recorded live, though I’m not entirely sure why. At one point, he has to “shush” the audience, and like the ill-mannered apes that show up at most concerts, even then a few buckle to their strange compulsion to whoop at wrong moments. (To be fair, this incident happens on the most laughable song of the album, which “features” the absolute worst harpist I have ever heard – I honestly believe I could do better wearing a pair of boxing gloves if given two days to practice.)

An earlier album by George Michael was entitled “Listen Without Prejudice”, but I don’t think that is possible. Even the normally gentle and forgiving Robin opens her review with the flat statement that she doesn’t care for him. I started my own piece with a statement that I don’t wanna be right. George Michael provokes prejudice because he is George Michael.

George Michael is more than just the voice on this album. He is more than an icon. He is several symbols – each eclipsing the others in separate observers.

In Robin’s review, she talks about a wreck of a man lacking all self-discipline. She’s entirely correct, and her recounting of his failures as a human being are a mere skimming of the surface. When she rolls her eyes at his dramatic delivery of “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, she’s absolutely entitled. She calls him schmaltzy and over-the-top, and I cannot say that she’s wrong. He’s a symbol of all that.

If I were a member of MADD, I would be apoplectic that this multiply-caught altered driver is getting any attention whatsoever. I get that. He’s a symbol of someone willing to risk the lives of others by driving while wasted.

For many hetero males, myself included, his gayness is the biggest reaction point. For a lot of such folk, that’s the point of departure. Not only for people like Fred Phelps, but probably for a lot of generally tolerant people out there. He wears it on his sleeve – why must he wear it on his sleeve? Now, an album of George Michael playing show-tunes?? Aaccckkk! He’s a symbol of in-your-face gayness.

And I guess that is the source of my own prejudice in his favor. There’s a part of me that reacts exactly like those generally-tolerant people who just don’t want to have to face up to his gayness. Maybe it’s a bit of atonement for my own inner homophobe that I cut some slack for the guy who is so fabulous that his liner notes on this album don’t include lyrics, just more pictures of George, George, George.

And, really, his voice is absolutely amazing.

I dare you to listen without prejudice. I can’t, and I bet you can’t.

Next up, Blak and Blu, by Gary Clark, Jr.

G I R L, by Pharrell Williams (Album of the Week)

March 30th, 2014

I suppose that I could possibly have the inner strength to resist the infectious melodies and upbeat attitude of this album, but why would I? You would have to be a bit of a prude or an asshole to dislike this album.

This album is Robin’s follow-up to the baffling introspection and sonic slop of Damien Jurado’s Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, and the contrast could not be greater.

Amusingly, the two albums share a bit of thematic space. Jurado’s album confronts alien beings in a surreal dreamscape involving “Silver Katherine” and it compels Jurado to describe a weird pseudo-theological response. Pharrell Williams has a different reaction to his encounter with an alien being – he envisions them banging like a cheap screen door:

I think you are a lost queen
Let me serve you, serve you
Hot sex and gold, shiny things

Alright, I’ll admit that it’s not very deep, but it’s a lot more fun to listen to! I am sure that some people would be offended by some of his more salacious lyrics, but if you lighten up and accept them for the joyously horny juvenile perspective they bring, you’ll be better for the experience.

This album is crafted to make you move your feet and swing your arms. It’s dance music, cut from the same cloth as Prince and Michael Jackson. I know that is high praise, but I think that Pharrell Williams deserves the comparison. This is unserious music at its absolute best.

While the music is unserious, there’s a ton of work going on here. Backing strings, great bass work, funky guitar and sharp drums are put together on songs that have a fair amount of range within the dance genre. You won’t get bored listening to this album – I listened to it at least a dozen times this week, and it still gets my toes tapping.

Of course, it would be blogger malpractice to talk about this album without mentioning the phenomenon of 24 Hours of Happy. Click on the link, and see if a smile doesn’t sneak onto your face. You might even find yourself clapping along if you feel like a room without a roof.

I’m kind of shocked that all this exuberance hasn’t worn me out this week. I don’t want to listen to this type of music constantly, but I do want to add this to my “upbeat” playlist. We should all have one of those.

Next up: Symphonica, by George Michael

English Oceans, by the Drive-By Truckers (Album of the Week)

March 23rd, 2014

One of my favorite rowdy bands has grown up a bit, and the result is an album that demonstrates that kick-ass rock can be mature. “English Oceans” is a great album even without the bar-fighting brashness of earlier masterworks like “Southern Rock Opera”. It’s not a blunting of their edginess, but more of a skilled economy in wielding the blade.

The album is split between songs of singer-guitarists and co-founding members Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. Hood has a provocative, nasally voice that combines the best qualities of Neil Young and Mick Jagger with a southern twang, while Cooley sounds a bit like Willie Nelson and Brad Roberts from the Crash Test Dummies. Hood sounds like the guy who would get you into a bar fight, and Cooley sounds like the guy who would calmly tell you to take it outside.

As in past efforts, the Drive-By Truckers succeed when they are portraying characters from the ragged edge of the American south. “Pauline Hawkins” is an anti-romantic number that brings outstanding guitar riffs along with lyrics that start out :

Don’t call me your baby
I won’t answer
Love is like cancer
And I am immune

I doubt that one will be the first dance at many weddings, but it’s a heck of a song, and probably the most rocking song of the album.

It’s hard to pick a single favorite song off this album, because they cover so many moods and styles. “Natural Light” is a juke-box Western swing number with masterful guitar work stealing the show. “First Air of Autumn” is a calm, beautiful song that will make you hit “repeat”. “Primer Coat” echoes the guitar work of REM, and features the phrase “A girl as plain as a primer coat.” “Made Up English Oceans” mixes the sound of a spaghetti western ballad with a sharp summation of Lee Atwater and his tea-bagger spawn – “Once you grab them by their pride their hearts are bound to follow/Their natural fear of anything less manly or less natural.” “Grand Canyon” is a simply beautiful tribute to a member of their tour group who died suddenly – “I wonder how a life so sturdy could just one day cease to be.”

Robin really likes this album. Even though she was horribly misguided in her appreciation of Damien Jurado, she redeems her musical taste by her love of this album.

Like I said above, the only thing this album lacks is some of the cocky brashness of their earlier work, but it isn’t missed. I love the all-knowing sophomoric authority assumed in a song like “The Three Great Alabama Icons“, and I will never tire of “Let There Be Rock”, but those songs are steeped in a brand of swagger that is tough to maintain over a full career. An album like “English Oceans”, with its slightly more pensive outlook combined with solid southern rock, makes me believe that the Drive-By Truckers aren’t going to fade away.

Next up: G I R L, by Pharrell Williams

Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, by Damien Jurado (Album of the Week)

March 16th, 2014

There’s nothing wrong with Damien Jurado that a good ass-kicking couldn’t fix. While I’m not seriously wishing physical harm to the guy, it would do him a world of good to have an actual conflict to jolt him out of the psychedelic dream-state that produced this twee, disengaged album.

The thing is, he’s a good, possibly great artist. The album has a pleasant sound to it – he’s melodically gifted, and the music is generally fairly lush. Even in an album I disliked for its several flaws, I’ll agree with his fans that he avoids unpleasantness – you would never snap off the radio during one of his songs.

Part of the problem is that he doesn’t trust his voice to deliver his music. Instead, he wraps it in soggy layers of sonic glop – echo chambers, backing choirs, falsetto, strange mixing, and on and on. When he actually just sings, he’s pretty darned good.

Another part of the problem is the material he wrote. This album is the second of two about a dream he had. He was wandering and encounters a group of space travelers or something out in the desert, and they’re “Silver” Katherine and “Silver” Timothy and nobody, not even his most devout fans who are enthralled with this album, has any idea what in the hell is supposed to be going on. What we get is a basically meaningless dreamscape that sounds vaguely spiritual or even religious, but isn’t quite. It’s just weird.

Perhaps it’s weird in a beautiful way. I suppose that one could get swept into the dreamy electronically-altered voice and sonic layers and really enjoy it. Personally, it didn’t work for me. I found myself frustrated by the indecipherable meaning and sloppy sound.

Robin, on the other hand, really liked this album. She allows herself to go along with Jurado, and finds “richly orchestrated pieces that pull from many musical styles to weave the resolution of a journey.” Good for her – she had a better time listening to it than I did.

Ironically, I may have paid too much attention to the album to simply enjoy it. Like I mentioned above, if the songs of this album showed up in a radio mix, you wouldn’t turn it off. It only really gets on my nerves if I listen to an entire album of Jurado’s silver navel-gazing, and I try to engage with it.

Now, if someone walks up to him, and cuffs him around a bit, he’s going to use that musical talent to describe something that we can relate to. If Jake Bugg took him for a walk around the housing project he grew up in, or if Kacey Musgraves broke his heart and then called him up for a romp in the sack, he would probably snap out of his two-album dream and make some music that the rest of us would be welcomed to enjoy.

Next up: English Oceans, by the Drive-By Truckers

Musical Update – Seeing Sharon Jones and the Dap-Tones LIVE! + Valerie June

March 9th, 2014

Several weeks ago, Robin and I reviewed Give the People What They Want. We both loved it, and relished the energy of the album.

WOW! we journeyed to Lawrence’s Liberty Hall last night to see the group rock the stage, and they delivered. The brass was sharp, and had good dance moves. The Dap-ettes were fantastic, and opened with their own number. The whole show was tight – even the dancers pulled out of the audience on a few numbers were tremendous!

(My first cinematic posting.)

But the show was Sharon Jones. It’s hard to believe that she was getting treated for pancreatic cancer a year ago – the woman is a dancing, moving, high-voltage machine! She bounced around the stage like Richard Simmons on meth, and still had the lungs to belt songs out of the park. Amazing.

Valerie June opened, and she was great, too. Such a powerful voice, and tremendous charisma. She was at her best when it was just her – a string instrument and a voice.

If you get a chance to see either (or both) of these performances, just do it.