Okay, so Thanksgiving week was a bust and I didn’t get around to writing any reviews. I had a feeling that might happen. Fortunately, my boss is a good sport and didn’t dock my pay for missing a week writing about old CDs. I got back to it this week. Mixed a few singles into the batch this week, some funky instrumentals, some old-school industrial/techno music, an old blues favorite, and more Madonna than I’ve listened to in a decade. Let’s get to it!
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Depeche Mode, 2001 – Dream On
Lead singles from your favorite band’s upcoming LP are always a treat – even more so back in the pre-streaming era. “Dream On” was released three weeks prior to Depeche Mode’s (mostly) excellent Exciter album in 2001.
The single was very much in the vein of classic Depeche Mode, though the six-note acoustic guitar riff that drives the song was still a bit of an anomaly. Despite their increased use over the previous three records, guitars would never come to be seen as the band’s instrument of choice. But the synthesizers are decidedly downplayed here, serving only to enhance the atmosphere of the song over the sparse whisper-and-click shuffle of an electronic beat.
The lyrics are typically dark and vague, seemingly dealing with drug addiction and the possible release therefrom in the arms of those who care: “Hey, you pale and sickly child / You’re death and living reconciled… Paying debt to karma, you party for a living / What you take won’t kill you, but careful what you’re giving / Can you feel a little love?” Dave Gahan delivers Martin Gore’s lyrics with his dark chocolate baritone in prime form, Martin’s tenor vocals delivering harmony on the questioning refrain.
As with every Depeche Mode single since “Dreaming Of Me” twenty years prior, the single includes remixes of the main cut, including the club-oriented “Bushwacka Tough Guy Vocal Mix” and the trippy instrumental vibe of the “Bushwacka Blunt Mix.” My favorite remix of the song is the semi-accurately titled instrumental “Dave Clarke Acoustic Version.” Unlike the acoustic version of “Personal Jesus” included on the 1989 single release – which was just Martin on acoustic guitar and Dave on vocals – this remix incorporates some electronics, removes Dave’s vocals, and highlights the acoustic guitar riff that provides the musical basis of the original.
For my money, the true highlight of this single release is the “b-side” “Easy Tiger (Bertrand Burgalat & A.S. Dragon Version),” an extended, funkified remix that uses the original as a guideline layered with a driving dance floor beat and a scandalous electric guitar line that could soundtrack a cinematic car chase. Unlike a standard Depeche Mode remix, this song is completely reimagined, the two-minute album edit barely recognizable in this expanded version. For comparison’s sake, the single also includes the “Easy Tiger (Full Version)” a five-minute mix of the album edit that is much more conventionally Depeche Mode but which lacks the urgency and momentum of the Burgalat remake.
As with all CD singles, this is really for the completist fan at this point – which I am, if the three versions of the single in the picture above weren’t a dead giveaway – though it would have been great for club DJs back in the day. I will admit, however, to throwing that funky “Easy Tiger” mix on mixtapes and playlists for people just to get them to try to guess who it is. And we’re off and rolling. History and my own personal tastes aren’t quite as kind to the next single from this week’s playlist…
Jesus Jones, 1990 – Right Here, Right Now
This was an anthemic song of sorts at the time, particularly for those of us starting a new chapter of our lives in 1990 (I graduated high school in ’89). The line “I saw the decade end / When it seemed the world could change in the blink of an eye” conveyed both optimism and a post-‘80s jaded backlash.
Today it survives as a bit of nostalgia, a feel-good one-and-a-half hit wonder from 28 years ago, though the band is still releasing new music as recently as 2016. This CD single is a meager offering, with a couple different radio mixes and the “Martyn Phillips 12” Mix” sounding exactly like a 1980s remix.
None of it is bad, but three decades on, none of it is spectacular, either. This is still a very solid single, worthy of its #1 spot on the U.S. alternative charts (though if it hit #7 on the U.S. Mainstream chart, how is it still alternative?). The album wasn’t as good as the single, and we didn’t hear much from the band from this point on, at least in the States. Fitting then, that for a band now fixed in memory at a single point in time, their big hit single was “Right Here, Right Now.” Done with singles until later on in the post. We’ve got a couple of blues albums this week, so we move on to the lesser of the two…
Jonny Lang, 1997 – Lie To Me
This record is pretty good but it’s lacking something. I remember when it came out and casual blues fans raved about it and blues purists sneered a little. The big selling point for this major label debut was the fact that Jonny Lang was just fifteen years old when he recorded this. This works for and against him – his guitar work is exceptional for someone so young but most of the songs are written from an older point of view and the lyrics come off as disingenuous or even little creepy: “Lie to me… and tell me that you’ll stay here tonight…” sounds a little off coming from a teenager that young. It doesn’t help that he looks like a member of Hanson in the album photos.
He’s got a good band on the album, particularly with Bruce McCabe on keys. McCabe also wrote or co-wrote three of the songs on the album, whereas Lang himself only co-wrote two of them. The rest of the numbers are new to this album, with the exception of a few covers, including “Matchbox” and the age-appropriate “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.”
I’ll keep an eye out for later recordings by Lang because his guitar work, already so good here, can only have gotten better in the past two decades. Furthermore, his vocals have to have improved with age, earning the world-weariness of some of these lyrics rather than simply playing the part of the jaded old bluesman. But this is a good starting point, full of promise and potential. The next one is something with which I was totally unfamiliar but ended up really liking…
Josh Kelley, 2005 – Almost Honest
For some reason, this comes up as a country album when I stick the CD in my PC. But when I play the disc it kicks off with one of the best pop tunes I’ve heard this year, “Walk Fast,” an uptempo, piano-accented if-you’re-gonna-leave ditty that sets the tone for the album.
I’d never heard of Josh Kelley*, but apparently he had some chart success with “Only You,” the second track on the disc and a more conventional acoustic guitar-driven pop-rocker. It’s very good, but lacks the immediate hook of “Walk Fast.”
Josh Kelley co-wrote every song on the record, though the liner notes don’t specify lyrics or music (or both). This album is from an era when I was listening to almost no mainstream music, but there is still an instant genre-familiarity to this record. Every song so far has the sort of jangle-pop sensibility that has me thinking, “This tune would have made a decent alternative theme song for Scrubs.” You know, that sort of clever ‘00s alt-pop that was inescapable even if you never turned on a radio.
I begin to hear hints of country in the coming-home number, “20 Miles To Georgia” and the twang-and-croon of “Shameless Heart.” Both songs make it onto my “Country That Doesn’t Suck” playlist which has, admittedly, gotten much more expansive than I imagined it would when I first created it for some Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson songs. “Lover Come Up,” reverts to that catchy new millennium pop with a few B-3 notes added for flavor. “Hard Time Happens” has a bluesy edge to the verses before rolling into piano-driven rock-and-roll on the refrain. The gospel-tinged “Heartache” is the rare hidden track that’s worth sticking around for.
I have to admit I really like this record. My initial inclination to write it off as generic, by-the-numbers pop is offset somewhat by the stylistic variations between songs. It’s really well done, and without any jadedness to the lyrics, which manage to be fairly clever without ever being condescending or snooty – more Lisa Loeb than Elvis Costello, in that regard.
As much as I like it on first listen, I fear I’m going to forget about this album as soon as it is over. That said, enough of the songs have now found their way into my regular playlists that it won’t be long until I hear them again and get reminded of how enjoyable this record is.
*I thought I’d never heard of him before, but a year before this album he contributed “To Make You Feel My Love” to the soundtrack of A Cinderella Story, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. Almost Honest certainly improved my opinion of Josh Kelley as an artist. Now to follow up with the second blues album this week, one I liked a lot better than the Jonny Lang record…
K.D. Bell, 1999 – K.D. Bell
When I was 26, a friend invited me to join him and his pastor and some friends for cigars and drinks at a local fine dining establishment. This was back in a more civilized era when a gentleman could enjoy a hand-rolled, premium cigar after dinner without inciting the ire of the masses. The restaurant was called Waterworks and Thursday night cigars became something of a fixture in the weeks, months, and years thereafter.
Waterworks would usually have a musical act in their lounge on Thursday and Saturday evenings; one of their biggest draws and best performers was K.D. Bell. I later found out that K.D. had been a drummer for James Brown, among others, but back in the ‘90s I only knew him as a blues singer. But what a singer!
To this day, I remember him as the consummate showman. I saw him a few other places around New England over the years, but I never saw him do a show where he didn’t change his suit, shirt, shoes, tie, and hat between each set, at least two or three times a night. K.D. could command a room like no one I’ve ever seen performing in small venues. Most times, music in a bar or restaurant is just part of the scenery, a reason to raise your voice to be heard. Not so with K.D. People came from around the region to see him perform.
This disc is a great collection of blues standards and covers with a great band behind K.D.’s big ol’ voice, including blues harp legend James Montgomery. But it’s got nothing on his live performances. While the album is very competent and very enjoyable, with bigger arrangements than we got seeing him on stage, it lacks the power and presence and sheer joy of his live shows. There isn’t a bad song on the album, but they’re all studio recordings; this would have been better as a live document.
K.D. is gone from us now. I had this disc years ago and it got misplaced in the course of life being life. So I was thrilled when I found a copy a few weeks ago at the local thrift shop. It is signed:
“To Karen & Tom
There is a lot to recommend this album. K.D.’s cover of “Hi-Heel Sneakers” is loud and raucous. “In My Younger Days,” is a horn-and-organ-laced lament. “A Cadillac, Pretty Woman, And Some Money” sounds like a pretty good Christmas wish list to me. As good as the music is, this is worth more to me as a nostalgia piece, bringing to mind the score of times I got to see K.D. perform while spending time in the company of good friends, many likewise gone from us now.
Seek it out if you’re a fan of blues albums that sound like a house party. It’s long out of print and this is the only copy I’ve ever seen for sale – online or in the wild – since I first bought my long lost copy 20 years ago. But if you can find one, you won’t be disappointed. That’s it for the blues this week. We’ll move on to some mainstream arena rock from the current century…
The Killers, 2008 – Day & Age
I don’t know why, but I’d lost track of The Killers by the time their third album came out eleven years ago. I’d loved their first album and liked Sam’s Town, too. Appropriate, then, that the lead-off track is “Losing Touch.” It’s brash arena rock and in the space of four minutes reminds me of everything I enjoyed about this band’s music.
Lead single “Human” is the second track on the disc and I recognize it from incidental exposure, though I’m not sure I ever knew it was by The Killers. It’s an instant classic, with their knack for pop melody and Brandon Flowers’s bell-clear tenor ringing out over it all. All of these things are also true of follow-up single “Spaceman,” except for the fact that I’m more familiar with this song. The line “They say the Nile used to run from east to west” has always struck me as sad, a metaphorical commentary on the impermanence of all things.
The album continues on in the same vein, most of the songs with similar characteristics, and none that far removed from 2004’s “Mr. Brightside” or “All These Things That I’ve Done.” This is not to say that they’re interchangeable, but the elements that make up these tracks are almost like a LEGO kit that the band uses to assemble each song. The results are different – a car, a house, a spaceship – but all are recognizable as being made from the same fairly limited set of materials.
This isn’t a bad thing because these fellas are skilled craftsmen, able to create exquisite pieces from the simplest of provisions. But it does explain why I had lost touch by their third album. It’s really, really good, but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. In addition to the songs I’ve mentioned, there are a couple more singles and a couple bonus tracks and, again, all of these songs are great, but there isn’t a lot to make one stand out from another (although I’ll cop to hearing a distinct Cure influence on “A Crippling Blow”). This isn’t a bad thing if you like the band – and I do – but it does lend itself to a bit of same-iness throughout the course of an entire album. I used to listen to a lot of techno music in the early-to-mid-nineties. Up next is one of my favorite singles from that era…
Lords Of Acid, 1994 – The Crablouse
The lead single off of the second Lords Of Acid album finds the electronica collective moving closer to industrial music in style and closer to gynecology in subject matter. I had been dipping my toe into the techno pool prior to this single and it’s “The Crablouse” that finally got me all the way in.
It’s worth mentioning the cover art on this single, a gender-swapping send-up of Janet Jackson’s Janet album cover from the prior year. Tame by today’s standards, the hand-bra was a bit racy and controversial in 1993. Leave it to LoA to make it completely ridiculous.
Still exploring their favorite topic – sex – Lords Of Acid go about it in a much more anatomically specific manner on this single. The vocal delivery is borrowed from the Chili Peppers’ “Give It Away” from three years prior, a staccato rap presented in a voice both angry and sexy by Jade 4U, laid down over Praga Khan’s crunchy electronics and heavily processed beats.
The lyrics are filthy and the music is loud. The single benefits from multiple remixes by, among others, bandmate Ludo, who ratchets up the industrial elements to give the track a much harder sound. The eleven-track maxi-single also boasts remixes by genre legend Joey Beltram & Roli Mosimann.
The real treat on this disc, though, is track 11, ostensibly a b-side called “Don’t Kill For Love.” It’s a three-and-a-half-minute Nancy-Sinatra-On-Acid straight-up country ballad that tells a classic tale of unrequited love and revenge. After the first chorus, there’s a needle scratch before the song launches into 96 seconds of scorching techno interlude followed by another needle scratch and a return to perfectly rendered country music. It makes for a very unexpected conclusion to this disc.
This is another CD that I owned once upon a time, lost or stolen or loaned or sold somewhere along the way, and recently replaced. As with anything you haven’t heard in 20 years, I was wondering if it was as good as I remembered. And while I prefer my music a little more organic nowadays, there’s still a lot to be said for well-done industrial music, of which this is a fine example. A current-year release is up next. I hope you brought your dancing shoes…
Lucky Chops, 2019 – Lucky Chops
First off, I apologize for not being better versed in instrumental jazz funk. I like a lot of it, but I’m not a musician so I lack some of the vocabulary that would allow me to describe what I’m hearing with any specificity.
I will start out by saying that if you like funky jazz music loaded with tons of horns, you’re going to love this album. It’s a party from start to finish, uptempo numbers that sound like you’re joining a celebration already in progress. There’s the occasional nod toward smooth jazz – a handful of phrases in album opener “Halfway To The Hudson,” for example – but otherwise this record is a full-steam-ahead affair.
And despite the whole album being funky instrumental horn-laden jazz, the band manages to carve different genres out of different songs. “Dancing Babies” has a Caribbean island feel to it. “Dance Night” could be ‘80s New Wave. “Familiar Places” hints at fiesta-time. “Flyway,” one of the few slower songs on the record, sounds like it could have come from the Willy Wonka soundtrack (the good one, with Gene Wilder). Incidentally, it also borrows – unwittingly, I’m assuming – a snatch of melody from a latter-day Thompson Twins tune, “Roll Over.” “Memories” starts off as smooth jazz before jumping on the party train midway through. “Mo’ Momo!” borrows the drum line from Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People.”
None of this is as derivative on the record as I make it sound here. You’d never mistake any of these songs for Thompson Twins or Marilyn Manson. I only use those as reference points in describing first impressions as I listen to this album. As Billy Joel said, “You can’t get the sound from a story in a magazine.”
So if any of this sounds like it might be your speed, I urge you to check out their YouTube Channel (linked above) for some excellent live performances before heading to www.LuckyChops.com
and laying hands on a copy of their album. From jazz and funk we move onto one of the best soul and R&B singers of our generation…
Macy Gray, 2003 – The Trouble With Being Myself
Macy Gray’s debut, On How Life Is, was one of the best and most exciting albums of 1999, chock full of hits with an old-school soul vibe that had been missing from the mainstream. She followed it up with the more psychedelic The Id in 2001. After which I lost track of her career.
But I always loved her gravel-laced Billie Holiday voice so I picked up her 2003 album, The Trouble With Being Myself, when I came across a used copy recently. And doing a little research I’m pleasantly surprised that she’s still recording, her most recent release in 2018.
The set opens with the funky “When I See You,” the hip “It Ain’t The Money,” with a rap cameo (as was the fashion), and the soulful “She Ain’t Right For You.” At first glance, this disc seems much closer to her debut, stylistically. Gone are the out-and-out weirdness of “Relating To A Psychopath” and “My Nutmeg Phantasy” from The Id.
I can’t speculate as to whether or not this was a conscious decision to court commercial viability, but if it was, that end was not achieved. To date, her debut remains her biggest seller and highest charter. Despite lower sales than the prior two albums, The Trouble With Being Myself works as a whole, melding soul, r&b, and funk into an instantly familiar melange. Her sweetness and toughness come through in equal measure, her attitude apparent in her lyrics.
The whole disc is great. I don’t know what was happening sixteen years ago, but this wasn’t embraced by the listening community and mostly fell by the wayside. I wonder if The Id was a little too out-there for the mainstream and turned people off to Macy Gray. If so, those people missed out on a hell of a soul album. I could do without the murder fantasy of “My Fondest Childhood Memories.” Likewise, I wasn’t a fan of “I’ve Committed Murder” off her debut four years prior. Other than that song, this album is incredibly solid, pre-dating and predicting the rise of the new millennium soul that hearkens back to the classic sounds of the ‘60s. If you’re one of the many who missed this disc on its initial release, I strongly recommend it for fans of the neo-soul resurgence over the past two decades. We’ll rewind to the ’90s for the next couple discs, both from the Queen of ’80s pop…
Madonna, 1992 – Deeper And Deeper
This is a great single, even if it is more-or-less “Vogue” from two years earlier but with different lyrics. I was not the world’s biggest Madonna fan in the ‘80s, I’ll admit it, but in the ‘90s she could do no wrong. I’m Breathless, Erotica, Bedtime Stories, Ray Of Light, and Music are all masterpieces (yes, Music was released in 2000, but it was started in ‘99).
Deeper And Deeper is piled high with remixes from David Morales and Shep Pettibone. They are fine floor fillers for a dance club, but it’s the album mix that really shines. It is a tad lengthy at five minutes; it probably could have been trimmed to three-and-a-half but there’s no “Radio Edit” or “Single Edit” on the maxi-single or anywhere else that I could find. Despite its length, it never overstays its welcome and includes a nice vocal nod to “Vogue” just in case the music hadn’t clued you into the songs’ similarities.
The “Shep’s Classic 12”” mix of the song offers up some flamenco accents and a guitar bridge not found on the album mix. It perfectly conjures the disco age that is this track’s single biggest influence. The “David’s Love Dub” mix provides some nice breakdown, including an extended outro. And “Shep’s Deep Beats” is a strictly-DJ drum and percussion mix.
I didn’t keep up with much that Madonna did after American Life. That album felt like a letdown and Confessions On A Dance Floor didn’t offer much in the way of winning me back. But revisiting her ‘90s catalog is a treat any way I slice it. This may not be my favorite single in her collection, but it is up there with the very best.
Madonna, 1990 – I’m Breathless: Music From And Inspired By The Film Dick Tracy
This disc took me completely by surprise. I’d seen Dick Tracy but I didn’t really care for it. I heard “Vogue” on the radio and on MTV too many times to count and while I liked the song, I wasn’t inspired to rush out to buy the CD. I got it years later because a girl I liked said she loved one of the non-singles from the album, though now I can’t remember which one it was (though I’m leaning toward “Sooner Or Later”). When I finally listened to the whole thing I was blown away.
The soundtrack didn’t really light a fire when I saw the movie and I’ve never watched it again in the thirty years since. But I hadn’t been prepared for the idea of Madonna staying in character for the duration of a full album. She played gun moll Breathless Mahoney in the film (hence the album title) and brings that character more fully to life on the soundtrack than I remember her doing onscreen. Album opener “He’s A Man” could be a James Bond theme song (a feat she’d accomplish more than a decade later with “Die Another Day”). “Sooner Or Later” is a perfect reimagining of a jazz age torch song. The hilariously raunchy “Hanky Panky” delves into sadomasochism before “I’m Going Bananas” brings us Carmen Miranda by way of Lucille Ball.
“Cry Baby” is a spectacularly goofy Betty Boop homage. “Something To Remember” feels only slightly out of place, more fitting as a Madonna pop ballad than a Breathless Mahoney showgirl number. But we’re back in business with “Back In Business,” with its whispered verses and explosive chorus-line refrains. “More” is a rollicking jazz paean to excess. “What You Can Lose” is a sweet duet with Mandy Patinkin just prior to the album’s proper closer, “Now I’m Following You” on which Madonna duets with co-star Warren Beatty.
The final cut, of course, is the very-much-of-the-nineties mega-hit “Vogue,” written by Madonna and Shep Pettibone. It sold over six million copies, a ridiculous amount for a single, and ended up as the number five song of 1990 on Billboard’s year-end charts. It is much different from anything else on the soundtrack and probably should have been relegated to The Immaculate Collection, her greatest hits collection released later that year.
I also didn’t know until reading the liner notes today that the most complex songs on the album were written by Stephen Sondheim, including “Sooner Or Later” and “More.” Most of the rest were co-written by Madonna and her longtime collaborator Patrick Leonard. To their credit, they do nearly as good a job as Sondheim in creating tunes that evoke the specific time period they were going for.
In short, this sounds nothing like any other Madonna album and could easily be shelved in the jazz section alongside the likes of Diana Krall or Melody Gardot. Follow up albums would find her returning to the pure pop that made her a superstar, but every now and then I pull this record out and find myself wishing she’d give us just one more jazz and/or showtunes album (and no, Elvira doesn’t count). This week’s final entry comes to us courtesy of Depeche Mode’s creative force over the past three-and-a-half decades…
Martin L. Gore, 2003 – Counterfeit 2
I’m a big Depeche Mode fan and I love a good cover version, so Martin Gore releasing an album of covers should be right in the proverbial wheelhouse. And for the most part it is, primarily because I don’t know the original versions of the vast majority of these songs, so I can accept – and even embrace – Martin’s somewhat hushed and monotone delivery. Even “In My Time Of Dying,” which I’ve heard done six ways to Sunday, works perfectly here with only a minimal electronic backing track and near-whispered vocals.
One of the tracks that doesn’t quite pass the smell test is his seven-minute take on Nick Cave’s “Loverman.” The original is a hugely menacing number that evokes anger, hatred, dread, and desire. Martin’s version strips away all that visceral emotion in exchange for a cold reading that doesn’t stand up well in comparison. But even this somewhat tepid take on “Loverman” is better than “Lost In The Stars.” I can’t imagine liking any iteration of this song, so it’s not specific to the version presented here.
Songs like Julee Cruise’s “In My Other World” and Lou Reed’s “Candy Says” actually benefit from the quieter arrangements, at times sprawling and lethargic. The cover of 1974 U.K. hit “Stardust” is good enough that I sought out the David Essex recording… and though I dig the Bowie-esque glam original, I think I prefer this cover version.
Overall, this is a very good album, more fully fleshed out than his earlier Counterfeit E.P. and with some very interesting decisions made in both song choices and arrangements. However, I can’t see it being of much interest to anyone who isn’t already a Depeche Mode fan, since musically it’s quite similar to a lot of their records.
That’s going to do it for this week. I hope everyone in the northern hemisphere is keeping warm as we head into the heart of winter. I got buried in two feet of snow this week and it’s only the first week of December! Let’s hope it’s one of those years where we start off with a big snowstorm but then there’s not another storm until April.
Despite being a Grinch, I’m thinking of writing Retro Record Reviews for a batch of Christmas albums next week… or maybe the week after that. Either way, we’ll wind up with some seasonal music on here before the year ends.
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Until next time, keep those discs spinning.