Hum – You’d Prefer an Astronaut (1995)

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You have probably heard Hum and may not even know it. They had a relatively popular single when this album first came out that was all over WHFS. At the time, I was striving very hard to pretend I didn’t like most of the stuff HFS would play because I was definitely too cool for all that commercial crap, but I secretly loved Stars and hoped the band would fall out of radio rotation. Which it did. Of course, if you don’t remember the radio play of 1995 – entirely plausible – you likely have still heard Stars. Its bad-ass guitar breakdown is featured prominently in that Dr. Addison Montgomery-Shephard car commercial where she asks, “When you turn your car on, does it return the favor?” Yes, so racy. And there it is – Hum, hammering the point home.

In hindsight, I’m really shocked this band every made it on to the radio, though. The music is way too introspective and legit to garner mass appeal, but I guess there was a brief period of indie curiosity in the mainstream at the time (see Nada Surf, Superdrag, and Mazzy Star). Anyway, when I finally got up the nerve to get the album for myself, I was treated to a rich delightful album full of skilled music-playing and contemplative lazy-voiced lyrics.

Tracks 1 and 2 are respectable and in no way bad or wrong except for the fact that they stand between me and track 3 – the aforementioned Stars – which is among the most standout songs (for me) of the ’90s. So, I encourage you to skip straight to 3 (let the album loop back around to 1 and 2 if you want) and crank your volume. It is totally worth it to hear the quiet intro without straining your ears and it makes the oncoming crash of sound that much more intense. Seriously, if your heart doesn’t skip just a little bit at that transition, you simply are not listening right. This song is the perfect combination of nerdy space vocals and just enough guitar feedback goodness. Following that, the next noteworthy song is The Very Old Man, which actually comes off a little out of place on this album. It’s a little bit folksy – very simple – but is beautiful in its earnestness. It has the feel of that Hey There Delilah song that’s so popular with the kids, but without the suckage. It has been guilty of making me cry a little. Why I Like Robins is an excellent zone-out kind of song – and apart from a slight overdependence on the old phaser pedal is perfect for taking you to a think place if you’re feeling pensive. I Hate it Too is sad and sweet and gorgeous. The lyrics “She don’t hold me right, she’s never gonna get me there,” could be the anthem of vulnerable rock and roll boys – arguably the best kind of boys.

This cd is a great one, lovely for summer – especially late at night. In fact, this would be exactly the right album for party wind-down mode where it’s only the close friends hanging around, not ready to say goodbye.

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The Distillers – Sing Sing Death House (2002)

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The Distillers were described to me as a band that plays like Rancid with a girl that sings like Courtney Love. So obviously I was intrigued. And the description was delightfully accurate. The likeness to Rancid probably has something to do with the fact that at the time this album was released, the singer, Brody, was married to Tim Armstrong. And this does not sound incredibly feminist of me, but I have my suspicions that although she is credited with all of the songwriting, he probably had a hand in it. Either way, it’s for the best. Sing Sing Death House is a great album.

The album is punk at its simplest. Fast, loud, crashing cymbals, intricate bass lines (actually, the bass on this album really stands out, ringing clear and driving the songs), and of course, angry lyrics peppered with loads of swear words. I totally love when chicks swear in music.

Sick of it All kicks off strong and includes the A+ lyric, “I’m anorex cuz I won’t fucking eat.” I Am Revenant starts slow, but gets singalong-able towards the middle with cheer-esque chorus. The Young Crazed Peeling has fun lyrics, but is not the most interesting song musically. Bullet and the Bullseye has great shouting backup vocals. But City of Angels is the album’s single, and in this case I agree that it is clearly the best, most representative song. There is a completely appropriate use of cowbell (more cowbell!) and kind of an underlying flute behind the chorus. Very good for shouting along with the top down. And I love the way Brody’s voice cracks during it. The rest of the album kinda plugs along after that – not bad, but not remarkable – until Lordy Lordy. I think this song is super fun, and feels very punk in its sincerity. A great way to close the album.

Sing Sing Death House is a great summer album. Not a big think type album, but not candy coated boringness, either. I particularly enjoy listening on my ipod by the pool while reading trashy magazines. I recommend it.

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Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown (2009)

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At the age of 15, I was pretty sure I was the biggest fan Green Day would ever have. Listened to them non-stop, wore out the vhs of the recorded woodstock mudfight, wrote out the lyrics on my school notebooks’ tabbed folders, and even made my own punk flower kerplunk! shirt. It was the hysteria that blessedly passed me by when all my friends went NKOTB-crazy, and it was my gateway into punk rock and a lifestyle I’ll always be grateful for.

So, it’s pretty awesome that nearly 15 years later I can say I made a solid emotional investment in these boys. 21st Century Breakdown is an ambitious album. Not only another concept album, but another rock opera. Arguably a more authentic rock opera than American Idiot, with three distinct acts and songs that tell the story better than most broadway musicals. But in spite of the high-concept, it’s still a Green Day album through and through, with irony, high-jinx, and true blue punk.

The title track opens well and I envision it as probably the third single (sidenote, my one complaint about Green Day is the number of singles that get squeaked out of every album, resulting in overexposure, but I guess it’s a byproduct of their popularity). Know Your Enemy is probably the right opening single. But Viva La Gloria sold me on the album. Beautiful and wistful, but rock-y not sappy. The kind of song that just brings me joy. Last Night on Earth brings to mind Good Riddance but is a little less user-friendly, which I prefer. Peacemaker is the best song on the album, witty and super-fun to listen to, mixing different styles with their signature sound. 21 Guns is also a ballad-type song, but it’s respectful and mature and reminds me a lot of Psychotica’s Soldier of War (which makes me smile since I know Billy Joe and Pat are friends, I feel like I’m in on a secret).

The whole album is fantastic, obviously intended to be listened to from start to finish, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to be. The songs stand well on their own and can probably be inserted into playlists easily. But it is very nice to sit and listen to the whole thing. I imagine someday it could even be staged, as is. Are you listening Off Broadway?

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The Butchies – 3 (2001)

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I had heard about the Butchies long before I actually heard them and didn’t really get around to buying an album because I was in college and not spending a whole bunch of money on albums at the time. Anyway, this worked out in my favor because a friend invited me to go to their show at the Ottobar and I got a totally amazing live performance as my first exposure to The Butchies and I’ve been totally enamored of them since.

So let’s get this out of the way – yes, they are a band of butch lesbians. And that’s not schtick or something they can rest on in lieu of musical talent. Because these are about the most talented musicians I’ve seen. And their sound is in no way genre-cast of other gay chicks. Compare them to Indigo Girls and KD Lang at your own risk. I call them punk, but others have disagreed with me. Maybe mellow punk?

As I said, my first exposure was live, and to this day it was the most crowded I have ever seen Ottobar, and the best part was almost the entire place was bad-ass women being cool to each other the whole time. The band had an incredible energy and interacted with the crowd the whole time. And while all members totally rocked out, the drummer, Melissa York was freaking phenomenal. I sort of fell in love with her when she jumped on top of her stool, did some cool drum stick trick and then jumped back down and kicked right into a song. I later found out that she was the drummer behind the album version of Le Tigre’s Keep On Living and the drums made that song the best on the album.

As for the album I’m reviewing – 3 – I think it’s my favorite Butchies. It’s a little bit more mature than Are We Not Femme, but it’s still punky and fun. Anything Anthology is a great intro, but is nothing compared to Forget Your Calculus which comes next. Forget Your Calculus starts pretty and sweet and then rocks harder. And I think it has the best rendition of a “yeah yeah yeah” type moment. Huh Huh Hear is almost a couple songs in one with a lot of interesting style changes. Not Like Mine is more ballad-y with crazy lyrics like “her jawline is not like mine” and really beautiful harmonies. The Wedding Disaster is sad, but lovely – cathartic if you’re in the mood to cry. As is Junior High Lament, which has a really cool baseline and throaty lyrics.

In spite of its controversial gay association that bugs so many intolerant assholes, the music itself is generally so pretty and non-threatening that everyone who has heard it in my car has mentioned that they like it and asked about it. I could imagine it being a good album for when a party is winding-down. But I of course love it most alone in my car – especially late at night driving home from b-more.

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Poe – Haunted (2004)

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I’m not sure why, but I recently got one of the songs from this album in my head, so I dusted it off and brought it along in the car. I’m glad I did, because it got the song out of my head. But unfortunately, this is one of those albums that found its way into my collection but does not really make the grade in terms of my elite musical standards.

I imagine it’s not easy being a solo female artist in the rock genre. Actually, being a solo artist at all does not usually bode well for folks – at least in terms of me liking them. So, with that in mind, Poe actually does alright. She stays true to the weirdness, especially with this cd, which is essentially a love letter to her dead father. Creepy, weird, the potential to be pretty cool. But there’s a little too much pop and solo-artist schtick to make it feel genuine.

There are a few songs I genuinely really like – I did have a reason for buying this cd, after all. The title track is pretty and sad. Wild is a really cool rock song that turns into an even cooler electronica dance tune – really good late-night driving sound. Lemon Meringue is a little happy for my style, but has a good chorus. And Spanish Doll is the song that made me dust off this album again in the first place. It has a distinctly spanish sound, samples delightful classic-movie soundtrack music and spanish background vocals, and has sweet simple lyrics – and Poe’s vocal range in it is impressive. Finally, there’s the album hit, Hey Pretty, which features a dramatic reading of a passage by Mark Danielewski (Poe’s brother) from his book, House of Leaves. Hey Pretty was on the radio and boys loved it because the passage dealt with a slutty girl in a sleek car. But to be honest, I’m a little surprised by the tone in which that particular passage was ready by its author, because I read the book – really brilliant, actually – and that passage struck me as really empty and lonesome and not at all a pleasant or exciting experience for the narrator, but I guess it all comes down to selling albums/books. Either way, it is interesting to have a companion(ish) album to a book that I really enjoyed. Finally, at all costs, avoid I’m Not a Virgin Anymore – this song is exactly the reason I avoid many solo female artists.

I don’t recommend the album, only the songs mentioned above. They can be good additions to playlists for long car rides and house-cleanings. Stay tuned for a more beloved album, soon.

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Cursive – Mama, I’m Swollen (2009)

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First of all, kudos to me for reviewing an album that actually came out this year (in the last two months, even). See, I’m not that out of touch, after all.

So I really love this album. It’s dark and disaffected without being depressing. Like pretty much all Cursive’s other stuff, Mama, I’m Swollen is a concept album – the theme, hell. It’s really theatrical inĀ  a way way way off broadway way, and I don’t know if it’s theatrical because it’s a concept album or if they do concept albums because they’re theatrical. It doesn’t matter. Mama, I’m Swollen employs horns for a number of songs, in a completely subtle and acceptable way (take notice, ska), as well as cellos, flutes, and even what sounds like a child’s toy piano. The overall effect is a lush, but somewhat scary sound. Love it.

The album single is From the Hips and I can see why it’s a single, but as is usually the case it’s pretty much my least favorite tune on the cd – too obvious, maybe. I really love track 3, I Couldn’t Love You – it’s probably the happiest sounding song they’ve ever recorded and it sounds really sweet even if it’s not the intended meaning. I can’t help but belt out the “I couldn’t love you anymore” lyrics when I’m listening alone in the car. Donkeys returns to the pinocchio* theme first visited by Driftwood on The Ugly Organ, but is less sad. Dark, still, but less sad. And very clever lyrics. We’re going to hell is the best song on the album and maybe the best of ’09 (so far, at least). Using the aforementioned toy piano and a toe-tappable tempo with sickly sweet vocals singing sinister lyrics, Cursive achieves a really sexy sound. This is one of very few songs that I like to listen to twice – or more – in a row. Mama, I’m Satan is intense – especially the chanty lyrics at the end. The title track is good, but not amazing. And the closing song, What Have I Done? is reflective, sad, and the perfect cool-down for the album.

The whole album is worth a listen, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be listened to all the way through. It’s not exactly what I’d consider a springtime album – probably would have been better to drop in winter – but regardless I can’t take it out of my cd-player. It’s great for solitary deep-thought listening – a quiet time album.

*Correction – When originally posted, this blog entry incorrectly referred to the theme of Donkeys as a peter pan one, when it fact it is a pinocchio one. I regret the error.

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Metric – Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? (2003)

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A few years ago I met a girl at a concert who lived another state away. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, we were able to keep in touch for awhile – mostly raving about our favorite bands. I dubbed her my identical music twin. And she was the one who recommend that I check out Metric.

Old World Underground… is a really nice everyday kind of album. It’s definitely indie rock, but it’s got just enough electronica to be different. And obviously I love the lady vocals – especially how sweet and earnest her voice is. At times it flirts with being pop, but there’s an underlying sadness that makes it unpalatable to most pop fans. But something I can really enjoy.

IOU is a good opener and shares it’s words with the album title and Hustle Rose is also fine. But Succexy is the first really fun song. There’s a lovely synth melody and it’s fun to dance to. Combat Baby is the most rocky-y song on the album and the best to sing along to. And I think it’s awesome that the vocals are somewhat out of tune – it’s a much more unique sound, especially with a girl singer. Calculation Theme is the prettiest song and stirs up really sweet imagery – “tonight your ghost will ask my ghost”. The next few tracks kind of scoot by without much notice but then Dead Disco kicks in with another great dancy beat. And then Love is a Place is a soft sad ballad to close it all out.

This album is good for two things – it’s great for fun spring windows down driving music, but also for background party-type music. It’s not an album that I feel passionately about the way I do with a lot of others, but that’s sometimes a really great thing because it’s “easy listening” but doesn’t suck like actual easy listening.

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Deftones – White Pony (2000)

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We join the ‘tones in medias res for this album, having already built a style and fan-base with Adrenaline and Around the Fur but before exploring a new(ish) sound with their self-titled and Saturday Night Wrist. And again, I’m sure many die-hard fans would slam me for raving about an album that is not widely considered “the best” but this cd is amazing. It’s mature, layered, and extremely emotional while still being hard, crunchy, and metal enough to count.

It opens with Feiticeira, two distinct guitars playing similar riffs, crisp steady drums, and then Chino comes in with an almost crooning voice – occasionally reaching to a shout (not scream). A truly strong opening. Digital Bath slows it down a little bit with a haunting background melody, I would call it a kind-of ballad but I love it for the screechy feedback-y guitars about 3/4 of the way through. It’s short moments like that that will actually make me fall in love with a song. Elite is probably the most truly metal song on the album and is much faster than the rest – a good rage-out song. Rx Queen is fine; Street Carp, too – if only a little annoying with the “here’s my new address” lyrics, and Teenager is pretty. But the most incredible song on the album is Knife Party. It’s got a rhythm that’s almost anticipatory – the whole time it feels like it’s building to something. And the vocals are almost imperceptibly a quarter beat off but it has a really powerful effect. About mid-way through a female voice comes in with screaming/chanting/moaning and it is unbelievably cathartic to sing along – even if I can’t hit those really high notes. And it’s romantic as hell. Korea is a good song to catch your breath before the next truly great tune, Passenger, hits in. Now Passenger features Maynard James Keenan as a guest vocalist and he and Chino were meant for this duet. The lyrics are really detailed and poetic and the music is gorgeous. In fact, my first copy of this album scratched at right about this song and I had to immediately go out and buy a new copy because I couldn’t bear to have a blemish on such a beautiful song. Change (in the House of Flies) is the single and probably to this date the most popular song of theirs, but I really can’t stand it (at least the version on this album – an acoustic version on a different album is really much better). And Pink Maggit closes (most versions of) the album. It too is breathtaking – with a steady heartbeat throughout the entire slow, quiet, thoughtful tune. It can sometimes make me cry.

The thing that really bothers me about this album is that there are about a dozen (ok, four) official versions that Maverick released – all pretty much at the same time and all with different bonus songs or lack-thereof. Kinda makes it hard for obsessive fans to collect all their music – or at least expensive. For that reason, I choose not to comment on the bonus songs.

This is one of very few items that I have taken (or will take) the time to review literally on a song-by-song basis and part of that is probably because I pretty much fell in love to it and it all means a lot to me, but love or no love, it would still be a favorite album. I find myself constantly impressed with Deftones’ ability to sound special and unique among a genre that has a lot of soundalikes, and I credit that they refuse to really apply a genre to themselves. For example, when Chino refers to the band as punk, the rest of the guys ask him what the hell he’s talking about. And their entire catalog is fantastic, but White Pony is a standout achievement that is still a major player in my regular rotation. Good for all activities from car to work to gym to party. Crank that business.

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Clay Aiken – The Very Best of Clay Aiken (2009)

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The greatest artist in the history of American Idol – nay – 2000-era pop music would have to be Clay Aiken. And this representative sample of his finest work is a treasure trove of listening bliss. His “Bridge Over Troubled Water” actually puts me at the scene of that lonely bridge, with the churning river below and I feel just so much that it hurts. It hurts.

Ok – I give up. April Fools Day, bitches.

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Nas – Stillmatic (2001)

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You could say that rap and hip-hop aren’t really my wheelhouse. We all have preferences and mine are pretty strongly in favor of rock in its harder varieties. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate and enjoy rap, and now and then there’s an album that brings me closer to the genre. Stillmatic is one of them.

Any true rap fans who are reading this will probably moan and groan at the notion that I chose Stillmatic as the Nas album to connect with when Illmatic is clearly so much better and blah-de-blah. Well, unfortunately, I’m not quite cool enough to have ever really heard Illmatic and I’m not totally jazzed about going out and buying it. I’m pretty ok with my love of Stillmatic. Seriously, it’s a good album.

I bought it because of a song I heard on the radio which was just trash-talking Jay-Z to a beat – Ether. But beyond a handful of choice rhymes that made me chuckle, “Put it together, I rock hos, y’all rock fellas,” the song was pretty strong and I liked the sound of his voice. The other song on the album that I really liked was what later went on to become it’s big single, One Mic. I remember once reading a play by Danny Hoch that I’m not sure ever made it to the stage about a hip-hop festival in Cuba, but one of the best monologues in it was one in which a rap producer recounts working with Nas and how he’s a totally different kind of rapper because his rhymes are in many ways very fantastical and rampant with religious imagery and a little acid-trippy for his genre and really it’s a much funnier monologue than I’m conveying here, but I think Mr. Hoch may have been listening to One Mic when he wrote it. In spite (because?) of that, it’s a really powerful love letter to his neighborhood and experiences. And the non-radio-friendly track I like best is Destroy and Rebuild, which is really kind of a combination of the things I like best from Ether and One Mic – trash talking and love for his neighborhood. The best part, though, is the video-game style music behind the rap – like old-school Nintendo.

The rest of the album is pretty good, but it falls into the trap that so many other rap albums seem to in that there’s a lot of junk gimmicky crap all over the album – most notably Rewind, a song written in reverse. Also not so much a fan of My Country, written in the wake of 9/11 and not what I’d consider a positive contribution.

I listen to this almost exclusively in the car, usually as somewhat of an auditory palate cleanser. It’s great for springtime, with windows down.

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