I didn’t get to listen to as much music last week as I would have liked – only ten albums, but they were all very good and some were excellent. This week we’re taking quality over quantity.
Rod Stewart, 1988 – Out Of Order
Apparently, this album had five top 20 singles, but looking at the titles I don’t remember any of them clearly, though “Crazy About Her” and “Forever Young” sound familiar (but I might be thinking of Bob Dylan or Alphaville on the latter). I guess this album was a big hit in 1988, but I have no recollection of hearing about it or seeing it in stores.
I like the first cut, “Lost In You,” which was also the first single off the album. It’s got a classic Rod Stewart sound to it. In fact, most of the album sounds instantly familiar though I don’t recall hearing most of it ever before. Suffice to say, it’s Rod Stewart doing his best Rod Stewart impression and it comes off great. More or less exactly what you’d expect.
Occasionally the album gets a little 80’d up – “Lethal Dose Of Love” is an overproduced slurry of guitar loops, horns, synths, chanted backing vocals, and processed drums. Although it’s an otherwise good song, the production turns it into a goddamned mess. The same could be said for his take on the blues standard “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out,” a great song that just gets ruined here.
I remember “Forever Young” upon hearing it. “My Heart Can’t Tell You No” sounds vaguely familiar. I’m wondering why I barely recall this album since the three singles I’ve heard so far have been to my liking. Rod’s voice is in great form on all of these tracks and the songs he’s chosen here are all pretty good.
“Crazy About Her” is the single I recalled – still a good track. And Rod and his crew nail the classic “Try A Little Tenderness,” showing a restraint in arrangement and production that would have been well-implemented on a couple of other cuts. The album closes with the Stones-like rocker “Almost Illegal,” going out on an energetic high note.
Overall, this is a surprising find. I’m not sure where it came from – it just ended up in my pile of CDs. I’m guessing it was part of a lot purchase since I don’t think I’d have picked it up. Now that I’ve listened to it, though, I’m glad to have it.
Royal Finger Bowl, 2000 – Greyhound Afternoons
It could be argued that Royal Fingerbowl is an acquired taste. If I had to put them in a musical category, I guess it would be “Waitsian Storytime,” but that feels unimaginative. While comparisons to Tom Waits are inevitable for this outfit, that seems almost too simple.
Alex McMurray’s voice isn’t as gruff on every one of these songs, though that growl does make an appearance here and there. Some of the songs have a drunken party feel to them, a dark sense of humor infiltrating the lyrics, like the first-person narrative from the worst parents in the world on “Bad Apples.” The tone is set early on with opener “Fine Ass Chemise,” an article of clothing that, for some reason, has only one syllable here, pronounced “shmeeze.”
“Echoes In My Mind” is a slowed down, almost countrified lament of lost love. It’s maybe the most conventional of all of the songs on this album, though “Way Up Yonder In New Orleans” could vie for that honor, as well. “Someday’s Coming” is a slice of guitar’n’horn-section rock that brings to mind a New Orleans funeral procession, both in musical and lyrical composition.
On “No Man Is An Island (On The Other Hand, I’m An Island)” Alex ruminates on eating his dog, among other things. And the album closes with the satisfyingly idiosyncratic “Mr. Corn,” on which we get to “dance with the queasy man.”
Sadly, this band didn’t amount to much commercially, though Alex McMurray continues to record under his own name and I understand he continues to perform regularly in the New Orleans region. Worth checking out if you’re looking for something off the beaten path.
Lyrics Born, 2018 – Quite A Life
Lyrics Born is back, dropping his new disc last September. I’ve been so backed up in releases that this is my first chance to get to this album. This is long overdue.
Lyrics Born is one of my favorite rappers currently recording and Quite A Life earns this continued love. The self-proclaimed funkiest MC around, he puts paid to his claims on “When I Get My Check ($, $, $),” this album’s ode to materialism which features Chali 2na, another of my favorites. It stays funky with “In Case Of Fire” featuring New Orleans funk mafia Galactic.
LB is one of the few rappers out there who can get under my skin and get me misty, and he does it again here on “Can’t Lose My Joy” which recounts his wife’s battle against cancer and features Aloe Blacc singing the chorus. The good news is Joyo Valerde makes her usual guest appearances on the album as well and, in light of this track, they never sounded sweeter.
There are some other excellent guest spots – Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Sister Sparrow, Gift Of Gab – but the biggest draw is always Tom Shimura with his gravel-smoothed vocals, wordplay, distinctive rhythms, and funky delivery. In a break from the norm, he includes a cover of James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s World” here, a timely inclusion in the midst of the #MeToo era.
He hasn’t lost a step in the 15 years he’s been releasing records under the LB moniker and he can still spit verses that make me take a deep breath just listening to them. As long as Lyrics Born keeps making records like this, he’ll remain the undisputed funkiest MC around.
Barenaked Ladies, 1996 – Rock Spectacle
A caveat to this review: I really don’t know any of Barenaked Ladies’s studio material. I like “Another Postcard” and “One Week,” but that’s all I know and those both came after this live document from 1996. So, being unfamiliar with their work puts me at a disadvantage when first hearing a live album, since I’ve got no point of reference.
That said, it helps that this is mixed so perfectly. Vocals are crystal clear, audience noise is limited to the beginning and end of each track and used sparingly in very specific spots to “flavor” a particular line. Even so, the first half of the disc leaves me flat. It’s not that I dislike the songs but I don’t find anything distinctive about them. They sure do seem to be popular with the audience in attendance, but they don’t register with me.
“Hello City” is a short, jaunty number that causes me to perk up. It’s the first song I’ve heard that sounds like anything other than 90s midtempo alt-rock. I like this one a lot, but the next track reverts to the same sort of bland earnestness that I got from the earlier songs.
I recognize “The Old Apartment” and “If I Had $1,000,000” insofar as I know I’ve heard them once or twice, although not in a couple decades. But there’s very little on this album that piques my interest.
So, for this non-initiate, this is a mediocre affair. That said, I can see it appealing to a BNL fan as these seem like they’re probably fairly faithful performances of some popular tracks. So my take is, ultimately, this disc is only likely to appeal to those already indoctrinated into the cult of Barenaked Ladies. My 5-disc rating is probably unfair in that regard, but I’ve got no way to rate it higher.
Sting, 2001 – …All This Time
Somehow this release escaped my attention. I’ve been a fan of Sting since he was with the Police but I missed this live album recorded on September 11, 2001. Given the events of that day, it’s a fairly subdued recording, opening, appropriately, with “Fragile.”
Throughout the album, Sting leans toward jazz rather than rock arrangements, perfectly suited to cuts like “Perfect Love… Gone Wrong.” Having performed some of these tracks for more than two decades, it makes sense that he would change up the presentation of standards like “Roxanne” and a truncated version of “Don’t Stand So Close To Me.”
“Brand New Day” is surprisingly lively given the mood of the recording up to that point. I guess when you’ve got a great arrangement you don’t let it go to waste.
All in all, this is a great live disc with a lot of interesting takes on songs I know and many others that I’d not heard live before. Sting’s Bring On The Night is one of my all-time favorite concert albums, and this isn’t on that level, but it is still excellent.
George Strait, 2003 – Honkytonkville
There’s a lot of consternation out there about modern country and its pop leanings as opposed to authentic country. And I’m among the detractors there, saying that a drawl or a twang doesn’t make a pop song country (even while I actually like some of that pop-country radio fodder).
Fortunately, there’s no need for such a distinction with George Strait. This release from his fourth decade in the business is typically excellent. And while he doesn’t pen any of his own songs here, his performance and delivery carry the day.
This music is throwback country, broken hearts and steady drinking, strings and vocal harmonies, cowboys and Jesus. The whole album is new to me, so any singles fail to stand out from deeper cuts, but when it all sounds so good, that hardly matters.
Country music isn’t generally my forte, but I’ve got a soft spot for the sad stuff and I’ve been getting into more of the classic country sound. This certainly fits the bill on both counts and will definitely wind up in future rotations.
Bruce Springsteen, 1978 & 1980 – Darkness On The Edge Of Town & The River
When I set out to listen to these albums for the first time, it wasn’t my intention to review them together. But after a couple listens and after reading a bit about the original releases, it made sense to talk about them both at the same time.
A lot of the songs on The River came out of the Darkness On The Edge Of Town sessions. For this reason, and because these albums were recorded and released so close to one another, there is a lot of similarity in the sound of the two records, both in terms of tone and narrative thrust.
Springsteen has said that these two albums brought to the fore the characters that would inform his writing for the next couple of decades. As I’m listening to them for the first time four decades after their release, I can say that what familiarity I have with the rest of his catalog bears this out. It’s easy to see why these are held in the same regard as, say, Blood On The Tracks and Highway 61 Revisited, why they’re considered the best of Springsteen’s output.
Aside from “Hungry Heart” on the latter, none of these stand out as hits for me – they might have been, but I’m not familiar enough with them. Instead, the albums as a whole vocalize a struggle between youth and maturity, between chasing dreams and settling for the norm, between staying-and-giving-up and fighting-like-hell-to-get-out. It’s this struggle and dichotomy that makes these albums so compelling for me. At 47 years old, I’m pretty sure which side I’ve landed on at this point in my life, but there’s enough fire and inspiration in Bruce’s delivery that I almost feel like there’s still time to make those decisions. And the passion in his vocals certainly makes me feel like I’m a younger man again, bringing me back to those days when those choices were at my doorstep.
There are layers and stories here that will bear revisiting again and again. And while there are a handful of individual songs on these albums that stand out, it is really the complete package that makes these records work. They wrap you in a feeling, erasing years. The music fills you with strength again, but that strength is both a blessing and a curse, because you’ll need every ounce of it for what lies ahead and even then it probably won’t be enough.
The 88, 2003 – Kind Of Light
The 88 is one of those bands I feel souls have been a lot bigger. Or maybe they were and I didn’t know about it. I do know they had some minor exposure through their music being used in tv shows in the early part of the millennium. It seems to me that coming off the grungy, gloomy ‘90s, this sort of straightforward pop would have made more of an impact.
I say straightforward pop, and it really is at times, but there are also moments of psychedelic rock in tracks like “Afterlife” And the title cut. Hints of power-pop here and there. And more complex song structures than you might normally attribute to a straightforward pop act.
I’m not aware of any singles off of this album, but there are some songs that stand out. Album opener “All The Same” is a great song that still sounds fresh a decade and a half later. “How Good It Can Be” and “Hard To Be You” were used in the television series The O.C. and served to create some exposure for the band. “I’m A Man” starts as a low key acoustic number with a captivating melody and ends somewhere between The Kinks and The Monkees.
The 88 continues to this day, putting out their most recent album in 2016. After revisiting this stellar debut today, I plan on checking out the rest of their albums in more depth, as well.
Elvis Costello, 1977 – My Aim Is True (Rykodisc edition)
What more can be said about this album? One of my all-time favorites and one of the best debut albums of all time, Elvis Costello as the archetypal Angry Young Man with his post-punk chords and his red shoes.
The album blasts out the gate with the disillusionment of “Welcome To The Working Week,” and doesn’t slow down until “Alison.” I have to admit to “Alison” being my least favorite song on the record; it’s Elvis’s “Piano Man” – a great song in its own right, but overplayed and overexposed. I’m just a little burnt out on it.
The rest of the album eschews broken-hearted ballads as it rocks and swings though the closing travelogue nightmare of “Waiting For The End Of The World.” The Ryko version includes another album’s worth of songs including the stellar single “Watching The Detectives,” as well as some very worthwhile outtakes, b-sides, and demos.
In short, if you don’t have this album in any of its myriad editions and formats then your record collection is objectively incomplete.
Looking forward to more music this coming week. As always, I appreciate you reading and leaving comments – let me know where you agree or tell me if I was totally off base. Did I hate on one of your favorites? Or did I provide a new perspective on something you’d forgotten?
Until next week, keep those discs spinning!