Another week, another stack of CDs. Eleven titles this week, from indie rock to country, from hip-hop to a cappella. A couple of stinkers in the group, if I’m being honest, but some great stuff in the mix, as well. Let’s get to it.
Joe Diffie, 1998 – Greatest Hits
I went through a period in the ‘90s when I listened to a lot of country – from the Johnny Cash classics right through to the music on Top 40 country stations of the day. And Joe Diffie’s “Prop Me Up Beside The Jukebox (If I Die)” was a big hit at the time. I actually ended up buying the album it was on.
So when I found his greatest hits collection in a recent lot purchase, I was far from displeased. I expected it to be a slice of cheese, to be honest, but I’m surprised how much I’m enjoying it. Okay, the opening cut, “Third Rock From The Sun” is a bit corny, but it’s funny so that goes a long way. “John Deere Green” might be one of the most infectious country songs ever written, a tale of small-town schmaltz that is surprisingly effective in its narrative. Broken hearts and broken dreams follow on “Texas Size Heartache” and “Ships That Don’t Come In.”
“Pickup Man” is a love song to his truck. “Poor Me” is more broken hearts and beers – “Poor me, poor me / Pour me another…” Despite the music’s modern slickness, it has a thematic throwback element that borders on some of the classic outlaw country, alternating between earnestness and a hokey sort of humor that doesn’t feel false or belabored.
“Honky Tonk Attitude” is a rollicking country rocker with a great boogie-woogie piano break. “Home” is thematically reminiscent of Springsteen’s “My Home Town,” if decidedly more sentimental. “Prop Me Up Beside The Jukebox” is still a great song and still makes me smile.
“Bigger Than The Beatles” is a sweet tune about small-town happiness supplanting big city dreams. And the record closes with “Hurt Me All The Time,” about the good side of a woman with a bad reputation.
It’s a fantastic greatest hits collection, and I enjoyed it all the way through. I still prefer the upbeat stuff to the more somber ballads but the latter are few and far between. In short, this disc will wind up on the summertime and country playlists in regular rotation.
Gloria Estefan, 1989 – Cuts Both Ways
What a truly mediocre affair. I liked a lot of Miami Sound Machine music from the ‘80s. They were really different and one of the only acts who incorporated Latin elements in their music and got airplay on mainstream radio in the New England markets during that era
But this late-80s post-Sound Machine release from Gloria Estefan doesn’t capture the same flavor and enjoyment as the earlier hit singles. I recognize a couple of the ballad hits here but they’re nothing special. And the upbeat, percussion-driven cuts from this record feel like generic color-by-number pieces.
No doubt that Gloria Estefan has a great voice, but no more so than many other pop songstresses of the time. This album is to earlier efforts what a cardboard cutout would be next to the real band.
The only highlights on the album are the single “Get On Your Feet” which does manage to hearken back to earlier upbeat numbers in a way that conveys actual excitement and enthusiasm and the title track, with its Bacahrachian melody and relative brevity. Apart from those, the whole thing falls flat for me.
R.Y.CH, 1996 – Ruana Song
Don’t you love finding those records about which no information exists online? It just builds a little extra anticipation for me when I wind up with a disc from a lot purchase and I have no idea what to expect.
In this case, it’s some odd reggae/rock/world music hybrid that doesn’t really appeal to my taste but is interesting nonetheless. The first cut is almost seven minutes long and flute heavy, with a guitar solo, some saxophone, and Spanish lyrics.
Second track, “Rumba Lambada” has some excellent Spanish guitar but then doubles down on the flute work, which I don’t really get. This song would be much improved without the flute. It’s not even that the flute playing is bad, but it feels like it crashed the party uninvited.
The album continues in this vein, stylistically inconsistent (reggae, Latin, electronic, country) but always showcasing the flute player. And while it’s interesting, it doesn’t really work for me. Not the worst music I’ve ever heard, but nothing I’d seek out ever again. If you like random flute music in a bunch of random styles, this is for you.
Milling Around, 2014 – #ThatCD
And sometimes lot purchases wind up with copies of an a cappella covers album from your local state college. Anyone familiar with college a cappella groups would feel instantly at ease with #ThatCD from University Of New Hampshire Manchester’s Milling Around. The only thing that sets it apart is that all of the lead vocalists are women.
It’s a fun collection, as these types of things usually are. Covers include cuts originally by Moxy Fruvous, Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepson, Cee Lo Green, Kelly Clarkson, Sarah Bareilles, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and others. The voices are solid and clear even if the arrangements seem fairly standard. There’s the occasional bit of added percussion, but otherwise no cheating on the original concept.
As with any of these types of recordings, I’m more drawn to the songs I knew beforehand. A fun listen but nothing to seek out. I guess you’d say… run of the mill?
Hootie & The Blowfish, 1996 – Fairweather Johnson
This is a disappointingly mediocre follow up to the very enjoyable Cracked Rear View, which I actually liked, to my surprise. Of course, the debut had the benefit of singles which saturated the airwaves and, 25 years later, provide at least some nostalgia value. The singles from the follow-up, not so much.
The title of the album sounds like a guy who only has sex when he feels like it. “Why haven’t you been getting any, Sheila?” “Well, Mary, my man’s a bit of a Fairweather Johnson.” Where there was some spontaneity and freshness to their first record, this one seems plodding and deliberate at every step.
It’s not horrible – it would almost be better if it was. It’s just there, beige as a hospital wall. “She Crawls Away” comes very close to being a good song, but falls short. Everything is just so earnest and heartfelt that I find myself feeling nothing at all.
In the end, it seems like someone said, “Let’s just remake the first album.” But where their debut came out of the blue for mainstream audiences, what we get the second time out is a soulless simulacrum – all the pieces seem to be there, but the whole is still lacking.
Various, 2005 – Rock On: Universal Music CD Sampler Vol. 1
Another sampler CD, another chance to discover new music. Maybe not “new” music… a chance to discover fourteen-year-old music.
The Kaiser Chiefs opening track, “I Predict A Riot” sounds so much like other power pop bands from the era that I can’t believe I don’t already have a copy of this. “Blow It Out” by The Features is good enough that I can’t figure out why I’ve never heard of this band.
Of course, Le Tigre is always amazing and “TKO” is no exception. Razorlight – another band whose name I’ve never heard – contributes a power-pop gem with “Golden Touch” and The Soundtrack Of Our Lives follows up with the very enjoyable “Big Time.”
The first misstep comes with the hard rock of Recover’s “Fuck Me For Free” which seems a bit disjointed. However, Scissor Sisters always brings the goods, and “Tits On The Radio” is a modern classic. But I can’t count myself a fan of Denver Harbor’s tune “Outta My Head.”
Razorlight makes their second appearance with “Stumble And Fall,” but I don’t like it as much as their other song here. But “Laura” by Scissor Sisters is excellent, of course.
Finally G. Love and Stephen Marley close out the disc. “Booty Call” is a cut I’ve known since it came out – it’s still great. And Marley’s “Hey Baby” is a reggae/pop tune that feels appropriately summery.
All in all, a good collection that hits a lot more often than it misses. Good find for a buck!
LL Cool J, 1996 – All World (Greatest Hits)
I get that he was a pioneer of the art form, but I’ve never been that impressed with LL Cool J. This singles collection is a great time capsule but it isn’t all gold.
Some songs are inescapable classics – “Big Ole Butt” and “Mama Said Knock You Out,” for example – but most of these are also-rans. Not bad, but nothing innovative and the rhymes aren’t particularly adept. (Props, though, for mixing horns into the intro of “Going Back To Cali.”)
I like a lot of hip-hop and I recognize LL Cool J as one of the first to do it “solo” rather than as part of a crew. Overall, though, his style just isn’t my style. I respect it for what it is and what it was, but it has more value as an historical document than as entertainment.
Matthew Sweet, 1995 – 100% Fun
I really wanted to enjoy this CD. I know the album and the artist were indie darlings for 10 minutes back in the ‘90s. I’d heard some Matthew Sweet back then but it didn’t appeal to me and I’d hoped that my musical tastes had expanded enough that I’d hear something I missed on the first outing.
If this sounds like I hate this disc, that’s not the case. But it’s just shy of where it needs to be to get my juices flowing. Moments of brilliance like “Lost My Mind” and “Giving It Back” shine and a lot of the rest of the album is good… but it’s not grabbing me the way this sort of proto-power-pop ought to do.
Some of that is due to the vocals being lower in the mix than I like. I like my power-pop with the caustic and clever lyrics out in the foreground. It also feels like the hooks and riffs aren’t quite there, aren’t fully realized.
There are nods – intentional or otherwise – to forerunners like R.E.M. and XTC but these aren’t fully fleshed out, either.
The deeper I go into the disc, the more I can understand the reasons for its modest acclaim. It is better than I gave it credit for almost 25 years ago. But my issues with it remain. It’s good – and I can even see it growing on me – but it doesn’t have what it takes to be a favorite.
Eric Clapton, 2013 – Old Sock
I wasn’t even aware of this CD. That said, I was very excited to find it in the local thrift store. Not for the reasons you might think though – it was because the title reminded me of my most consistent sexual partner over the past five years.
All joking aside, I was curious to find out what Clapton is doing this decade. The opener, “Further On Down The Road,” (not to be confused with “Further On Up The Road”) is a mellow reggae-tinged number that catches me a little off guard. Follow up “Angel” continues a sort of Island vibe. Interested to see where this one is going. There’s more of this sort of thing throughout the disc.
The album is a collection of cover versions, many of them American standards, including “All Of Me,” and “Our Love Is Here To Stay.” For some reason, the record seems to be focusing on Clapton as a vocalist rather than as a guitarist. Some tracks have full string arrangements backing them.
Then a number like “Gotta Get Over” pops up sounding like the old EC and making me reevaluate. This is a hard-rocking, bluesy tune that could have been on any of his more legendary records. Frankly, this is why I buy Clapton albums, not to hear his take on songs that Harry Connick Jr covered 20 years ago.
No doubt he’s earned the right to release whatever he wants, perform in whatever style he wants. I’m not going to begrudge him that. Still, no one wants to hear Tom Jones record a death metal album, either (even though he could totally do it because, hey, he’s Tom Jones and there is nothing he can’t sing).
I’m glad I paid my buck at the thrift store in order to get the “Gotta Get Over,” but this album doesn’t stand alongside Clapton’s best. It doesn’t come close.
Various, 1992 – MTV Party To Go Vol. 2
I know I’ve railed against ‘90s dance collections before, but the MTV collections are a cut above the rest.
Volume 2 opens with “Sadness” by Enigma, a hypnotic, low key number that segues perfectly into Spandau Ballet’s “True” as sampled by PM Dawn on “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss.” This is followed by the still-relatively-mellow classic “Summertime.”
The party kicks up to the next gear with “O.P.P.” and Another Bad Creation’s “Playground.” (Remember this kiddie rap group?) “Motownphilly” by Boys II Men feels like a natural followup.
The second half of the disc includes retro-rockers from Color Me Badd, Salt-N-Pepa, Heavy D, Marky Mark, and The KLF. One thing that sets the MTV collections apart from other dance compilations is that they actually license high-charting songs by artists whose names are – for the most part – still recognizable 25 years on. So even though most of these are extended or club mixes (a detractor, in most cases), at least I recognize the songs. Another big plus is that these discs are treated as a single unit and great care is taken to segue songs in ways that flow and make sense. Not quite a “continuous DJ mix,” but close.
Always enjoyable, completely nonessential. But perfect in the summertime.
Lyle Lovett, 1994 – I Love Everybody
The last album of the week is also the best. I don’t know how or when I became a Lyle Lovett fan. I think it’s the off-the-wall nature of a lot of his lyrics that initially caught my ear. Or maybe it was his hair. He’s classified as country, but not traditional country and not modern country. I think of his music more as Americana, but then again, not Springsteen Americana or James Mathus Americana, either.
I Love Everybody is pretty good, a collection of deceptively simple songs about fat babies, fat girls, sensitive penguins, record ladies, grandmas, old friends, and creeps like me, Lovett’s semi-stream-of-consciousness bubbling over mostly acoustic arrangements like a latter-day Mose Allison. His delivery is never hurried, never passionate, just matter of fact, making this a great Sunday morning coffee record.
On first listen, this album strikes me as a grower. It’s not that I don’t like it the first time ‘round – I certainly do – but I feel like it will take multiple listens to draw out everything this disc has to offer. But that’s just fine. I drink coffee every Sunday morning.
As always, thanks for reading. Comment below and let me know what I got right and where I messed up. Or let me know if I’ve inspired you to check out one of these artists or albums – all feedback is good feedback. Looking forward to another batch next week, so in the meantime, keep those discs spinning.