Metallica – Master of Puppets (1986)

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You don’t typically see the words “perfection” and “watershed” used to describe thrash metal albums. Yet never have those two words been so appropriate.

The year was 1986, and Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet” and Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar-fronted debut “5150” dominated radio. Big-haired glam metal was the rage on LA’s Sunset Strip, with clubs like Whisky a Go Go and The Roxy doing their part to encourage musicians more interested in how to apply their Aqua Net than challenging the listener or themselves. It was for these reasons that Metallica abandoned LA three years previous to settle in San Francisco and cultivate their own vastly different art. 

Most people – especially radio and MTV – didn’t really care about Metallica. Although they had 2 full-length albums under their belt and were enjoying success abroad, Metallica were a virtual unknown in the US. Given the prevailing scene, that wasn’t surprising: there was nothing pretty about them. Their music & lyrics were as ugly and aggressive as their “we don’t give a shit” look. For me, that was exactly why I loved Metallica (and still do), and at the time I felt like I was a member of a cool “in” club.

But that was about to change.

I still remember the day I brought “Master of Puppets” home and put my needle in Side A’s groove. I got chills as I sat on my bed listening to the acoustic guitars that introduced “Battery”, anxious to hear what was coming. Suddenly, James Hetfield’s galloping rhythm guitar threw the song into overdrive, and a hugely influential contribution to my musical youth slammed firmly into place.

The album is a masterpiece from front to back. There is no filler. Every song epic. Every lyric so powerful that Hetfield didn’t have to sing them live – the crowd did it for him. Guitar riffs like those in “Battery”, “Master of Puppets”, “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”, “Disposable Heroes”, “Leper Messiah”, and “Damage Inc.” made budding metalhead guitarists want to stop playing power chords and learn to speed pick. (Did I just name-drop almost the entire album? Yes. Because it’s that. Fucking. Good.)

I judge musical greatness by the influence that an artist or album has on future artists. Indeed, the release of “Master of Puppets” was the tipping point for thrash metal; a “Nevermind”-like wrecking ball that broke down the wall of obscurity that was keeping the scene underground. It peaked at #30 on Billboard without a single or music video, a seemingly unimaginable feat in an era where MTV-fueled exposure seemed essential for success, and one that gave bands like Anthrax, Slayer, and the like hope. It is an album that made one critic recently write, “Some have called ‘Master of Puppets’ the best heavy metal album ever recorded; if it isn’t, it certainly comes close.” Fuckin’ A.

Metallica have often sited Ozzy Osbourne as partially responsible for helping launch them into the forefront. Ozzy was a fan and he knew the band was hot, so he invited them to be the opening act on his “Ultimate Sin” tour. You can imagine my elation when I found out it was coming to my hometown, and I still remember how the crowd went from utter confusion to rabid appreciation in one blistering 45-minute set. And in retrospect, I am humbled to know that I got to see them perform with the late Cliff Burton.

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Thrushes – Sun Come Undone (2006)

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As a measure of full disclosure, I should first say that I can be in no way unbiased about this band because it is fronted by one of my most perfect friends. That having been said, this is one of those truly rare friends’ bands that I would (and do) honestly listen to just cuz it’s awesome.

Thrushes fall under the special and somewhat goofy genre of shoegaze, presumably named for what introspective sensitive listeners do when enjoying said music – gaze at their shoes. But me – when I see Thrushes – I dance.

But I’ve also heard Thrushes describe their music as epic soundtracks for short films, which I think is actually the perfect characterization. Every song on Sun Come Undone is a painstakingly structured and polished piece of music. And this can probably be attributed to the perfectionist streak that runs in each of the band members – from Anna Conner’s passionate little-girl-lost vocals and lovely guitar melodies, to Casey’s deliberate and beautiful guitar, to Rachel’s steady bass lines. But what really comes through on this album for me is Matt Davis’ thoughtful, intricate, and inventive percussion. From the light tinkling of bells to the slow steady crescendo of a cymbal, his timing is impeccable and carries – for me – much of the emotion of the music. So, I was obviously disappointed when he left the band over a year ago – but he recently returned to the lineup, so that’s a relief.

The entire album is gorgeous and I recommend listening to it all the way through. But some standout songs for me include Heartbeats, which begins with a decidedly Ronnette’s Be My Baby intro, but really becomes it’s own song with the chorus of “my heart is full, full of your lo-o-o-ove” sung in only a way that Anna can. Into the Woods reminds of a song that would be in a teen independent film – I can just picture it in the scene where a girl is running away from an embarrassing mix-up that makes her truly beloved look like a monster (but don’t worry, he’ll be back to reclaim her heart later). Ghost Train is my favorite song of the album. It is super eerie to start – it actually kind of stirs up anxiety – and then it unravels into a sweet and fun little chorus of “let’s go out tonight”, which is incongruous but in a totally delightful way. Roy (which has the rare Casey-driven lyrics) is magical if only for the fact that it feels like Twin Peaks, which underneath all it’s too-shocking-for-tv weirdness had a core of love and beauty. And for me, any time that music makes you think and feel the way Thrushes do, it must be amazing.

The good news (for me) is that Thrushes are a local band that I can see often. Like tomorrow. At the Talking Head in Baltimore. Hit ’em up.

And here’s a picture of the lovely Ms. Conner jamming out at the Thrushes first show.
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Babes in Toyland: The Further Adventures of Babes in Toyland (2001)

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So the sticker on this cd case calls it an “official anthology – a collection of singles, b-sides, live performances from lollapalooza & unreleased tracks.” And while I’m not keen on the idea of reviewing “best of” albums, I would actually venture to say that this is not really a “best of” but in fact an exemplar of the band. Thus, the review.

So, Babes in Toyland have a sound that’s a little tough to nail down. They’re not punk, which makes them not riot grrrl, even though they are some girls who could conceivably start a riot. And even though they came up in that alternative era of the early 1990s, they’re a little too loud and scary to be proper alternative. I’d say their closest genre would have to be metal, but I imagine a lot of metal fans might take issue with that classification, as would – really – the babes themselves. But they’re definitely hard, and hard-core in terms of the speed, loudness, and growliness of their music. (Except of course for the handful of candy-sweet girly songs like covers of “We are family” and the disco tune “More, more, more.”)

As for the album, you can save yourself some time by skipping to track 3 because the Timothy Leary intro is boring as is the the song “Right Now!” that follows it. But track 3 is one of their singles which may have even gotten some airplay in some places at some point, “He’s My Thing.” It’s a quick little tune with catchy lyrics and kind of a dancy beat. Next is “Handsome and Gretel” which is probably my favorite song of theirs ever. I can’t tell if it’s Kat or Lori who is singing (they alternate), but the growly metal voice is perfect and competes with the best of the boys who do it and it’s really fun to sing along to. The next few songs are single-type album or live versions of their songs and all fine to listen to, except the aforementioned “We are family” cover, which is a little too close to the original to be enjoyable. Then there’s a previously unreleased version of “Sweet 69” which is probably their biggest hit, and with good reason cuz it’s a fantastic song, and this version kicks the original album’s version’s ass. Again, Kat or Lori does a great job of vacillating between little girl sing-song and spitfire monster growls. “Eye Rise” follows it up and it’s a really dark, kinda scary slow tune that sounds almost like an incantation. Which contrasts nicely, but creepily with the follow up, “More, more, more.” I love love LOVE this cover. Kat’s/Lori’s voice is so weird and off-key for singing it, but it’s just so Charlie’s Angels sounding and super dancy and not at all like the babes. It definitely made the workout mix on my iPod. And then the last song is “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” and it’s another weird one that I really like. It’s not loud or angry or metal at all, but it’s not gimmicky like the covers. But I think it’s fun. The lyrics are silly and super-space oriented – “We’ve been exploring your earth and we’d like to make a contact with you, we are your friends.” A great close for the album.

I think the Further Adventures is a great album for working out and fine too for just random housework. I listen to it in the car, but it’s not the best traveling music. It’s also not necessary to listen to from start to finish – it’s a pretty good album for chopping up and inserting into other mixes. The songs stand on their own pretty well.

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Psychotica – Self-titled (1996)

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A thousand apologies for the length of time between posts, but it’s kind of hard to enjoy music with an ear infection. The ear’s all better now, though, so, as penance for being a bad blogger, I give you this, one of the top 5 albums of all time.

First of all, Psychotica is the most amazing band you’ve never heard (and if you have, I commend you) and their self-titled debut is the perfect representation of everything that is incredible about them.

I discovered Psychotica at Lollapalooza 1996 when they opened the festival. Frontman Pat Briggs emerged from some crazy cocoon dressed in a silver skintight space-suit with a silver-dreaded mohawk and a painted on purple bar across his eyes. And he looked totally fucking awesome and way cooler than the flannel-clad dipshits in the big bands during that time. Truth be told, I was probably sold on this band before they even played the first notes, but it was a good instinct because if possible, their sound was even cooler and more innovative than their look.

I initially acquired the album on tape, which is actually the format it seemed to be recorded for, as there are clearly “sides” to the album. Side 1 kicks off with Ice Planet Hell – the obvious single. Booming bass and eerie screamy-but-good-voice vocals continue into crunchy guitars and an easily singable chorus, “It’s so cool, it’s so swell, living here on ice planet hell.” Other standout songs on Side 1 include Starfucker Love, which –  in addition to the vocal stylings of Mr. Briggs – features a dark reggae-rap breakdown by a blonde swedish chick named Reeka who found a way to incorporate the phrase “bloody glove” in her rap. Awesome. Little Prince is the ballad on Side 1 and it’s really beautiful and inspired me to re-read a childhood favorite and determine it truly is one of the greatest books ever written and is in no way really intended for children. Freedom of Choice is a cool cover of a Devo song – and really, who covers Devo songs? – but compared to the band’s original stuff it’s just kind of whatevs. 180 degrees is a slightly darker ballad, but Pat’s vocals are intense and strong and gorgeous and I will sing along from my gut when I hear them. And then closing Side 1 is an instrumental track called The Sleep which is violin and piano and has a classical sound that is actually really appropriate for a sad lullaby.

Side 2 is wonderful but not quite as strong as Side 1. Starts off with a power-rock song called Flesh and Bone, but hits its stride with Blue Fear, which incidentally also has lyrics about flesh and bone. The “single” on Side 2 is Barcelona. It’s got a Spanish-inspired sound – not surprisingly – but the real beauty of this song is a unique and incredible vocal ability of Mr. Briggs’ that allows him to hit two notes at once for a strange captivating sound that I’ve never heard anyone replicate. New Man is the last “real song” on the album and is also beautiful and then the album closes with another instrumental, a sort of bookend to The Sleep, called The Awakening, only this one is more synth-based and much weirder.

I can’t even express with words how different and spectacular and cherished this album is for me. It is perfect from beginning to end and has really withstood the test of time as a regular rotation in my various music players. I’ve successfully converted dozens (or at least a dozen) folks into fans, which is kind of a lot since so few people have ever even heard of them. And the rumors on web-town are that they are kind of back together and planning another tour. So get with it, get with this album, and see me at the next show.

Also, here is a photo of me and Pat, from an album listening party in 1999:

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The Beatles – Rock-n-Roll Music

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For my debut guest column at the wonderful “I <3 Rock-n-Roll”, what could be better than than this? It’s an album that I obsessed over as a child, it’s arguably the greatest rock-n-roll band of all time, and it’s a band that Ray can’t stand. 🙂

It would be silly to attempt to sum up the size and scale of influence that The Beatles have had on rock-n-roll and the art of music in general. For me, my first exposure to the music of The Beatles was through a cartoon. When I was a kid in the 70s, a Pittsburgh-based public access TV station began re-airing the Beatles cartoon series. Each 30-minute episode was divided into two 15-minute cartoons, with each cartoon’s plot revolving around a Beatles song. I tuned in religiously, and I loved every single song.

This infatuation, of course, led me to harangue my mother until she bought me some Beatles albums. Of all the albums that I wish I had cared for and saved as a child, “Rock-n-Roll Music” is the one my heart aches for the most. A double album released in 1976, it is a 28-track compilation of both original material and (perhaps more importantly) cover songs. The Beatles cut their teeth as performers in British and German clubs playing amphetamine-fueled originals as well as interpretations of their idols’ music, and “Rock-n-Roll Music” attempts to showcase that era.

With almost half of the songs being Larry Williams, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Carl Perkins covers, this album highlights the influence that America’s rock, rockabilly, and R&B pioneers had on The Beatles. Songs like “Long Tall Sally”, “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” and “Slow Down” are classics in their own right, and here they are executed with that unmistakable early Beatles sound. The rest of the album is a collection of some of the best Beatles-penned rockers, including “I Saw Her Standing There”, “Drive My Car”, “Revolution”, “Helter Skelter”, and possibly my favorite Beatles song, “Taxman”.

But the music was only half of what I loved about this album; the other was the physical product itself. The jacket was shiny silver – different than any other record that I owned at the time – with a portrait of the band on the front. Being a double album, it opened to a larger picture inside and a detailed listing of the songs. Ironically enough, the album’s artwork is dominated by 50’s-era imagery (neon, a jukebox, Marilyn Monroe, etc) even though The Beatles didn’t form until 1960 (perhaps in homage to their influences?).

If you can appreciate the scene in “Almost Famous” where the main character leafs through his big sister’s albums with fascination, then you can appreciate my love of this album and what it represents to me. It was a cornerstone of my musical youth and, even though the copy I owned is long sold at a garage sale, I still think about the countless hours I spent listening to it. In fact, writing this review inspired me to finally purchase another copy via eBay. Even at that, it won’t be that same.

Thanks Ray – glad to be here.

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Fugazi – 13 Songs (1990)

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My relationship with Fugazi has had its up and downs. I originally liked the idea of them – local guys with an activist edge and the coolest (unendorsed) t-shirt of all times (This is Not a Fugazi T-shirt {incidentally, this is a t-shirt I have to have at some point, even if it needs to be made DIY}). So, anyway, in theory, big fan of Fugazi, but in actuality…. The real problem was over-saturation. One summer my primary mode of transportation had a constant running soundtrack of Fugazi Repeater and Sublime 40 Ounces to Freedom and it sort of ruined them both for me forever. And an unfortunate side effect of that experience was that I thought it meant I disliked all Fugazi.

Fast forward a few years to me having an iPod and my boyfriend’s (now husband’s) entire MP3 collection at my disposal. So, a quick song shuffle brought up Waiting Room, which I sort of remembered hearing on the radio once or twice and enjoyed. And I listened to the whole track and thought, “hmm, Fugazi may not be all that bad after all, this song is awesome.” It was catchy with a great bass line. So I listened to it again, and decided, what the heck, let’s give the whole album a try. And I did. And it was fine, even though nothing quite compared to Waiting Room, except maybe for Suggestion, which I love if only for the lyric, “Blame her for being there.”

I can’t say any of the other songs really stand out. None are bad and the entire album is worth a listen, but even with a track listing in front of me, I couldn’t identify any of the other songs.

I’d say the album is absolutely ideal for at-work listening or anything where an inoffensive background sound is appreciated. It makes for a great soundtrack when you’re doing mundane busy work like filling in spreadsheets, assembling folders, or labeling envelopes (all things I used to do to the tune of 13 Songs regularly).

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Raooul – Jail-bait Core (1990-something)

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First of all, how upset am I that I can’t find the original release year of this album. I looked all over the cd and cd-cover but it wasn’t there and the information on the web is totally wrong (I’m pretty sure I didn’t time-travel in 1995 to acquire a cd that was released in 2001). But oh well, suffice it to say, it came out sometime before December 1995 cuz that’s when I got it for christmas.

Second of all, this is actually a split cd with a British band called Skinned Teen. I had a bit of a dilemma trying to decide how to review a split and decided I really just want to talk about Raooul, so that’s what’s going to happen. Perhaps Skinned Teen will find themselves on here later.

Enough pre(r)amble. I read about this band before I heard them and ordered the cd by mail from Lookout Records mostly just because this was a group of high school girls – girls my own age (at the time) – playing punk rock and actually signed to a label and I thought that was pretty cool. I wouldn’t say that I had low expectations, but I thought of them more as a curiosity than anything else.

So, quality-wise this is not what you’d call an extraordinary album. It was pretty poorly recorded – probably on a non-existent budget – so the sound is not great. And as musicians, the ladies aren’t exactly skilled. But what they lack in that sort-of lightning in a bottle talent, they more than make up for in the sense of creativity and fun they convey.

The best part of the album is that you can hear them laughing in almost every song. They don’t take themselves too seriously and instead of trivializing the music, it actually strengthens it. They possess a confidence to take risks and draw the listener in on the joke. In Miguel they make merciless fun of their friend the way most dudes do of each other. Rotten Dead Monkey is a shrieky good time. And Masturbatory Song reminds me of every dumb kid trying to look cool in high school: “I drink beer, smoke pot, drop acid, do lines, I shoot up, take speed…I’m not lying.” And as a closing tune, “I had Jesse Blatz,” is a standout. There’s something delightfully indulgent about the idea that any of these girls could take a punk icon and make him her bitch. So fun.

I don’t love Dark Coffee House or Spirit of ’78, but that’s mostly cuz they’re less funny. I don’t want to give the impression that this is a comedy album, either. They’re not out to be Weird Al, in fact, I’d compare them more to what The Offspring do silliness in their music. But I appreciate Raooul most for their sense of humor.

All in all, a fun listen, but not a regular rotation kind of album. It’s nice for road trips, particularly on the way to see a punk show, like a good warm-up act in case the actual warm-up act sucks.

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Bikini Kill – The CD Version of the First Two Records (1994)

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I felt compelled to try to redeem myself following the previous entry, so today I will be reviewing one of the greatest albums ever recorded. I say this with no measure of exaggeration, The CD Version of the First Two Records was a life-changing album for me. Now don’t get me wrong, I had heard female rock bands before, even ones where there were more girls than just the singer or the token guitar player/bassist/keyboardist/whatever, even ones that were a little bit angry (gee Alanis, you’ve got so much rage!). But from the opening declaration, “We’re Bikini Kill and we want revolution, girl-style, now!” through to “I remember the back of your head, leaving.” I knew I was dealing with a force of young, passionate, feminist brilliance I had never before encountered.

Although Bikini Kill had a hand in spawning a musical (really cultural) movement called Riot Grrrl, the sound is punk rock through and through. The basic voice/guitar/bass/drums combo powered by little technical skill but a ton of creativity generate fast loud songs that any of your friends’ high school bands could learn by ear in under half an hour, making for great covers at coffee houses and vfw shows. And the lyrics are smart and raw – angry, thought-provoking, and surprisingly hopeful, belted out by a force of nature. It’s no wonder I still count Kathleen Hanna among my great heroes.

So, to the life changing. I was a wee 15-year-old who liked punk rock and wore chucks and wanted cool friends. I knew about feminism and social justice and such but never felt any sort of applicability to my young mind. And I made a friend who was also into punk rock and pretty cool and she put this cd in my hand and I’ve never been the same. For the first time I finally got punk – that it was an expression, an outlet, a community. That there were things going on in the world that deserved my attention and efforts that were not a part of my daily schooling or news consumption. And feminist I became.

Now, who’s to say that this would not have occurred anyway, prompted by some other event or realization. But how lucky am I that it happened and coincided with the discovery of some incredible, powerful, and surprisingly uplifting music? Totally lucky.

Standout songs include the opening track, Double Dare Ya – a singalong kind of anthem with the twin message that things are effed up, but that we can take action to fix it; crank that business! The follow up, Liar, samples the old hippy lyrics “all we are saying is give peace a chance” against a background of blood-curdling girl screams, it makes a lot of folks feel uncomfortable, but it’s sheer genius. Suck My Left One appropriates a delightfully chauvinistic catchphrase and turns it against child sex abuse, awesome! People who complain that the whole album is just an angry bitch screaming, can consider themselves served with the two quiet tunes, Feels Blind (“I eat your hate like love”) and Outta Me. Honestly, the entire album is a gem and no song should be considered skippable, although, Rebel Girl is kind of bore in comparison to rest of the cd, in spite of its “single” status. Might just be me.

I think the thing about this cd is that for the first time music was truly 100% relatable and actually targetted at me. Not the me who was a generic teenager, or a generic girl consumed only with thoughts of boys, or a generic alternative that was just out to be different. This cd was targeted at ME, smart, female, angry, confused, ambitious me. And nearly 15 years later it is still as relatable and powerful as ever.

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Taking Back Sunday: Tell All Your Friends (2002)

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The truth about this cd is I’m ashamed to even admit that I’ve heard it…much less have it…(gulp) much less like it. It is 100% a guilty pleasure that I’ve tried to resist, but time and time again I come back to it.

The band is really just a generic group of guys who are neither particularly good nor bad at playing music. They have two singers who do the call and return thing pretty well and different enough voices to distinguish that it’s not the same guy, but a similar sound overall. The genre is pretty emo pop punk, a la Dashboard Confessional and The Used. Not sure what else to say. Usually I hate that kinda crap.

But there’s something infectiously listenable about this album (and ONLY this album – their other stuff is abysmal). Songs like “Cute without the ‘E’ (Cut From the Team)”, “Bike Scene”, and “You’re So Last Summer,” have everything a hit single is made of: non-threatening simple chords (you too can play this song, even if you totally suck at guitar!), predictable but pleasing pop hooks, and easily digestible lyrics. And they’re fun. They remind you of summer and friends and youthfulness. A sort of built-in nostalgia without the hassle of real memories. And for all their simplicity, the lyrics are pretty clever – “The truth is you could slit my throat, and with my one last gasping breath I’d apologize for bleeding on your shirt.” Clever and… secret’s out… really fun to sing along with. God I’m so embarrassed! But seriously, try NOT singing “You’re So Last Summer” in the shower the day you hear it. You can’t. It compels you to repeat it.

Drawbacks of the album include the fact that it gets stuck in your head, in kind of the yucky way that the oompah loompah tune does. Plus, you definitely have to be in the mood for mindless music to play it. All the songs pretty much sound the same, so no need to skip any, but if you don’t like one, chances are you should pass on the whole thing.

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The Start: Ciao, Baby (2007)

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Ok, here’s another album I picked up from the merch table at a live show. Unlike with JoJ, though, I was already a huge fan of The Start and was probably seeing them live for about the eighth time. Because I’m bad at keeping up with stuff, I didn’t know they had even released a new album until Aimee Echo (still the only girl I’d go totally gay for) announced that they’d only be playing stuff off the new cd. That’s usually kind of a blow for fans who want to hear old favorites, and I was geared up to be a little disappointed, but I’ll be damned if the new album wasn’t their very best yet. Thus the purchasing it immediately after they walked off stage.

Ciao, Baby is a sexy album. It is poppy and dancy, but just edgy enough to make it too grown up for the pop stations (which is too bad cuz they’re a niche that unfortunately just doesn’t get any radioplay, even though their sound is perfect for it). Synth-driven, but not for want of distorted guitars, the Start conjures easy Depeche Mode and other brit pop comparisons. However, relations to harder bands (Human Waste Project & Snot) infuse the sound with a rockiness that mopey DM never grasped.  In the past, the Start has suffered from a revolving musician issue where random bass players and drummers left too many holes from album to album, but for this one it looks like they really embraced their twosome-ness and finally got down to their true flavor.

The album begins with it’s strongest track, Wartime. Echo’s voice is perfect, sultry – the sound Madonna goes for but doesn’t quite achieve on Human Nature. I imagine Wartime as the perfect tune for a burlesque song and dance, complete with a little camo getup. It just begs to be staged. “This is the perfect game, cuz no one loses.”

Dance Revolution is another track that has me jacking up the volume. Easily the most danceable tune on the album – which I guess is appropriate given the name – it’s also got surprisingly clever lyrics, including a shoutout to Emma Goldman. But my favorite part is, “When the beat drops let it bomp   bomp     bomp.” Other standout tracks include My Millionaire (really dissonant sounding voice – lots of minor notes, but eerily singable), Fix (“my heart, it beats so hard, it beats so hard, it beats for you”), and the title track. Plus, listen to the bonus track for Eno, their pet chiuaua singing along.

I wouldn’t say there are any skippable tracks, certainly the whole album is great. But Runaway, Master Plan, and Surrender are a touch too sentimental to earn rave reviews.

The album is best listened to where you can dance, although I’ve never heard it played at clubs. Therefore, catching the band live is a must! It’s also good for cooking/baking when you’re on your feet and can enjoy the movement. I listen in the car regularly, but I’m also guilty of rocking the steering wheel if the music really gets me.

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