Spin Doctors, 1991 – Pocket Full Of Kryptonite
It is inconceivable that I’ve gone nearly thirty years without a copy of this album. First off, it was ubiquitous in 1991, downright inescapable. Second, at least two of the singles off of this record are fantastic. Third, everyone had a copy of this album so I know it’s been in the used bins for at least two decades and I’ve never picked it up.
Regardless, I’m finally correcting that oversight. The album opens with – no word of hyperbole here – one of the best singles of the decade in “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues.” It’s such a deft spin on the forlorn lover trope that it instantly resonates with anyone who’s ever been outclassed by an unworthy romantic rival and at the same time it’s funny and lighthearted. It’s my favorite track on the album.
The other single I mentioned shares the same theme. “Two Princes” is a pauper attempting to woo a princess in place of another, far wealthier, would-be Romeo. Both songs are fun and catchy and excellent summertime fodder.
But the album is a lot more than its singles. The jam band funk of “What Time Is It?” bounces around aimlessly but it’s still a heck of a trip. “More Than She Knows” is the closest they come to a pop tune, a two minute bite-size bit of blues-rock that lasts just long enough.
A few tracks end up wandering without a lot of direction, a little too long to maintain the fun and energy of some of the more concise cuts. Despite that, the musicianship and the funkiness keep me engaged even while I feel like I’m waiting for a couple of the songs to end. I’d never really realized it before, but their bassist, Mark White, is exceptionally good at his job; he and drummer Aaron Comess do a fantastic job keeping the rhythms tight even when the songs start meandering.
Truth be told, I think I enjoy this album more at my current age than I would have at 20 when it first came out. It’s a great funk-rock hybrid that only very occasionally loses its way, though it always finds its way back. Worth revisiting if you haven’t heard it since it came out.
Various Artists, 1996 – Sweet Relief II: Gravity Of The Situation – The Songs Of Vic Chesnutt
For any younger readers, benefit albums were once a very real thing, where artists would contribute songs and eschew any royalties so that the proceeds could all go to a worthwhile cause. The only example I’ve seen of this in the Streaming Era is when Eagles Of Death Metal asked other artists to cover “I Love You All The Time” and donate any proceeds to the victims of the mass shooting at the Bataclan in Paris through the Pay It Forward project.
I don’t know anything by Vic Chesnutt, but I love a good sampler CD – is it still a benefit album if I’m buying it second hand and no money is going to charity? – otherwise unreleased covers of Vic Chesnutt songs by the likes of such ‘90s mainstays as Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage, R.E.M., Cracker, Hootie & The Blowfish, Indigo Girls, Madonna, and Soul Asylum make this worthwhile as a novelty piece if nothing else. For a dollar, I had to have it.
Though Chesnutt’s medical tribulations and untimely death would make a great launching point for an argument about the failings of the United States’ healthcare system, that’s not what this page is for, so I’ll stick to the music. And despite hearing all these songs for the first time and by artists other than the songs’ writer, the album has a very smooth flow from one track to the next that makes the record feel like a singular project rather than a bunch of random contributions.
The title track is the first real standout, “The Gravity Of The Situation.” Nancy Griffith joins Hootie & The Blowfish on this number and they really knock it out of the park. Dog’s Eye View shines on “Dodge,” where the extended coda feels relaxed and soothing. I like the cover of “Supernatural” by Live better than I like most of their original work. And Soul Asylum pulls off a great version of “When I Ran Off And Left Her.”
Joe Henry does a remarkable cover of “Guilty By Association,” with Madonna joining him to provide backing and accent vocals. It might be the prettiest song on the disc. I could take a pass on the contributions from Smashing Pumpkins and Sparklehorse, but Kristen Hersh’s acoustic take on “Panic Pure” is well done. R.E.M.’s “Sponge” is great and Cracker’s version of “Withering,” has an early-era Bowie feel about it.
The final track on the disc is a duet between Vic himself and Victoria Williams, who was the beneficiary of the first Sweet Relief compilation. It is a bit tricky to pick out the main thrust of the lyrics, but their voices work well together, floating on a bed of strings in a way that feels like a lullaby. It’s the perfect way to close out the record.
On a final note, the Sweet Relief organization is still active in assisting musicians with financial difficulties due to illness, disability, or old age. Donate or learn more about their mission at https://SweetRelief.org
The Crystal Method, 1997 – Vegas
I loved the big beat era of the mid-to-late ‘90s, but I’ll come right out and say that no one was as good as Fatboy Slim – and not just “The Rockefeller Skank,” either; his albums were fantastic.
So now that we’ve set the bar for excellence in the genre, I’ll cop that The Crystal Method are really great at what they do. As a debut album, Vegas is super good. The fact that I can listen to and enjoy an entire EDM album two decades after its release is evidence that they’ve got the skills.
The two opening tracks – and two of the singles from the album – “Trip Like I Do” and “Busy Child” stand out on first listen because I’ve heard them before.
I’m not much good at describing this type of music except for employing the rote and cliche: high-energy, electric, compulsive beats, that sort of thing. I can’t even say what sets it apart from other music in the same category except to say that it’s just… better… than most. Electronic instrumentals run a greater risk than most music of being relegated to a subconscious background but Vegas is just too bold and in-your-face to register as anything but front-and-center.
Worth revisiting if you enjoyed any of this sort of thing 20 years ago (or if you still do). Perfect for driving, working out, dancing, or scoring the next John Wick movie.
Lisa Loeb, 1994 – Stay (I Missed You)
I need to stop qualifying my comments and finally just come out and admit that I love Lisa Loeb. When I’ve written about her before it’s always in the vein of “I don’t normally like this type of thing but…” or “She’s okay but she’s no Aimee Mann…”
That’s some bullshit. She doesn’t have to be Aimee Mann because she’s Lisa Loeb. And it doesn’t matter what I would “normally” like because she’s so good at what she does. It took revisiting her breakthrough single to remember why I loved her music so much in the first place.
“Stay (I Missed You)” was omnipresent in 1994 thanks to its inclusion in the film Singles. Even at the time, I thought the song was the best thing about the movie. And now I need to go revisit her album Tails which I have on a shelf somewhere.
The only other track on the single (which I found in the wild for a buck!) is a solo acoustic version of “Stay…” which really sounds pretty much the same as the single version. And that’s a good thing. ‘Cause I love Lisa Loeb (and I’m not afraid to say it)!
Various, 1989 – Greenpeace: Rainbow Warriors
Speaking of benefit albums… 30 years ago this summer Geffen released this two-disc, 31 track collection featuring contributions from seemingly everyone who mattered in the 80s: Talking Heads, INXS, Sting, Eurythmics, R.E.M., U2, Pretenders, Peter Gabriel, Simple Minds, and almost two dozen others. I had this on cassette and it’s still one of the best ‘80s compilations out there.
I found these for a buck a piece and had to jump on them, even though the previous owner had desecrated the inserts by tearing the front cover off, sticking that in the jewel box, and presumably just chucking the rest in the trash. WHO DOES THIS???
Packaging aside, the discs played great and it’s awesome to listen to this collection again. There is little if anything here that hasn’t been released elsewhere, whether on other compilations or on albums by the contributing artists. But it’s still pretty awesome to listen through two-and-a-half hours of all killer, no filler from my formative years.
Wynton Marsalis Septet, 1992 – Blue Interlude
I always find it challenging to write much about jazz. Though I love the music, I seldom feel that I have the language to discuss what I’m listening to.
I again find that to be the case with this album, on which the centerpiece and title track, “Blue Interlude,” is a 37-minute suite subtitled “The Bittersweet Saga Of Sugar Cane And Sweetie Pie” that supposedly takes the listener through the dialogue of the title characters’ relationship together. Before this piece, Wynton speaks for six minutes describing the musical cues that denote each character and the dynamics of their interaction, similar to Peter And The Wolf. Despite the length, this piece moves right along at a brisk pace, all of the musicians working together to highlight different aspects of the “dialogue.” While it would take me several listens to start to pick up on the individual phrases used to denote the specifics of the conversation as described in the preceding monologue, it is still, on first listen, a fascinating and engaging piece.
If that were the whole album, it would be enough and still be impressive. But there are four other tracks on the CD, including the twelve-and-a-half minute “The Jubilee Suite,” swinging opener “Brother Veal,” as well as “And The Band Played On” and closer “Sometimes It Goes Like That.”
First and foremost, this record is a lot of fun to listen to, the music upbeat, the musicians open and expressive in their playing. My only (very minor) quibble is that the “Monologue” piece seems slightly overlong, with Wynton spelling out a few points in the story rather than simply introducing the musical cues and allowing the listener to determine the meaning in the art. As the writer of the piece, though, that’s entirely his prerogative.
So while I lack the language to fully describe what I’m listening to, I’ve enjoyed listening to it and will do so again. It’s engrossing without being overly challenging, complex at points while still maintaining a lightness throughout, a pleasant midday interlude.
Prince, 1992 – O|->
Often referred to as “The Love Symbol Album,” Prince’s 1992 release marks the last time he was a top 40 staple – though later albums still achieved gold and platinum status, none of them had the chart presence of singles like “My Name Is Prince,” “7,” and “Sexy MF.” Coming on the heels of the massive Diamonds And Pearls album it seemed that Prince would continue ruling the airwaves in perpetuity, but it was not to be.
As a last hurrah of sorts (although there was no way to know that at the time), this is a fine album to go out on. It starts out strong with a couple of upbeat singles that get the party going right out the gate. Though the album is unnecessarily chopped up by segues featuring Kirstie Alley playing a reporter trying to interview Prince, the songs are all top-notch, and this album went on to be his best seller since Purple Rain. As usual for this era, styles run the gamut from funk (“Sexy M.F.” & “The Continental” & “The Sacrifice Of Victor”) to pop (“Morning Papers”) to slow jams (“Sweet Baby” & “Damn U”), to mid-tempo R&B (“Love 2 The 9’s”) with nods to rock (“Arrogance”), hip-hop and rap (“Sexy M.F.” & “The Flow”) along the way.
And of course, maybe the oddest track on the album is its biggest hit; “7” opens with an a cappella chorus, gives way to sinister laughter, incorporates acoustic guitar, drums, and bass within middle eastern influences and then samples from Otis Redding. It only works because it’s Prince.
The whole album is supposedly a fictionalized “soap rock opera” based loosely on Prince’s love affair and courtship with Mayte that weaves intrigue and danger into the mix. As a narrative, it’s a little difficult to track from start to finish. But taken song-by-song at face value, it’s still a great mid-career album for Prince, released almost fifteen years after his debut. And while I love his later works, this one might just be his last truly essential album for the casual fan.
Mystikal, 2000 – Let’s Get Ready
I’ve always liked Mystikal’s gruff, aggressive delivery. His posturing and bragging always come off as amusing to me, like a caricature of a gangsta rapper. Not to say that he’s not authentic or that his rhymes are funny, but there’s an over-the-topness to some of it that hits me sideways.
Great guest spots by a pre-“Happy” Pharrell Williams and Da Brat and, later, fellow southern-rap champions OutKast. The singles “Shake Yo Ass” and “Danger” are great, but the album is deep and solid. Opener “Ready To Rumble” grabs your attention straight out the gate. Materialism rules on “Big Truck Boys.” “U Would If U Could” is a straight-up boast track. “Mystikal Fever” is the best fever since “PacMan Fever.”
The problem with a lot of this type of music is getting past the misogyny and violence, and there’s plenty of both on this album, from the rather straightforward reference to women as “bitches” to stated plans to “beat that pussy up” to threats leveled at challengers. Lines like “When I put my hands on ya / I know that I hurt ya and I don’t deserve ya,” might make him a penitent abuser, but that hardly excuses it. Because he comes across as more of an archetype than an actual person, it makes sense to write some of this off as “appropriate to the role” or as gross hyperbole. That doesn’t really make it any easier to assimilate. I’m sure there are plenty out there who would argue that I’m reading too much into it, just play the record and dance and have fun, and there’s definitely an argument for that, as well.
Regardless, it’s a very enjoyable album, propelled forward by Mystikal‘s energy and overtly percussive delivery. Prior to this I’d only heard his “Best Of” collection but going forward I’ll definitely be open to hearing his other albums.
The Smithereens, 1989 – 11
Apparently, this album title was inspired by the movie Ocean’s 11 (the Frank Sinatra version). Interesting, then, that the poster art for the remake of the film so closely resembled the album cover. Can’t be a coincidence.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the music – lead track “A Girl Like You,” comes flooding back as it starts. This is a great forgotten single from my senior year of high school. It’s interesting to me to see that this charted much higher in the “alternative” charts than it did on the Hot 100.
I don’t recognize the other singles but that hardly matters. This is pure and perfect pop/rock. There’s a great guest turn by Belinda Carlisle doing backing vocals on a song (“Blue Period”) that could almost be an Elvis Costello tune. “Baby Be Good” might be my favorite cut on the album on first listen, and feels like it could have crushed the charts if it had been released by Locksley in 2005. “Room Without A View” could have been a Finn Brothers composition. “William Wilson” has hints of XTC.
This isn’t to say that the band’s sound is derivative, because I don’t think it is. It’s more to highlight the fact that, based on a first listen to one album, Pat DiNizio’s writing shares a lot of characteristics with some of my favorite bands’ and artists’. It shows versatility and diverse influences rather than a songwriter working off a crib sheet.
This is the second album this week that I’ve been aware of for 30 years (or close to it) but somehow never heard. And another one that’s surprising in how good it is. Now I sound my age: “All the best music came out when I was a teenager!” It’s not my fault if it’s true!
Sondre Lerche, 2001 – Faces Down
Named for both his band’s name (The Faces Down) and a line in album opener “Dead Passengers,” Sondre Lerche’s debut is a delightful slice of recreated 1960’s pop, but more Bacharach than Beatles (for the most part). A bit of psychedelia sneaks in around the edges here and there but it’s mostly a mellower affair.
I was introduced to this Norwegian singer/songwriter through Super Doppler’s dad. He had directed me toward standout pop confection “Modern Nature” featuring duet vocals from Lillian Samdal. It’s a stellar cut, so I sought out a copy of the album.
As a debut, it shows promise. Sondre is sweetly off-key on some numbers, but his voice and his songs work best with the lush pop arrangements, less well when self-accompanied on a solo acoustic guitar as on “Side Two.” A couple of songs bring to mind Jason Schwartzman’s Coconut Records project.
I was wary when I saw that late cut “Things You Call Fate” runs for over nine minutes, but it turns out to be a mini-suite with a bit of a Timothy Leary feel to things. It’s a bit lengthy but that works to the advantage of this mellowed out, trippy track.
Overall, this album works best on its more upbeat numbers but doesn’t disappoint anywhere (except maybe the solo acoustic bits). In the 18 years since this release, Sondre has released another ten albums, so I’ll be keeping an eye open to see how his sound develops.
Elvis Costello, 2006 – My Flame Burns Blue (Live with the Metropole Orkest)
People love to talk about Bowie and Madonna reinventing themselves and going through different periods with their music and fashion, but no one ever mentions Declan MacManus in the conversation. He might not be the fashion plate that the other two have been, but musically, few others have run the gamut like he has.
My Flame Burns Blue finds him performing live with Netherlands based jazz orchestra Metropole Orkest. This means new arrangements on classics like “Watching The Detectives,” “Clubland,” and “Favourite Hour.” There are also songs that I haven’t heard him perform ever before, like “Upon A Veil Of Midnight Blue,” “Almost Ideal Eyes,” and “Hora Decubitis.” He even throws in a cover he’s been performing forever (“That’s How You Got Killed Before”) and adds lyrics to Billy Strayhorn’s instrumental “Blood Count,” rechristening it as the title track of this album.
Just past 50 as of this recording, Costello’s voice is stronger than ever. Gone is the growl and snark of the angry young man from 30 years prior (though his delivery on “Episode Of Blonde” reminds you it may be just under the surface). Instead, it’s a liquid velvet croon on cuts like his Bacharach collaboration “God Give Me Strength” and it absolutely soars on this version of “Almost Blue.”
The jazz arrangements are interesting here, as are some of the song choices. As ever, Elvis Costello’s writing, lyrics, and vocals are the real draw – if they’ve never been your bag, this album won’t change that. But for lifelong fans interested in yet another incarnation of Napoleon Dynamite, this is well worth delving into.
Kellie Coffey, 2005 – When You Lie Next To Me
This is what happens when you buy CDs as lots. Someone put an ad online: 45 CDs for $10. I could see a Ryko edition Elvis Costello disc in the pictures so I said, “Eh, that’s worth ten bucks.” But then I get stuck with this.
This is the type of country music I hate. There’s nothing inherently country about the music. Almost any of these tracks could be pop songs. And they’re all slow-to-mid-tempo lugubrious dreck. It’s just generic.
Nine songs in we get a track that’s a little more upbeat. But again, if it weren’t for the fiddle accents on the tune, I don’t know how you’d call it a country song.
Maybe this album was a big hit and maybe I’m way off or maybe it’s just not “my type” of music. But I don’t find anything on this disc interesting enough to be worth going back to for a second listen. Hard pass.
Elton John, 1992 – Greatest Hits 1976-1986
It’s hard to go wrong with an Elton John collection and this one is no exception. It’s got a handful of tracks I don’t already have elsewhere in my collection, like the funk-lite of “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” and “Kiss The Bride,” alongside staples like “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word,” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.”
Hard to pick a favorite on a compilation like this, but I think I’ve narrowed it down to opener “I’m Still Standing” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues.” While I always heard Elton John growing up because my older sister is a fan, these two songs were from “my” era, coming of age in the ‘80s.
Not a bad cut on the record. Much as I feel that a lot of Greatest Hits packages tend to be watered down and nonessential, for someone of Elton John’s status, they’re more like running into an old friend – effortlessly comfortable and endlessly comforting.
And that’s the lot for this week. Thank you for reading and, as always, let me know what I got right, let me know where I messed up, and let me know if I’m just flat out wrong. I’m taking the weekend off to go visit some of my family, so I’ll see you in a week.
In the meantime, keep those discs spinning!