More, More, More Fall Music 2006!!
Praise Jesus, my CD buying rampage continues unabated! Here's part two of my fall '06 music recommendations. Part one is here.
The Rapture Pieces of the People We Love
Bravo! NYC's The Rapture follow up their debut album Echoes (a somewhat erratic confluence of cowbell-studded dance grooves, derivative, strafing post-punk guitars and Luke Jenner's almost-annoying, Robert Smith-style yelping) with something far more consistent and enjoyable. Pieces of the People We Love roars to life with a first-class opener -- "Don Gon Do It" boasts a fantastic, multi-harmonized vocal glissando as its main hook and I'll be damned if it wouldn't be enough to make the members of Queen break out into uncontrollable grins. Wow. I just love this song. I had no idea they had this kind of thing in them.
Other parts of the album revisit more familiar territory; "Get Myself Into It" augments the quartet's signature hard disco groove with a very nice saxophone motif. Other selections like "The Devil" and "Whoo! Alright Yeah..Uh Huh" also sound like the Rapture we've known (god bless that cowbell!), but it's all tighter, more spirited, more fun. Where their debut meandered and at times lost its focus, Pieces of the People We Love maintains its momentum all the way to the end, winding down with the lovely, hymn-like "Live In Sunshine." Can't wait to see this band live on 10/30.
Chad Van Gaalen Skelliconnection
I heard "Flower Gardens," this album's opening cut, on Sirius' Left of Center and immediately went online to order a copy. It's a barn-burning romp powered by pounding tom-toms and fuzzy, down-picked eighth notes on the bass. But there's nothing else on Skelliconnection that bears any resemblance to this song whatsoever.
Chad Van Gaalen is something of a musical chameleon, a highly imaginative and apparently wildly prolific one-man band who veers all over the place, stylistically, going wherever whimsy takes him. Luckily, he succeeds at most of what he attempts; whether it's metallic bluster ("Flower Gardens"), creepy folk ("Rolling Thunder") indie electronica ("Red Hot Drops"), Appalachian blues ("Wind Driving Dogs") or any number of other musical subgenres that pop up over the course of the album's 15 tracks. Van Gaalen's soaring falsetto occasionally recalls Thom Yorke or Neil Young. The lyrics are usually bizarre (conjuring pterodactyls, headless corpses, photosynthesis and graveyards) and the music jumps all over the place, but it never sounds like he's trying to get your attention.
By the time you reach the end of Skelliconnection, it's hard to believe you're still listening to the same album that started with "Flower Gardens." But the important thing is that you haven't lost interest. I'm still soaking this one in.
Ah, yeeah. It's always a pleasure to listen to a master as peerless as Prince, even though, at this stage in his nearly 30-year career, he's basically refining his craft rather than relentlessly blazing musical trails like he did all through the 80s. But how could one expect anything more from one man?!
I really wanted to love Prince's last album, 2004's Musicology, but most of it didn't catch fire with me. Not so with 3121, an opulent record which finds the lil' Minnesotan genius in fine, frisky form, as he cuts loose the exhilarating one-two punch of the title track (irresistible funk with the bursts of predictably unpredictable guitar) and "Lolita," a delectable ditty fortified with scrumptious synths and a playful call-and-response at the end.
"Black Sweat" sounds as kinky and inspired as anything from Sign O the Times, and "Love" rides a decadent groove worthy of comparison to 1999's "D.M.S.R." Prince seems happy to reference his past on this album but it never sounds like retreads. The thing is, he's still so engaged, so invested in his work, playing nearly all the instruments and pouring all kinds of meticulous production detail into the proceedings. Pretty amazing, considering how long he's been at it.
Ima Robot Monument to the Masses
Boo, hiss! I hate to be negative but this album is a big disappointment. Ima Robot's first release was one of my favorites from 2003; their fusion of David Bowie and the Sex Pistols (if I may paint with some very broad strokes) was hooky and smart, catchy but subliminally sophisticated. Their new album sadly finds the band dumbing down their approach and settling for some depressingly trite songwriting. I guess David St. Hubbins was right: there's a fine line between clever and stupid.
The whole shebang starts off promisingly enough; the John Lydon-quoting "Disconnect" is an inspired blast, easily on par with anything from the first album. But things go downhill from there. Coupled paradoxically with the band's more conservative songwriting direction is singer Edward Sharpe's decision to push his already quirky vocalisms to the point of irritation. There are some truly horrible "rap" bits that couldn't sound more ridiculous or white, married to some flat-out insipid lyrics.
The song "Cool Universe" wraps all the worst tendencies of the "new" Ima Robot into one unbearable three-minute package. "Chip Off the Block," meanwhile, is nothing more than a paint-by-numbers power ballad that, given a few tweaks, wouldn't sound out of place on a Warrant album. I can't believe I'm saying this but it's true. The least-offensive tunes in the batch are merely decent and certainly not very memorable.
The sad part is these guys can do so much better. They're talented players and very savvy songwriters -- but Monument to the Masses (an ironic title...or maybe not) just sounds like a cynical bid for commercial success. Nobody wins. It all comes down to wasted potential.
Massive Attack 100th Window
I never bothered to buy Massive Attack's last album, 100th Window because I kept hearing that it was just a so-so rehash of Mezzanine. And the fact that Robert Del Naja was the only original core member involved in the project also seemed like a bad omen. But after seeing the band live a few weeks ago I thought it wouldn't hurt to pick up a used copy to see what it's like.
Unsurprisingly, nothing on 100th Window can remotely be called bad; it's just that in the overall scope of Massive Attack's work, which has reached some unbelievable heights, this album just comes off a bit lackluster by comparison. Del Naja's choice of guest vocalist/muse was Sinead O'Connor this time around. Again, not bad, but then not nearly as inspired or thrilling as past collaborations with Tracy Thorn, Tricky and Elizabeth Frazier (although "What Your Soul Brings" is a very lovely piece indeed).
The simmering, slow-burning "Butterfly Caught" should be mentioned as a standout Del Naja track. And while long-running contributor Horace Andy turns in some dependably good performances, the material he's given to work with just doesn't jump out. I'm still listening to this and I'm sure it will grow on me, but I doubt it will ever be a favorite.
Teenage Fanclub Bandwagonesque
I'm not sure why, but this band has more or less flown under my radar until now. I have dim recollections of their videos on 120 Minutes in the early 90s, but that's about it; for some reason I never felt compelled to investigate further. Teenage Fanclub are often cited as one of the great torch-bearers for power pop in the post-Nirvana age, a characterization that has piqued my curiosity a few times but it wasn't until hearing the wonderful "Metal Baby" recently on Sirius radio that I finally succumbed and bought myself a copy of their 1991 album, Bandwagonesque.
I'm glad I did -- what a treat! Bandwagonesque is a grunge-y, garage-y update on classic seventies powerpop that parallels what Matthew Sweet and Material Issue were doing at the same time. There's a sleepy, Evan Dando-esque slacker delivery in songs like "The Concept" and "Star Sign" that could almost fool you into thinking that the band aren't as clever as they really are. Don't be fooled -- these guys know what they're doing.
In hindsight, 1991 was a year chock full of seismic musical events: Nirvana's Nevermind, My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, Primal Scream's Screamedelica. It seems that Teenage Fanclub were launching their own revolution as well.
And now, as if all that weren't enough, some of my fave discs from autumns past:
Whatever happened to Poe? Ten years ago she was such a promising new artist; her debut cd was fresh and fun, a user-friendly blend of pop, cut-and-paste hip hop production stylings, grungy hard rock riffs, even some jazzy bits. It was one of the first records made in Pro Tools (parts of it, anyway) and was fairly cutting edge overall. Poe's lyrics were honest and clever; she addressed her relationships like a less lewd Liz Phair, with plenty of good humor thrown in.
Hello has more than its share of memorable tunes: "Trigger Happy Jack," "Angry Johnny," the title track -- what's not to like? The whole record is colorful, vibrant and engaging; truly, a musical box of chocolates. Her followup took five years to surface and it just wasn't nearly as enjoyable, I'm sad to say. But Hello was one of my favorite albums of fall '96. Takes me right back to 11th street...Veniero's, Tokyo Joe's, First Flight...good neighborhood, good times.
This immaculate indie-pop gem arrived in fall of 2000, just as I was getting my band off the ground. I was anxious to hear Self (aka Matt Mahaffey)'s latest work and Gizmodgery soared above all expectations. Recorded entirely on toy instruments, the album is certainly a unique sonic event, and far more elaborate and detail-oriented than you might imagine. It's nothing less than a production masterpiece -- but more importantly, the songs on Self's third album are Mahaffey's best to date. The music positively explodes with playfulness. The cover of the Doobie Brothers' "What a Fool Believes" is a giddy romp -- one of my alltime faves. Mahaffey has yet to follow this up. Come on, Matt!!
~Veruca Salt Eight Arms to Hold You
I distinctly remember loathing Veruca Salt when they first emerged in the mid-nineties with the (to my ears, anyway) shameless Breeders rip-off "Seether." Much later, I was unwittingly exposed to their second album (thanks, Loni!) and fell in love instantly. Remember, love and hate are just kissing cousins...
Anyway, I couldn't believe how good Eight Arms' songs were and how much the album rocked, raised-fist-style; the record is filled to the top with sparkling pop melodies and gorgeously stacked harmonies, which sound sooo lovely when juxtaposed against the gargantuan heavy rock guitars and Black Album-era Metallica drum sound (courtesy of producer Bob Rock). I also thought it was gutsy of the band to so willingly abandon their indie darling status in favor of hugely overblown arena rock. The opening song, "Straight," is directly responsible for my own song "Black Days, Techno Nights," for whatever that's worth.
Sadly, co-founder/guitarist/vocalist Nina Gordon left the band after this album (and tour) and co-founder/guitarist/vocalist Louise Post has carried on under the Veruca Salt moniker without her. I haven't heard any of the stuff they've recorded without Nina but it seems like it would only be half the fun.
~Foreskin 500 Starbent but Superfreaked
In fall of '96 there were some dudes from Priority Records in town for CMJ, I think, and they were staying with my neighbor across the hall. They were all partying over there one night and I popped in. Seemed like nice enough guys and one of them gave me this cd, which was just-released on Priority. I was pretty indifferent about the gift (yet another CMJ handout, oh joy) but luckily, a few days later, I popped it in for a listen.
I loved it straight away; the opening track "Deliver Me" rocked hard, courtesy of a guitar riff nicked straight from Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla," but also had a massive funk groove and disco diva backing vocals. The lead singer sounded a bit like Rob Zombie. It was raucous...it was working for me!
The rest of the album is a guided tour through the sleazy, freak-filled, vice-ridden underworld discotheque that is Foreskin 500. High-jacking metal, funk, psychedelia, disco and hip hop and exploiting those disparate genres for their own crude, sordid ends, Foreskin 500 brew a potent, sweaty brine on Starbent. The hedonism only slows down at the end of the disc; the closing track "Pinhead Fantasy" effectively conjures the tweaked-out, party's over melancholy of the morning after.
My roommate Mike and I played the disc relentlessly that fall. We would even take it with us to parties -- "Bring It Down" and "Twister" could ALWAYS be counted on to push the energy level up a notch or two.
~Steve Vai Fire Garden
Steve Vai: consummate guitar hero, master transcriber, rock star, business mogul and self-contained cottage industry. The man who once stood alongside Frank Zappa and invented the 7-string guitar (where would nu-metal be without the 7-string?) is a tireless worker and a prolific artist with hopelessly lofty ambitions. Over the years, I've been inspired by some of his work; his first solo album, the Zappa-esque Flex-able, is brilliant. And who can resist David Lee Roth's Eat 'Em and Smile? But beyond that, it's hard for me to stay with Vai for long. His guitar playing is always breath-taking, technically -- and often very clever -- but after a point, all the instrumental fireworks just leave me cold.
Fire Garden is an exception -- I love it! I'm sure part of its appeal is the fact that I bought it during my first autumn in NYC ten years ago. But the other thing is that Vai sings on this record. Like most of his albums, Fire Garden is lengthy and ambitious, but it's cut into two halves, Phase 1 and Phase 2, which, as Vai himself advises in the liner notes, are meant to be taken in separately. I thought it was cool that even the indulgent Steve Vai acknowledged that listening to 70-plus minutes of his music in one go was asking alot.
So Phase 1 is the all-instrumental half; texturally dense and laden with all the expected mind-bending guitar performances, it easily satisfies any fans of Vai the guitar virtuoso, but at little more than half an hour, doesn't go on long enough to bore regular people. Not that there's anything close to boring on this album.
But the second half of Fire Garden is what interests me the most; on Phase 2, Vai sings for the first time on record -- and happily, he turns out to be a very capable and passionate vocalist. Just as importantly, the songs are really five-star; "Little Alligator" and "Damn You" are fine hard rock workouts but the quieter, more soulful cuts like "Brother" and especially the beautiful, soaring "All About Eve" (my favorite song on the album) are even more effective. Ten years later and I'm still listening to this.
~Death in Vegas The Contino Sessions
I vaguely recall being present when Death in Vegas performed during a giant CMJ showcase at Roseland in 1997 that included Daft Punk, Crystal Method, Fluke, Sneaker Pimps and Aphex Twin. An overwhelming lineup, to say the least. I can't say that DIV made any impression on me that night (I wasn't acquainted with any of their music yet) but a few years later I caught a whiff of The Contino Sessions, their second album, and it smelled gooooood.
Just a cursory look at the list of guest artists on the album -- Jim Reid (Jesus and Mary Chain), Dot Allison (One Dove), Bobby Gillespie (Primal Scream) and Iggy Pop -- was enough to get my curiosity running high. In the end, The Contino Sessions isn't nearly as electronic as one might expect; there are so many organic ingredients that it never really feels like electronica. It's essentially dark, hypnotic rock and roll stretched across slow, menacing, deliberate dance beats. Gillespie's cameo on the creepy-crawly "Soul Auctioneer" is a highlight, as is Iggy's turn in the supercharged "Aisha." Some of the tracks are little more than atmosphere, but together it all works as one cohesive piece. An autumn record if there ever was one!
The sumptuous slice of dance/pop brilliance known as "Girls and Boys" can easily be filed in the "Songs I Wish I'd Written" department. You all know that one. But how many of you realize that the song is just the starting point of a full album of equal brilliance? Believe it. Parklife is nothing short of a tour-de-force of quintessential Britpop, a dizzying survey of every major pop music movement to sweep across England since the Kinks (punk, new wave, disco, shoegaze). As varied and ambitious as it is, the album holds together effortlessly, thanks in part to Damon Albarn's lyrical vignettes and character sketches, which paint a vivid picture of life in England in the 1990s.
It always annoyed me that the press lumped Blur in with the inferior Oasis. Are you kidding me? Oasis are total hacks in comparison; Liam Gallagher couldn't write lyrics like these in his wildest dreams. Forget about them. And check out Parklife if you haven't already.
~Wool Box Set
Here was a nineties "alternative" band who should have been big. A veritable DC punk supergroup, Wool featured the Stahl brothers (Peter and Franz, from Scream) and Peter Moffett (Government Issue); their debut ep Budspawn was raging heavy rock with moments of pot-enhanced psychedelia and an overall emphasis on nuclear-strength hooks.
Wool's only full length platter, 1994's Box Set, suffers slightly from an ill-conceived framing device but who cares? -- the songs kick ass. There should have been a hit from this batch; "Eden," "Superman Is Dead" and "Black Eye" could have all been huge. Considering the kinds of bands who hogged up the airwaves during this era -- Bush (whose name has only become more repugnant in recent years), Seven Mary Three, Silverchair, Better Than Ezra (ick, I think I'm getting nauseous) -- a band like Wool should have been a shoe-in. Maybe their label just didn't know how to promote them or didn't care.
I saw Wool on the Box Set tour in the fall of 1994 with the Melvins and L7. What a show.