Another fine week of exploring music both new and old. I hope all the Americans reading had a great Independence Day and I hope everyone else had a fantastic week. There were a couple of real slogs in this week’s batch of albums, but they were offset by some excellent records, as well, including Bruce Springsteen’s latest, which is outstanding.
Bird3, 2001 – Bird3
I’d never heard of Bird3 before listening to this. It’s an extremely likable album of frat-boy rock cut from the same mold as Blink-182 or Lit. This is music you forget as soon as you hear it, but while its playing it’s fantastic. It is too dismissive to write this band off as formulaic, but I couldn’t tell them apart from either of the other two bands I named (with which I have admittedly little familiarity apart from MTV singles). This is high energy guitar rock with the occasional slow build through the first verse, but always at full speed by the time the chorus kicks in. The cheerful loser-in-love requirement is fulfilled by the bouncy “Girl Next Door.” The inner-strength-anthem requirement is met by “Glow.” Everyone-is-beautiful-just-the-way-they-are reassurances come via power pop opener “Fit.” I know this sounds like maybe my take is a little jaded, but despite my cynicism, I really enjoyed this album – just can’t figure out why this band didn’t make a bigger splash. The music is great, the vocals mixed at just the right level to be semi-intelligible without a lyric sheet. Everything about the sound of this record screams major hit sound, but maybe it was too ‘90s in 2001.
Various, 1995 – Brilliant! The Global Dance Music Experience Volume 5
Sorry to be a downer, but I am so done with 90s dance mix CDs. I’m trying to remember if this sort of music was fun in 1995 when dance clubs and me sort of had a thing for a brief period. Finding it hard to recall. I was holding out hope for something worthwhile in the K-Klassic Mix of Blondie’s “Rapture” and it’s definitely the most listenable cut on the disc, but the dance mix production has cut out any sense of punk; it’s like they didn’t know how to incorporate the rap portion into the remix and it’s a bit of a mess. If I never have to listen to this disc again, it will be soon enough.
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band,2012 – East Rutherford, NJ 09.22.12
…in which Bruce celebrates his birthday at home with a few friends. I recently made a discovery that is going to cost me a lot of money in coming years. The Bruce Springsteen website has archival recordings taken from his live shows. And while I’ve come to appreciate his studio cuts, I think that the live shows are where he really shines. It’s hard to recreate that energy and immediacy in the studio. This three-disc set from seven years ago is just smashing – Bruce is playing live on his birthday and he wants everyone to know that it’s a celebration. For three and a half hours he rocks and he rolls with his stalwart band alongside him, playing songs that are thirty years old with the excitement and urgency of a band whipping up a crowd with their current single. From the opening notes of “Out In The Street” to the final encore or “Twist And Shout” he never takes his foot off the pedal. He does take a few minutes here and there to talk to the crowd – “My City Of Ruins” has a three-and-a-half minute intro – but that sense of energy and urgency persists even when he’s just chatting. Here’s a link to the setlist so I don’t have to talk about every song. And lots of dates out there, so if you ever saw The Boss, there’s a shot that “your show” is available to listen to at home now, too.
Bruce Springsteen, 2019 – Western Stars
I’ve mentioned a couple times that I’m still a newcomer to Bruce Springsteen’s catalog. That said, given my limited knowledge, this might be the best album he’s made. It’s a travel album in a lot of ways, with tracks like “Drive Fast (The Stuntman),” “Sundown,” “The Wayfarer,” and “Hitch Hikin’” all concerned with movement and road tales. “Somewhere North Of Nashville” may stop briefly in a particular region, but “Tucson Train” is on the move again. At 69, on the heels of a very successful Broadway run, Bruce is full of wanderlust and it is apparent throughout this wonderful record. Approaching septuagenarianism, it makes sense that he’d slow down a little – and these are slow songs, make no mistake – but speed and strength don’t always correlate and these are among the strongest songs I’ve heard in the time I’ve been listening to his music. His voice doesn’t quaver or crack and on some songs – like “There Goes My Miracle” – it rings out as strong and clear as bells on a Sunday. Several of the songs are buttressed by orchestral arrangements, subtle horns and soaring strings. At 51 minutes it feels short, but that’s because I’ve grown accustomed to listening to three-and-a-half hour concerts by the man. Length aside, this is a late-career masterpiece that deserves its place among the best of his output.
Buena Vista Social Club, 1997 – Buena Vista Social Club
Despite having watched the film a couple decades ago, this is the first time I’ve listened to the album in its entirety. I don’t know a lot about traditional Latin music, but I enjoy this a lot. Elements of jazz and classical music are threaded through Cuban rhythms and bolstered by the occasional free-for-all jam session in the middle of a song. The vocals are all in Spanish, so I don’t understand the words, but they’re almost an afterthought to the cool swing of the music. This album would be equally at home on a hot summer’s day or a cigar-fueled evening. Still a highly regarded record twenty years after its release, it serves as both a timeless document of master musicians and a low-key party soundtrack whenever you might need one.
Crash Test Dummies, 1999 – Give Yourself A Hand
This is the album where Crash Test Dummies went from being quirky to outright embracing Brad Roberts’s personal weirdnesses. I wasn’t optimistic when the record was released twenty years ago, but it quickly became – and remains – my favorite of their CDs. Handing production duties over to someone else for the first time, the band incorporates electronics into their music more heavily than ever before. Ellen Reid crushes lead vocals on a trio of tracks while Brad trades in his trademark baritone for a falsetto on cuts like “A Cigarette Is All You Get.” Instead of laidback folk rock, we get aggressive funk on “I Want To Party,” not-so-subtle self-help advice on “Give Yourself A Hand,” and accusations & recriminations on “Keep A Lid On Things.” Gone are the wordless “Mmm Mmm” choruses and superhero requiems, replaced by Brad as “just a dirty dog who tried to hump that pretty leg.” There’s the dark side of “Afternoons & Coffeespoons” in the filthy and funny falsetto playground of “Just Shoot Me, Baby” – a favorite of mine – no more T.S. Eliot, but a fat old masochist begging to be put down. Forever doomed to one-hit-wonder obscurity, this band deserved more than their 15 minutes, and each of their albums stands out as a treasured gem, none moreso than this one.
David Gray, 1998 – White Ladder
I don’t know anything by David Gray but it feels like I heard something by him once and sort of liked it. Half a memory of half a song. White Ladder opens with the persistent traps of “Please Forgive Me,” a bittersweet love song full of low-key d’n’b rhythm and synth pads. It’s a well-crafted pop song, like Damien Rice with a beatbox. I have high hopes for the album.
Second song is “Babylon,” triggering that forgotten memory. This is the song I’d heard before. It sounds like it was probably used in roughly half of the episodes of Dawson’s Creek. (I have no reason to say this, since I never saw that show, but this song seems like the type of song that would be on that type of show). It looks like it has a reprise or sequel at the end of the disc. Anyway, another excellently crafted pop-song. Two for two. You go, David!
I was hoping “My Oh My” might be a Slade cover but, alas, it’s another soft-rock confessional. It’s pretty.
Next song. Okay, I’m gonna make a wild guess here and say, “I bet the whole album sounds like this.”
Forty minutes pass.
Yup. The whole album sounds like that. Which is nice. It’s not a bad thing. “Babylon” stood out because it was half-familiar but nothing else really stood out. Which is fine. It is, as I said earlier, a set of wonderfully constructed acoustic-guitar-pop songs that just have a sweet sound to them. I’m sure the lyrics are great and meaningful if you listened to this album when it came out twenty years ago. I didn’t, so they don’t grab me, but there’s nothing wrong with them, either.
I was hoping for a Styx cover when I saw the title “Sail Away” and while I didn’t get that, I did get a Soft Cell cover with “Say Hello Wave Goodbye.”
It’s a great disc. I’m sure I’ll go back to it at some point… probably when I buy it for $2 at Goodwill because I forgot I already own it.
Dollhouse, 2004 – The Rock And Soul Circus
This starts out as a pretty decent mostly-metal affront on the senses. Liner notes recommend that I listen to this high. I haven’t even had a beer in days – dead sober. I wonder if this would sound better high. I haven’t been high on a regular enough basis to know whether or not it improves the listening experience. It’s been decades. Shit, I’ve never even watched The Wizard Of Oz while listening to Dark Side Of The Moon, sober or high.
This band is a lot of fun – it might be a debut album from 2004 but these fellas would seem perfectly at home alongside ‘80s glam’n’hair-metal faves like Poison & Quiet Riot, Mötley Crüe & Twisted Sister. Maybe that’s why I’m enjoying the record. This just comes off as pure cock rock.
I can’t make out the lyrics and that’s probably just as well. Song titles like “The Human Being Lawnmower” are not inspiring confidence in poetic aptitude. Is this song based on Stephen King’s short story, “Lawnmower Man”? There’s no way to tell. I probably wouldn’t like the answer anyway. There’s a hard rock version of “Born Under A Bad Sign” that is very decent, if a bit noisy. “Come On Baby” is a rollicking garage/punk/blues stomper cranked up to 11. “Hear ‘Em Talkin’” is a White Stripes-style riff-fest. “I Miss Someone” is another standout.
Overall, Dollhouse falls shy of excellence, but have a handful of great songs. It feels like, with a little more polish on a few of the tracks they could have broken through. Maybe they did and I just don’t know it. I’ll definitely pick up anything of theirs that I stumble across out in the wild.
Eagles Of Death Metal, 2019 – The Best Songs We Never Wrote
I’ve been in love with this band since forever. That said, this disc is… let’s just say it’s for people like me who are just gonna buy everything EODM puts out forever. It’s a covers album, which is generally an excellent thing, but about half of these seem under-rehearsed, underdeveloped.
Stuff that should be in the Eagles Of Death Metal wheelhouse – KISS’s “God Of Thunder,” AC⚡️DC’s “It’s A Long Way To The Top” – are done very well. Tracks like Love & Rockets’s “So Alive” and Wham!’s “Careless Whisper” don’t fare so well. The best tracks on here are those where Jesse Hughes goes farthest afield from his norm, as in his cover of Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” , Cat Stevens’s “Trouble,” and his excellent take on Mary J. Blige’s “Family Affair.” However, the less said about the mercifully truncated version of “Moonage Daydream,” the better (although a cleaned up version with a full rock arrangement would be welcome).
Look, I’m always going to love anything that Jesse Hughes does musically. This is no exception. But I’m also honest about its shortcomings. I’ll listen to this album over and over just because it’s Boots Electric, and listening to his music makes me happy. But this really is an album for the fans first. Non-fans might enjoy some of the novelty value of some of the covers, but this isn’t going to convert anyone to fandom. And that’s fine. Jesse has always been very in touch with his fanbase, so putting out a covers album that is geared toward his devotees seems like a thing he would do. I know this fan loves it.
Elton John, 1975 – Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy
My first time hearing this album, 44 years after its release. I’ve seen it placed on par with Yellow Brick Road in terms of classic Elton John records and I have to concur. It’s not quite as rocking as 1973’s opus, though it has its share of uptempo numbers.
As a fictional and fanciful account of Elton & Bernie’s rise through the ranks of obscurity into rock stardom, it is less commercial than some previous works, with “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” being the only single released. The rest of the record has massive appeal, though, particularly in this Deluxe Edition that includes four additional tracks (including non-album singles “Philadelphia Freedom” And “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds) and a second disc featuring the entire album performed live at Wembley in 1975.
The title cut, “Tower Of Babel,” and “Better Off Dead” stand out on first listen, along with bonus cut “House Of Cards.” However, the song that really catches my ear on the first go ‘round is closer “Curtains,” which sounds like a crib sheet for John Cameron Mitchell and every slow cut from the Hedwig soundtrack. It is a stunning cut and I already want to hear it again and again.
I know I’m late to this album, but hey, no one can listen to everything. I’m really enjoying getting to know some of these classics along with all the new and random stuff I’m digging through. This one is a keeper.
Graham MacRae, 2008 – Graham MacRae
I’d never heard of Graham MacRae prior to this disc showing up. Two words: indie-folk. I don’t like sub-genres because they get too cute, too specific. But this one fits. I don’t hate it, but it doesn’t do much for me. I feel like there is a niche market for this music and I’m not in that niche. Furthermore, his lyrics often seem overly simplistic and trite, like scribbles in the margin of a smitten freshman’s notebook. Again, I feel like this heart-laid-bare honesty and clumsiness might appeal to certain listeners, just not me. The standout on this album is the instrumental “Wedding Wind,” a mid-tempo pastoral study that brings to mind maypoles and country fairs.
Various, 1996 – J. Spew
Apparently, there was a series of CD samplers released in the ‘90s under the Spew Sampler Series. That’s all I know about that. This was the first one I’ve ever seen. Despite not really caring for Tori Amos’s music for the most part, her first of two cuts on this disc, “Caught A Lite Sneeze” is really good. Poe’s “Angry Johnny” makes an appearance and makes me miss a singer from whom we really should have gotten more than two albums. Edwin McCain’s “Alive” is some very earnest sounding ‘90s rock with a decent hook and a flute, but not much else to recommend it. “I’ll Be Comin’” by The Bottle Rockets is a jangle pop take on the I’ll-still-be-here-when-he-hurts-you trope.
Bad Religion makes a welcome appearance with “A Walk,” injecting some fun and energy into things. Thermadore and Rust both contribute instantly forgettable bits of ‘90s frat rock – sonic wallpaper. Supernova offers up a fantastically stupid punk number in “Vitamins” that reminds me of The Dead Milkmen in the best way possible. Walt Mink delivers a sweet power pop number called “Everything Worthwhile” that lives up to its title.
Jewel shows up doing some weird Elvis impersonation with “Race Car Driver.” It goes on forever. Mike Johnson’s “One Way Out” is ‘90s rock with a nod toward alt-country. I dig it. And no compilation from the decade would be complete without Seven Mary Three’s anthemic “Cumbersome,” albeit an acoustic version here.
Someone called Victor redefines “generic” with the unremarkable “Promise.” Waterdog does “My Life” which isn’t bad but is unfortunately not a Billy Joel cover, either. How come no one covers Billy Joel? How has there not been an all-star tribute to Billy Joel album? C’mon people! The man is a goddamned legend! Shit!
Moby’s excellent cover of the Schoolhouse Rocks funky standard “Verb: That’s What’s Happening” wraps things up with a Marilyn Manson drum pattern and processed vocals. It is a super Hi-NRG way to close things out before the epilogue of Tori Amos’s one-minute “Mr. Zebra.”
I know I left a lot of disparaging remarks here but apart from Jewel, none of the songs were bad, per se, just that with 20-plus years of hindsight they don’t stand out from anything else in the decade. It’s acts like Poe and Tori and Moby who do stand out. This mix of the masterful and the mediocre is par for the course for this type of sampler. For two bucks, how can you go wrong?
The BossHoss, 2018 – Black Is Beautiful
I’ve been a fan of The BossHoss since their cowpoke cover of Cameo’s “Word Up!” was chosen for the climactic fight scene in Kingsman: Golden Circle. A German band covering American Top 40 music in a country’n’western style – it sounds terrible on paper but these good ol’ junges make it special.
Over the years they’ve branched out from novelty cover act to writing and recording their own songs and Black Is Beautiful is their latest offering. There is less country influence here and more straight forward radio-ready pop/rock (with a bit of drawl here and there to keep it fake/real).
Still, their voices remain mesmerizing and their songwriting is a party-in-a-box. Their overall style (regardless of genre) is so distinct that their music is immediately recognizable, familiar, and enjoyable. There is a swagger and swing to their sound that is endlessly appealing.
“Good Deed” and closer “What Could Possibly Go Wrong” probably come closest to their shitkicker past with great country vibes & flourishes. Lead single “A/Y/O” and “Little Help” are jet fuel and “In Your Face” and “Wrong Song” are the propane torch setting it off.
The horn section is in full effect, propelling long haul anthem “Road Fever” into overdrive. “Smile” is a chugging rocker that doesn’t let up. There isn’t a bad song on the record; it’s just an unpretentious feel-good album that serves up banger after banger for fifty minutes straight. Enjoy it straight up.
That’s it for this week. I’m on vacation for most of next week and all of the following week, but I should be able to get some listening done, even if it’s inevitable that volumes 6 & 7 of Hello, My Treacherous Friends will be on the briefer side. As always, thanks for reading, and keep those discs spinning.