It’s been a couple of weeks and I’ve been on vacation, which means more time away from my electronics and less time listening to new CDs. I’ve managed to rack up a few listens in that time, though, including reissues, a covers album, and a couple albums that surprised even me.
Live, 1997 – Secret Samadhi 💿💿💿💿
I had Live’s first album but had never heard this one, even missed the radio singles, for that matter. Their first album had some decent cuts, but they weren’t a band that excited me all that much. They’re still not. I have friends who loved their music and used to talk about how good the band was. Something about their music always rubbed me the wrong way, and this album is no exception.
For starters, it seems very self-serious, very much without any sense of humor. At its quiet points, it can be reminiscent of R.E.M., but a no-fun R.E.M. At its loud points, it can be difficult to make out lyrics and I don’t know if they’re yelling at me or yelling about something else.
And I don’t really care. I know some people still think this band was really something unique and special toward the latter half of the ‘90s, but they’ve always been sort of monochrome to me. I was supposed to go see them live with some friends back in the day, but tickets fell through – I still don’t think they have forgiven me – even so, I can’t imagine doing much besides gently rocking back and forth at that show. Or sitting down.
I realize this isn’t a proper review of the album, more just a general disparagement of the band itself. I think that’s mostly because none of the songs seem to stand out from one another in any way that I find significant. I can’t even work up enough enthusiasm to really dislike this band. They weren’t making traditional rock, they weren’t grunge… they were just sort of drudge-rock, for lack of a better description.
It’s strange because for five minutes in the ‘90s they were everywhere. Listening to this album today, I’m trying to remember why.
Eric Clapton, 1994 – From The Cradle 💿💿💿💿💿💿💿💿💿💿
I once heard someone say, “If you don’t like Clapton, you just don’t like music.” I don’t know if I’m 100% sold on the absolutism of that statement but I’ll tell you what – if you can’t dig Clapton doing straight-up classic blues, you’ve got some articulate ‘splainin to do.
Everything about this album seems expertly procured – from the song selections, to the musicians, to the trio of pooches that appear in the center of the CD booklet. And despite those deliberate choices, the decision was made to record this live in the studio with no retakes and minimal (meaning two) overdubs.
Clapton’s guitar work on this album is phenomenal when he cuts loose for long solos, such as on “Five Long Years,” but also in quieter numbers when he picks just a handful of notes, knowing when the music is made more powerful by what is left out.
The jump blues of cuts like “Tore Down” offsets the lugubriousness of songs like “Third Degree,” and though some songs are drenched in emotion and pain, at no point does it sound like these musicians aren’t having fun together.
All in all, this is a can’t miss album. Every track is perfectly realized and Clapton’s guitar work and vocals are at their peak.
Mary J. Blige, 1992 – What’s The 411? 💿💿💿💿💿
I don’t know a lot by Ms. Blige, but I seem to recall liking what I’ve heard so I dropped a couple bucks on this CD. The first track is three-and-a-half minutes of voicemail messages played over a hip-hop beat. Who thought this was a good idea and why wasn’t he stopped? I get the concept, but 30 seconds would have been enough to get the concept.
The first song to really catch my ear on this disc is mega-smash “Real Love.” Upbeat and catchy, this is still a great cut.
I normally like Busta Rhymes a lot, but there’s a track where he’s just talking. I don’t get it. “Sweet Thing,” another single off the album, is pretty decent. “Love No Limit” is very enjoyable, a little new jack thing going on here.
I’m not normally a big fan of the slow jam, but Mary’s delivery in “I Don’t Want To Do Anything” is great, and she works well with guest K-Ci Hailey. At nearly six minutes, it stretches my patience a bit but the vocals are great. There’s a hip-hop nod with Grand Puba on the title track to close out the album on a high note.
Overall, this album isn’t really in my wheelhouse. There are a couple of tracks I really enjoy and some production qualities that definitely date this to the early nineties. I’m glad to get the couple of tracks I really enjoyed, but it’s not a record with a lot of replay value for me. New Kids On The Block, 1988 – Hangin’ Tough 💿💿💿
In retrospect, 1988 was a watershed point for me, the last year I was in love with Top 40. I graduated high school in 1989 and even before graduation my focus had shifted to “alternative” or “underground” acts – Depeche Mode, The Cure, Elvis Costello, The Smiths, The Pixies, The The. I still listened to my old Top 40 favorites on CDs and cassettes, but I stopped listening to Top 40 radio.
New Kids On The Block were crazy huge for ten minutes between 1988 and 1990 – I heard most of the hits off their first album, but I never bought it until 30 years later. (I will cop to owning a copy of the single, “Hangin’ Tough” on a 7” 45.)
The album starts with their biggest hit, “You Got It (The Right Stuff),” a song so huge that “Weird” Al did a parody. (Not one of his best.) This song immediately goes on my personal Summertime playlist. What I didn’t realize is what great voices these guys had – in 1988 I preferred the upbeat stuff like this single and “Hangin’ Tough,” but they really shine on the Jackson 5 clone “Please Don’t Go Girl” and “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever).” The latter two were singles but I don’t remember them.
“I Need You” is decent, with an ‘80s update to a doo-wop sound. Not bad, but it would have been better if it had been given to Boyz II Men and if they’d done away with the guitar solo-by-numbers in the middle. “Hangin’ Tough” does not hold up well as a single. Not at all.
The rest of the record is the same – a mix of mid-tempo declarations of love or longing and more upbeat, LinnDrum beat-laden pop/rock tunes.
I made it through the whole CD, but I won’t do that again. While there were a couple tracks that had decent vocals and nostalgia value, the record is really not good at all. It looks like I split off from Top 40 music at just the right time.
Paula Abdul, 1991 – Spellbound 💿💿💿💿💿💿💿💿💿
Okay, so maybe I didn’t leave ALL of the Top 40 stuff behind in 1989. After all, it was still the MTV era when they played music and showed videos on the channel. It was an amazing time to be alive, back before the internet, back before any ignoramus with a cell phone could christen himself a record reviewer.
I’ll come right out and say it: when it came out in 1988, I loved the Lakers Girl’s debut album Forever Your Girl. I haven’t revisited in forever, so I probably would not like it as much today as 30 years past, but in 1991 I still thought of it as a fun album, so I was very receptive to new Paula Abdul music.
That said, I didn’t buy Spellbound in 1991. But I loved the song and video for lead single “Rush Rush,” which my friend dubbed “a song so nice they named it twice.” There were lots of other singles from the album but I don’t remember any of them – I’m guessing they didn’t get the same MTV exposure. I can still picture Paula Abdul on a swing in a garden…
Surprisingly, three songs in, I’m actually enjoying this album. The missus just sent me a text from downstairs: “What the hell are you listening to?” I told her New Kids & Paula Abdul. I think she left. This album came out two years after Janet Jackson’s excellent Rhythm Nation 1814, and listening today it’s easy to believe that Janet & Paula were talked about in the same sentences back in those days.
Listening through the rest of the disc, I recall “Blowing Kisses In The Wind” insofar as I know I’ve heard the chorus’s vocal hook before. I don’t have any memory of this song, nor any memories tied to the song but it’s a great cut and I’m surprised I’ve forgotten all about it.
This might destroy the infinitesimal amount of cred that I’ve built regarding my taste in music, but this is a really excellent album. I can definitely see myself revisiting large swaths of this recording, maybe even the whole thing. It’s that good. If someone stripped down the production and rereleased this today under a different name I think it would still be a huge success.
Don’t judge an album by its cover… and rush, rush out to get your own copy of Spellbound!
Pet Shop Boys, 1993 – Very: Further Listening 1992-1994
I wrote a lengthy review of Very here a couple years ago. It still stands. To sum it up, the album is still excellent 25+ years after its release. (In other news, how is this album over 25 years old now?)
The Further Listening disc is the reason for this purchase, containing non-album and previously unreleased cuts from the period, including extended dance mixes, b-sides, demos, and one-offs. This starts with a nine-minute version of Pet Shop Boys covering The Village People’s “Go West.” I love the album version, but two-thirds of the way through this mix it turns into a generic dance mix that adds nothing. “Forever In Love” is similar, focusing on the dance aspects rather than the band’s songwriting. And I get that they were a dance act to some extent, but never at the cost of musical quality.
“Confidential,” a demo written and recorded for Tina Turner, returns us to our regularly scheduled excellence. I’m curious how this is a “demo.” The song sounds complete to me, fully fleshed out. Proof that the music they were giving away was as good as the music they were releasing. “Hey, Headmaster” is also enjoyable.
“Shameless” is a scathing indictment of unearned celebrity that seems even more relevant today. “Too Many People” is Pet Shop Boys cleverness at its finest, another example of an album-worthy castoff.
In fact, for me, the only superfluous track on this disc is the full-length version of “Absolutely Fabulous.” While I loved the show, a four-minute dance mix featuring samples of Edina & Patsy’s dialogue just doesn’t age well.
The Further Listening series is strictly collector and completist fodder. I get that. However, I’d argue that most of what’s in this second disc could have been worked into either a separate album or used to turn Very into a double-LP. Definitely worth the price of admission.
Pickin’ On Series, 2005 – Pickin’ On Franz Ferdinand 💿💿💿💿💿💿💿💿
Someone thought it was a good idea to put together an album made up of bluegrass covers of Franz Ferdinand hits. Oddly enough, unlike the R.E.M. disc from this series, this one works. I don’t know if that’s because it’s a different musician here (by the name of Cornbread Red) or because I like the source band better…
Big hits like “Take Me Out,” “40 Ft,” and “The Dark Of The Matinee” all get the banjo’n’bass treatment and it sounds exactly as you’d imagine. The only mark against this is that someone felt the need to change the lyrics of “Michael” into something hetero and “safe.” Disappointing. Otherwise, a fun recording.
Prince, 1999 – Ultimate Rave 💿💿💿💿💿💿💿💿💿💿
This is a two-disc rerelease of Prince’s 1999 classic-in-hindsight Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic. The second disc is a collection of remixes from the album and there’s a DVD of a New Years Eve concert to close the year.
I will make two admissions here: 1. this set is only of interest to completist Prince fans; 2. I never think of this as being one of Prince’s best until I listen to it again.
So while a 3-disc set of one of his least well-regarded albums is only worthwhile to purple freaks like me, the original album is up there with his best. Again, classic in hindsight, a retroactive masterpiece. But I swear I’m not viewing it through lavender-colored glasses.
We first heard the phrase “Rave un2 the joy fantastic,” in 1989’s “Batdance.” The title track, originally recorded in 1988, shares some of that track’s minimalism and funkiness and it sets the tone for the next fourteen songs on the album. Guest appearances from Public Enemy’s Chuck D, No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani, Sheryl Crow, Eve, and Ani DiFranco don’t feel out of place even though Prince wasn’t known to bring in featured artists on prior albums.
The only single released was the slow jam “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold,” which never broke the top 40 in the US. It’s a good cut but not the strongest on the album and it seems, commercially at least, that the more fun and upbeat “Hot Wit U (featuring Eve)” or “Baby Knows (featuring Sheryl Crow)” would have made more of an impact fifteen years after the artist’s record-selling peak.
The remix disc – confusingly titled Rave In2 The Joy Fantastic – is also excellent, but arguably of interest only to completists and hardcore fans of His Purple Majesty. But the original album is well worth revisiting, much more fun and aurally engaging than I’d recalled, as it’s been years since I went back and listened to it front-to-back. This one is a must-have.
I plan to be back to it next week with more regularity. I landed about 80 new CDs this week and plan to start digging into those next week. And while about half of those were a lot-purchase (how could I turn down 44 CDs for $10?) there are some really cool titles in among them, as well as the other thrift store finds and the random purchase of something specific I needed for my collection.
Until then, keep spinning those discs.