Aaaand… we’re back. Sorry it’s been so long. My computer crashed, needed a new hard drive, had to go to the shop, had to rebuild my music library on my PC, my little brother, this morning, got his arm caught in the microwave, and uh… my grandmother dropped acid and she freaked out and hijacked a school bus full of… penguins… you know how it goes.
That said, there’s a ton of reviews in this week’s “catch-up” entry so let’s get to them.
Sigur Rós, 2013 – Kveikur
I didn’t know what to expect from this. I’ve seen a lot of love for Sigur Rós, but I’ve never heard anything from them. Then one day I was browsing the dollar racks at the local Salvation Army and came across nine sealed copies of Kveikur. I figured I’d give it a shot.
First off, it is impossible to categorize. The music is dreamlike at times, thin-of-structure yet long on atmosphere. The vocals are Icelandic, further adding to the sense of ethereal detachment. And there is often a droning and repetitive aspect to the songs that becomes almost trancelike.
This isn’t easy listening, but neither is it especially challenging. It is mostly pretty while also being slightly disturbing at times. I’ll play the album again (and again) not necessarily because I like the music (I can’t decide if I do or not) but because it is so textured and layered that I know I’m not hearing everything on the first go ‘round.
Duquette, 2013 – This Time
It’s not every day that you’re searching the thrift store collection and you come across a CD from a high school classmate (unless you want to high school with Dave Matthews or John Mellencamp, I suppose). I’d been a big fan of his 2017 release, Trust The Night, so I figured this earlier EP was well worth a flier.
Rob Duquette starts the album off with island rhythms and reggae accents on “She’s Too Good For Me” and the Caribbean vibes continue into “Love Is Contagious.” Both are well-written and well-performed, though the latter has an intrusive trumpet solo that takes me out of the song.
By the time we get to the title cut I’m wondering if this was recorded in the Bahamas or Jamaica, so I check the credits and it says it was all recorded up in Maine. In that case, swell job recreating that sort of laid-back tropical paradise feel to things. I really dig the guitar playing on the reggae-tinged cover of “Roxanne.”
“My Home” has a little bittersweetness to it, with nice vocal harmonies. It has a pretty melody and is heartfelt, but I feel like the arrangement is just too busy. The album winds up with a lighthearted reminder that no matter where you are, someone is watching. It’s done with more of a Tosh.0 angle than, say, an Orwellian angle.
Overall the disc comes off as just what it is – a very competent indie release. It is certainly worlds better than some other indie artists I’ve stumbled across lately (Badly Drawn Boy, for example, who I didn’t like at all). And there’s always the novelty factor of listening to a song and saying, “Hey, I went to school with that guy!”
Dean Martin, 1948-1960 – The Capitol Collector’s Series
Dean Martin is my second favorite male vocalist of all time. (Tom Jones is my first if you were wondering). This collection is top-notch, containing 12 years worth Dean’s hits.
I’ve got several collections (finding his albums on CD is much more problematic) so it’s a surprise to find something I don’t already know. But this contains the Martin & Lewis number “That Certain Party” which, while not great, is a worthwhile addition.
The thing I love most about Dean’s music is his effortless swing. Frank could swing but always seemed to work at it. Listening to Dean, it’s almost like he can’t help it – even on a heartbreak number such as “I’d Cry Like A Baby,” his delivery and the arrangement set the toes to tapping.
As with all Dean Martin collections, this one is excellent. I’m a big fan of Capitol’s Sinatra platters during this period so it stands to reason that they’d be equally aces when it comes to Dean. It’s a can’t miss.
The Velvet Underground, 1967 – The Velvet Underground & Nico
There really isn’t anything I can add to the decades of discourse on this album. I’ve heard bits and pieces of it throughout a good part of my life but even though I’ve owned a copy of the CD for a long time, I don’t know if I’ve ever listened all the way through.
I don’t feel like I’m enjoying this album as much as I should. I recognize how influential it’s been over the past 50 years, but the music itself is often dissonant and, little as I know about engineering records, the levels seem way off at certain points. I don’t know if that’s intentional or it’s amateur hour or if I just have a poor copy of the disc.
Beyond that, it seems that most of the songs I’m familiar with I knew first through other artists’ cover versions which I’ve grown to like over the years, so much so that many of the originals sound super lo-fi and sloppy. I know that that’s part of the charm but it is a bit jarring when I’m used to a song being maybe a little more polished.
I’m sure I’ll come back to this record and I’m certain it will grow on me. I don’t know if I’m supposed to take drugs to enjoy it. I will, however, put more time and work into it. There’s something worthwhile here, but I’m not hearing it all on the first listen.
Bruce Springsteen, 1987 – Tunnel Of Love
Going into this album for the first time, I’m really only familiar with a couple of hits – the title track and “Brilliant Disguise.” This was the follow up to Born In The U.S.A. and The Boss made a conscious effort to make an album that was less commercially oriented than his previous record. He achieves this end while making an album no less compelling than any of his prior releases.
Starting with the near a cappella opener “Ain’t Got You,” this LP bears little resemblance to Born In The U.S.A. despite using many of the same players. “Spare Parts” is throwback rock’n’roll. “Cautious Man” is a finger-picked lament. “Brilliant Disguise” echoes Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” in relaying the difficulty in ever getting past the walls that lovers erect to protect themselves.
“Walk Like A Man,” perhaps the most heart-wrenching song on the album, serves as a reflection on both coming of age and losing a parent. It is also the song that best captures the overall tone of the entire record, which is really a bittersweet affair, whereas his prior release feels more triumphant when taken as a whole, even in its more downbeat numbers.
This was Springsteen’s last album of the decade – his next wouldn’t come for another four-and-a-half years – and fittingly so. Born In The U.S.A., it could be argued, made him in many ways the most singular icon of the decade. Tunnel Of Love serves to – if not eradicate that icon – at least remove him from some of the spotlight that burned so hot in the mid-eighties.
Bruce Springsteen, 2009 – Working On A Dream
Most of Springsteen’s albums feel like a cohesive single work of art – like the songs are acts in a movie or chapters in a novel. But Working On A Dream, written and recorded sporadically during the tour for his previous album, is not one of them.
I like all of the songs individually but they don’t mesh into an overall theme or mood the way his other records do – listening straight through the album for the first time, they experience is as disjointed as the recording sessions were. And then they tacked on the theme song from The Wrestler at the end.
I like this LP because it’s Bruce and because he’s one of those artists about whom I have difficulty being objective. Standout cuts here include the blues-rock of “Good Eye,” the eight-minute opening ballad “Outlaw Pete” (which borrows a riff from KISS’s “I Was Made For Loving You”), and the closing track, “The Wrestler.” So while the album never really comes together as a whole, we’re still left with a collection of great songs, and there’s a lot to be said for that.
Adrian Belew, 2005 – Side 2
I’m not sure where this album came from, but it was probably part of a lot purchase at some point.
My introduction to Belew’s work was his 1990 David Bowie collaboration, “Pretty Pink Rose.” I still love the hard rock of that tune, its straightforward radio-friendly pop sensibilities.
And while I’d learned a thing or two about Adrian Belew’s penchant for experimentation since then, it didn’t really prepare me for Side Two, which is more akin to what you might expect if David Byrne, Yello, and Brian Eno got together and dropped acid for a weekend.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it isn’t easy to listen to, either. Suffice to say, this isn’t my cup of methadone. I’m not averse to a certain amount of experimentation, but some sort of structure or logic would be nice. These tracks are formless and jarring.
I get that some listeners may enjoy this sort of thing, perhaps other musicians who can understand the nuance and complexity of what’s going on here. I can’t say if it’s my lack of sophistication or the music’s lack of form that’s preventing my enjoyment, but this whole record comes off as musical wanking.
Alabama, 1998 – The Essential Alabama
This is why people hate country music.
I recognize that Alabama is one of the biggest selling, most-frequently charting bands of all time. I appreciate that they came up from nothing to become one of the biggest acts in the history of country music. I’ll even go so far as to say that I appreciate elements of the songs, such as the harmonized vocals and the southern rock influences.
That said, two discs, two-and-a-half hours, and 44 songs worth of Alabama was excruciating. In the same way that we can blame the Eagles for the proliferation of soft rock, I think a fair amount of blame for the ‘90s explosion of pop-country can be laid at the feet of this quartet,
Out of this entire collection, there are only a couple songs I actually enjoyed (“Mountain Music” and “If You’re Gonna Play In Texas You Gotta Have A Fiddle In The Band”) and overall this was an exercise in endurance. If I wasn’t committed to listening to every CD I’d acquired I’m sure I’d have just skipped right past this one.
I know these fellas had a ton of success in the ‘80s & ‘90s, and good for them. Their type of music must appeal to a huge swath of humanity. But that’s no reason it should have been inflicted on me in this manner.
April Barrows, 1996 – My Dream Is You
This is an exceptional album and I can never figure out why April Barrows doesn’t have a more prolific music career. Since her debut here she’s only released one other record, 2000’s All You Need Is The Girl.
This disc was released at the height of the ‘90s swing revival and I’ve seen it labeled as such. While there are elements of swing to some of the arrangements, that characterization overlooks the cabaret aspects of Ms. Barrows’s songs and arrangements. I know it can be a subtle distinction between swing and cabaret, so it’s easier to paint this album with a broader brush and just say jazz vocal.
Equally remarkable is that April Barrows wrote or co-wrote all but the two jazz standards she performs here (“I Wanna Turn Out My Light,” and “I’m Beginning To See The Light”); all of her originals sound like they could have been written 75 years earlier.
Her voice is rich and clear and the arrangements are mostly workman’s jazz with few flourishes or embellishments. There’s no need for tricks when the material is this good. It would be easy to tart up a song like “My Dream Is You” or “Burning The Toast” with an over-the-top Betty Boop voice, but while that might be amusing it would detract from the song. She makes a smart decision in relying on the strength of the music, the instrument of her natural voice, and the skill of her band to carry the album.
This is a can’t miss recording, though it seems that most people did miss it at the time. If you like your female jazz singers, I strongly recommend seeking out My Dream Is You.
David Allan Coe, 1994 – Truckin’ Outlaw
This is what I love about country. David Allan Coe is carved from the classic outlaw country mold and his music is a lot of fun. Sure, there’s the occasional downer – like “White Line Fever,” chronicling the narrator’s drug addiction. Overall, though, this short album (8 songs, 22 minutes) is a flat out good time.
It starts off with a cautionary warning from the ghost of Hank Williams before recounting Coe’s adventures with fellow country giants Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.
There’s a great cover of “Frankie & Johnnie,” maybe my favorite yet, and requisite songs about Mama, truck drivin’, whiskey, and cowboys.
If you’re one of those people who loves saying “I hate country music!” and then someone mentions Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson and you feel the need to qualify your initial assertion, then David Allan Coe is one you should look up. It is the opposite of the Alabama record I wrote about earlier – concise, authentic, and without a hint of pop-country to it.
Everclear, 2000 – Songs From An American Movie Part Two: Good Time For A Bad Attitude
I wasn’t a big Everclear fan back in their hit-making heydays of the ‘90s. I found out about them much later and have to say, I’m glad I did. They remind of bands like Blink-182 and Lit, sort of a frat party mentality to their songs. But they’re better at melodies and hooks. And I’m a sucker for a good hook.
That’s what this album is – twelve songs loaded with hard-rock guitars and pop hooks. It’s brilliant. It feels heavier than American Movie Part One but it doesn’t lose any of the former’s catchiness. Truth be told, I’m surprised it wasn’t a bigger commercial success than it was since this type of music was huge in the late-‘90s/early-oughts.
The singles from this album – “When It All Goes Wrong Again,” “Rock Star,” and “Out Of My Depth” – never met with any chart success but don’t let that deter you. This is disc is 45 minutes of pogo-dancing, crowd-surfing excellence.
Genesis, 1969 – From Genesis To Revelation
I’ve got a love/hate relationship with Genesis. The first of their music that I recall hearing was “That’s All” from their eponymous 1983 album. It sounded different than most of what was on Top 40 radio at the time and I bought the cassette, not realizing – as a 12-year-old – that this was the album where Phil Collins squarely declared the band a pop act. Invisible Touch in 1986 was good enough that I delved back into prior recordings.
I loved the other ‘80s records – Abacab, Duke, and Three Sides Live – but the prog-rock of the prior decade left me cold. I’ve been back and forth with other fans on the topic, but for me, the ‘80s albums are the best incarnation of Genesis while other listeners will always prefer the prog material and look on their pop era with disdain. In fairness, I keep revisiting the prog-rock version of Genesis to see if I can hear what is so appealing to other listeners, however, it invariably fails to interest me.
But when I stumbled upon a 2-disc set at the thrift store titled simply Genesis and a tracklisting containing nothing I recognized, I figured it was worth a dollar to check it out. A little research online revealed that it is a 2008 reprint of From Genesis To Revelation, released as part of The Orange Collection from Weton-Wesgram with a full disc of extra tracks. When I realized it was their debut I wasn’t that excited but I’d never heard the album before so I gave it an open-minded listen.
I’m very pleasantly surprised. I anticipated something similar to their sprawling ‘70s musical epics, but this 1969 album is nothing like that. Instead, it is a primarily acoustic collection of concise and well-crafted folk-pop tunes from a talented group of teens. There is a second disc of outtakes, demos, and alternate takes and every track is enjoyable. This is exactly the opposite of what I’d expected.
The standout track for me is the piano-and-string-driven “In The Wilderness” which could even be an anthem of sorts, with its chorus of “Music, all I hear is music / Guaranteed to please…” The song also gets included as a rollicking “rough mix” to close out the bonus disc and, without the strings, it is a much cleaner and more urgent pop song.
There are no big hits here – in fact, the album and its few singles performed very poorly and the band didn’t release another album until they’d completed their schooling. When they did continue it was in a more progressive direction, one in which they’d continue for the next decade.
I appreciate the fact that this album has given me a new perspective on the band’s early years. I don’t expect to be an overnight convert, but another fan with whom I occasionally correspond suggested that I try Trespass next and see if I follow (and appreciate) the progression from their first record to their second. I haven’t done so yet, but it is definitely on my list of albums to explore.
Ingrid Michaelson, 2006-2009 – Girls And Boys, Be OK, Everybody
It’s probably unfair to review all three of these albums together, but I have my reasons. Until I found these all at the thrift shop I didn’t even know she had more than one album. And for the most part there isn’t a lot of distinction from one to the next (though 2008’s Be OK has a couple of live cuts and covers, setting it slightly apart in that regard). Everybody features a bit more ambitious production, adding flourishes like strings and traditional pop/rock instrumentation on some tracks. And Girls And Boys features “The Way I Am,” the first song I ever heard from Ingrid Michaelson.
Ingrid’s voice is as cool and sweet as mint in honey. And her tendency toward generally upbeat, major-key melodies suits her voice perfectly. But she’s not without versatility in her art, either; the strings and organ in “Incredible Love” give it a trip-hop vibe and she uses her voice to advantage here, turning from cool and sweet to smoky and sensual. Most of the arrangements are of the bare-bones variety, putting her vocals and lyrics at the fore, where they clearly belong. Her delivery conveys both an earnestness and innocence that make each song eminently listenable. Numbers with a full band behind her (“Mountain And The Sea,” for example) lose some of the prominence of the lyrics and the songs suffer accordingly.
I bought these three albums because I liked “The Way I Am” and “You And I,” both of which I’d heard on Emerson College Radio, WERS out of Boston and I wanted to hear more of her music, not expecting to get too much out of it. As was pointed out to me, “This isn’t the kind of music you usually listen to.” But it’s mostly simple and sweet, with a bubbly honesty behind a lot of it that I find hard to resist.
These are great rainy evening or Sunday morning albums conveying an emotional depth and unspoiled naïveté that seem to belong in the realm of youth (these albums were all recorded in her 20s). There is a beauty to that tabula rasa that I find compelling, particularly when combined, as it is, with Ingrid’s eloquence and lyrical facility.
Johnny Cash, 1990 – The Great Lost Performance
Here’s a concert from Asbury Park NJ, performed July 28, 1990 (though the CD wasn’t released until 2007). I’d never heard it -or heard of it – before finding it at the thrift shop. Speaking for myself, 1990 feels like it was about five hours ago; I have to remind myself that it is nearly 30 years in the past.
It’s a good concert. Basically, you know what you’re getting with Johnny Cash. He really doesn’t offer up any surprises here, but there’s a killer version of “A Wonderful Time Up There” which he introduces by saying, “We called it gospel boogie,” and while the lyrics might be sanctified, the piano-driven tune is straight-up devil’s music.
There’s a great version of “Forty Shades Of Green,” and a nice “Come Along And Ride This Train” medley. It’s not strictly completist fodder but there’s nothing that makes this a must-have, either. This isn’t essential Johnny Cash but it is a great late performance.
Sara Evans, 2003 – Restless
This is another of those albums where its commercial success leaves me faced with the question: “Are there that many people out there with terrible taste in music?” And if you’ve read my reviews for any length of time you know that I’m not averse to country music. But this stuff? Just no.
It is – to use a tired metaphor – sonic wallpaper. There’s nothing there to grab or hold the attention on 80% of this disc. “Otis Redding” is the best cut on the album, and “Suds In The Bucket” and “Feel It Comin’ On” both at least approach uptempo, but the rest of it is bland and plodding. And the lyrics? Don’t get me started. There are seventh-grade girls with deeper stuff scribbled on their brown paper book covers.
Look, someone must like this stuff or there wouldn’t be so much of it. But there are a lot of McDonald’s franchises out there, too. That doesn’t make it good food.
Sarah McLachlan, 1997 – Surfacing
Somehow I never heard this album, despite its ubiquity twenty years ago. I think I dismissed it as “chick-rock” (whatever I thought that meant when I was 25) and never paid any attention to it. I also thought it was Celtic-esque for some reason.
Boy, did I miss out! Her voice is great. Her songs are great. And the production on the album is excellent. It’s reminiscent of Aimee Mann at several points, though never quite so dour.
I recognized “Building A Mystery” as soon as the album started and thought, “Hey, I think I know and kind-of like this song.” I didn’t know any of the other songs off this record but that just means I was rewarded with a virgin listening experience that allowed me to immerse myself in the newness of the music.
It is hard to pick out favorites among a group of excellent tunes, but “Black And White” really stood out for me, with “Full Of Grace” and “Adia” close seconds. All that, though, is just a matter of degrees since the whole thing is exceptional.
Records like this one are the reason I do this. With over 2000 CDs in my closet yet to be listened to, it’s like crate digging in my own living room and finding a real gem among the detritus.
Spytones, 2010 – Spytones!
If you like surf rock then this album is a can’t miss. Though these guys are (relatively) local, I’d never heard of them until I found this disc at a thrift store in town. And how do you not buy an album called Spytones! when it’s just a buck? After hearing it, I’d have paid full price.
I don’t know enough about surf music to be able to say a whole lot about a disc full of instrumentals. What little I do know is reflected back at me through these songs, evoking the memories of luminaries like Dick Dale, The Revels, The Ventures, the Aqua Velvets, and even a bit of Link Wray here and there.
It comes down to a group of guys playing the music they love. Under “influences” on their “About” page, it just says “Surf, Surf, Surf.” And really, that says it all.
Susanna Hoffs, 1996 – Susanna Hoffs
The halls of rock history are strewn with the corpses of solo careers that existed as only pale shadows of an artist’s work with the band that made their name. The output may be equal to anything released with the previous ensemble but, for one reason or another, the public never caught on.
Susanna Hoffs is one such. She released her first solo album in 1991, three years after The Bangles’s first run ended. It yielded a minor hit with “My Side Of The Bed” but subsequent singles failed to chart. With her self-titled second effort in 1996 she ran into a similar brick wall of indifference, despite being critically lauded.
Susanna Hoffs is a great pop album, with Hoffs’s crystal-clear vocals soaring over everything, backed by some excellent session players such as Jim Keltner & Larry Klein. She’s got co-writer credit on the bulk of these songs with a handful of covers thrown in.
One of these covers – “All I Want” – stands out and was chosen as the sole single from this release. Originally a minor single for The Lightning Seeds, it benefits here from a cleaner arrangement and Ms. Hoffs’s vocals. Other selections include her take on Sparklehorse’s dire “Happy Place” and perennial favorite “Stuck In The Middle With You.”
For me, the real highlights are the cuts where her voice takes on a little gravel – “Those Days Are Over” and “Grand Adventure” are as good as anything she ever recorded. “Weak With Love” is a heart-rending personal recollection of learning about John Lennon’s murder from her brother.
Apart from The Bangles, Hoffs has had a number of side projects and collaborations that all warrant attention and the new millennium resurrection of her old band yielded a couple of great albums. But by and large, it’s her solo albums that impress the most, archeological treasures for those willing to dig a little deeper.
Tori Amos, 1992 – Little Earthquakes
When “Silent All These Years” was released in November of 1991, it was a revelation. The timid, fragile vulnerability of the song was captivating. However, for a 20 year old boy, the album as a whole fell flat at the time.
Almost 30 years later, it’s a different story. The record is at turns crude and sophisticated in its lyrics – opener “Crucify” could be interpreted as grievances against a parent, a lover, or a deity, while “Precious Things” comes off as starkly, nakedly autobiographical with a bluntness that is uncomfortable. Behind it all is Amos’s skillful and nuanced piano work.
Tracks like “Leather,” “Winter,” and “Happy Phantom” stand out, but there isn’t a bad song on the record. (Well, I could do without the a cappella “Me And A Gun” if I’m being honest.)
It’s curious to me because I can recall having a strong dislike for this album when I first heard it forever ago. I only revisited it because I’d recently found a bunch of Tori Amos CD singles and found them much more to my liking than I would have expected.
This sort of emotionally lush confessional became almost its own sub-genre in the 90s (Fiona Apple, Ani DiFranco, Aimee Mann) – and certainly some were more enjoyable than others – but I’m pleasantly surprised to find this much more to my liking than I’d recalled or anticipated.
Yankee Grey, 1999 – Untamed
Another CD that wound up in my collection as part of a lot purchase, prior to which I’d never heard of Yankee Grey. I was dreading this disc – country music from 1999 from Cincinnati. It sounded like a recipe for the type of execrable pop-country that I loathe.
Turns out it’s listed as country music, but it’s got a real southern rock element to a lot of the songs, too, even though these boys originate from the northern states. Their songwriting and musicianship are sharp and enjoyable, with prominent fiddle and a great honky-tonk piano that really stands out in a genre dominated by acoustic guitars.
The rockers are the highlight of this album – “This Ain’t It,” along with singles “Another Nine Minutes” and “All Things Considered,” closer “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know,” and the title cut are all high energy stompers that could cross genre boundaries if they took the fiddle out.
The only downside – for me – is the slower numbers like “That Would Be Me” and “This Time Around” which aren’t necessarily bad examples of the ‘90s country ballad, but which rob this recording of its energy and momentum.
The band only had one follow up, and without the lead vocalist from this, their debut. That’s a bit of a shame because they’ve got a great sound on this album, which ends up being far better than it had any right to be.
That will do it for this week’s volume. Barring any calamity, I’ll be back at it next week. Also, I’m thinking of moving to a more frequent posting schedule with fewer albums in each. Still mulling that over. Let me know what you think – comments and feedback always welcome.
Until next time, keep spinning those discs!