As you’ve no doubt caught on, I spent most of my week frontloading the blog with posts about xMas CDs. And doing so cost me the opportunity to listen to and review as many albums as I do in a normal week (whatever normal is). Regardless, I managed to wedge in an even half-dozen, including several I knew nothing about but which blew me away nonetheless. Let’s get on with it, starting with a hard-rock classic from the ’90s…
Meat Loaf, 1993 – Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell
I think that for any music fan born between 1957 and 1970, Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell had to have been a formative album on some level. I came along just after that time period but had an older brother and sister so I got plenty of exposure to the music even if I didn’t grasp it all at the time. Sixteen years after that opus (or thereabouts – the album took two years to record), Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman got together to release Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell, intended to be even bigger in scope and ambition than its predecessor.
While the record didn’t meet those goals commercially, it may have done so artistically. It is an album of sprawling songs, the longest being the twelve-minute opener and lead single “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That).” This song feels like it picks up right after “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad” and, in fact, several of the songs on this album could be slotted in next to anything on Bat Out Of Hell without disrupting the flow at all.
Even the song titles are big affairs: “Objects In The Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are,” “Life Is A Lemon And I Want My Money Back,” “Good Girls Go To Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere).” Songs stretch to seven, eight, ten, twelve minutes. A full chorus backs Meat Loaf as he belts, wails, and growls his way through these songs accompanied by Roy Bittan’s pounding piano and Tim Pierce’s and Pat Thrall’s screaming guitars, anchored by Kenny Aronoff’s octopus drumming. Thematically, the album deals with all the big topics: love, sex, family, past, loss – when presenting things on this scale, it wouldn’t do to tackle smaller subjects.
Steinman’s writing is bombastic at times, but nothing that can’t be easily carried by Meat Loaf’s enormous voice and vocal range. This is operatic rock-and-roll through and through and those approaching this album hoping for a worthy follow up to the original should not leave disappointed. Is it as good as the original? Well, maybe not, but very few sequels are. Now we stretch the boundaries of my comfort zone by heading to a whole new planet – Planet Drum…
Mickey Hart, 1991 – Planet Drum
I’ll start out by admitting I know next to nothing by or about Mickey Hart. I know that he was a drummer for the Grateful Dead. I know he’s a world-renowned percussionist, However, when I find a near mint Ryko edition for a buck, I’m going to buy it no matter who the performer is. I’ve got a soft spot for Ryko, as they nearly singlehandedly overhauled the concept of an expanded reissue with their treatment of Bowie’s and Costello’s back catalogs in the early-to-mid-nineties.
Having said all that, it’s clear that with a title like Planet Drum and what little I do know about Mickey Hart, I’m probably in for some world music excursion. And I’m not wrong about that. Now, while I can tolerate what is loosely (and ridiculously) termed “world music” in certain scenarios – like themed restaurants or movie soundtracks, for example – there is never a time when I say to myself, “Man, I’m really in the mood for some world music.” So, clearly, I am not the best person to be reviewing this record. However, this blog is a one-man operation and I can’t foist this off on the World Music Department, so here goes.
It’s definitely what I anticipated: emphasis on drums and percussion with assorted sounds layered in, non-English singing and/or chanting at various points. I don’t know what to make of it or how to describe it coherently, so I’ll lift an excerpt from an insert that came with the disc: “The World Series, produced by Grateful Dead percussionist, Mickey Hart, presents authentic music from diverse nations and styles. This series is designed to cross borders and transcend limits, showcasing some of the most dynamic, yet sublime music of our planet.” Furthermore, this was a concept album of sorts for Hart who had wanted to gather some of the world’s greatest drummers to create a recording based solely around percussion.
The liner notes are fairly fascinating, even for someone like me who has a very limited understanding of the music. In them, Hart introduces each of the players on the album and then describes what is going on within each individual song. It’s really an excellent, if brief, primer for someone like myself who is a complete novice in this arena. Listening to the CD, I can tell that these are skilled and talented musicians even if their songs are of limited appeal to these Western ears. I know that this music is objectively very good even if, subjectively, it doesn’t move me.
In a break from the norm, I’m going to refrain from assigning a 💿 rating to this album. It is too far beyond my scope of knowledge at this point that I couldn’t help but rate it either too high or too low. I will say that I’m glad to have found it and to have listened to it. At some point I may go back to it and dig deeper – there is definitely something worth hearing here, even if I haven’t had the exposure to fully appreciate it yet. Ska-punk vanguards attempt to transition between indie-darlings and mainstream success. They definitely make it… just not with this next album…
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, 1993 – Don’t Know How To Party
I was introduced to the Bosstones in ‘89 by a friend who had a show at his college radio station. Back then they were still an independent Boston band making noise and having fun. Their pioneering mixture of punk and ska was like nothing I’d heard before and their debut release was so much fun.
Eventually, local boys made good and got signed to Mercury/Polygram in time for their third album, Don’t Know How To Party In ‘93. I had all of their first five albums except this one… and I didn’t even know I didn’t have it. When I found it at the thrift store, I didn’t recognize it at all. That’s probably because the label had no idea how to market the band and there were no charting singles. I hadn’t been as impressed with their sophomore effort as their debut, so when …Party first came out it didn’t ping my radar.
Listening to it for the first time today it sounds exactly like what it is – a band making the transition from Boston indie smartasses to major label ambassadors of a new brand of rock’n’roll. There are louder cuts that echo their really hardcore days (like “A Man Without” or “Issachar”) and some edgy ska-pop (like “Almost Anything Goes” or the title track or fan-favorite “Someday I Suppose”). They even throw in a Stiff Little Fingers cover with “Tin Soldiers.”
Fitting then, that the album is something of a mixed bag. A year and a half later they would hit with the singles “Kinder Words” and “Hell Of A Hat,” finally breaking through the barrier between college and mainstream, but in 1993 they were still wrapped in the last battered vestiges of their indie-rock swaddling clothes, playing loud and aggressive, not giving a shit, having fun and making the music they wanted. This album isn’t as polished as the next two, but it is certainly a fun listen if metal-tinged ska-punk is your bag. Dark introspection is the watchword on this next album, a surprisingly deep and engaging record from an artist I’d never heard of…
Mike Johnson, 1996 – Year Of Mondays
So begins a trio of discs by acts I know nothing about, so prepare yourself for some genuine first impressions here. After looking up Mike Johnson on Wikipedia to get a high-level overview, I put on the CD and gave it a spin.
Year Of Mondays starts with “Where Am I?” a song that shares a title with his debut album from two years prior. It’s a downtempo number and I’m surprised to find that Johnson’s voice is deep and dark, halfway between Nick Cave and Brad Roberts of Crash Test Dummies. That rich baritone is immediately welcoming and offers up a sense of familiarity even though I’ve never heard these songs.
I had actually expected the music to be heavier, harder, louder. Johnson had previously played with Dinosaur Jr. (in fact, J Mascis handles the drums on this album) and would shortly play with Queens Of The Stone Age, but the first two songs don’t have any of the musical aggressiveness I’ve come to associate with those acts. The second half of “Way It Will Be/Too Far” ramps up into hard rock territory, but the bulk of this is down-tempo-to-mid-tempo pop/rock with the focus on guitar riffs and Johnson’s vocals.
The album’s centerpiece, “Eclipse,” is a nine-and-a-half-minute slow trek across a desert, borrowing from acts such as Pink Floyd, The Cure, and Nick Cave in the process. A long song, to be sure, but it stretches and contracts and evolves so much over the course of the track that what could easily have been an endless slog becomes a luxurious journey.
“Overdrive,” which closes the album, is an epic road trip full of questions that spans nearly thirteen minutes, highlighted by a sprawling guitar solo that stretches on like blacktop to the horizon. In the end, it feels completely unresolved, but more full of promise than uncertainty.
Albums like this are always a pleasant surprise and at the same time, they make me wonder just how much music is out there that I’ve never heard or that’s never found its way into popular culture. (The sad answer is, of course, an infinite amount. Infinite!) There is so much worthwhile about this album that it makes me think it must just be timing or coincidence that it wasn’t a hit record, especially when it has all the elements of a hit record. And frankly, it’s a lot better than most of what was mainstream at the time. Year Of Mondays also strikes me as a very layered album on first listen, one that begs for multiple revisits to truly appreciate everything it has to offer.
I don’t know what I was expecting from Mike Johnson, but this wasn’t it. I will definitely be looking to hear more of his music and will be returning to this album in the near future. Every once in a great while something so good comes along that it’s worth all the work it took to get there. The next album is like that – definitely the best new album I heard this week, maybe this month, and in the running for the year…
Milltown Brothers, 1991 – Slinky
Another act I’ve never heard of… but early ‘90s British indie-rock/power-pop? Sign me the fuck up. If I came of age on ‘80s New Wave, ‘90s alt-rock is where everything came together for me. This album came out about the same time as Oasis was forming and you can definitely hear similarities between the two – the opening track starts out with a punched-up organ intro before heading into jangle-pop so gorgeous I can’t believe I’ve never heard it before.
I’m literally a minute into the disc at this point. I cannot wait for the rest of it.
As “Apple Green” continues, I hear hints of The Odds as well as the Liam Gallagher vocal delivery. The fact that all three bands were starting out within a few years of one another it makes me wonder what was going on in the cosmos at the turn of the decade. This is what the ‘90s should have sounded like and, instead, we got a suicidal grunge soundtrack from which most of hard rock still hasn’t fully recovered.
Meanwhile, we’ve got an amazing debut album like Slinky by a quintet sharp enough to see the death of New Wave on the walls… and my little review on my little blog is going to end up being longer than their Wikipedia entry. If you ever need to make a case that mainstream music tastemakers should be eradicated from the face of the earth, this record should be exhibit one.
Apparently, the song “Which Way Should I Jump” was released as a single and made Top 10 on the U.S. Billboard Modern Rock Chart, but I’ve never heard it played before. That song is as successful as they would ever be, proof that there is no justice in the universe (just in case you needed some).
Halfway through and this disc is stirring some really mixed emotions. On the one hand, I’m elated to have discovered it. I love it so far and I’ve already started reaching out to friends with whom I share similar tastes to say they need to check it out. On the other hand, it’s making me angry that a band this talented and exciting was passed over in favor of Stone Temple Pilots and Bush. The whims of pop culture, I suppose. I’ll never understand them.
The good news is that they released another record just two years later, so that one has to be somewhat similar, which gives me something to seek out. Then they didn’t release anything until the new millennium with about ten years between albums since 1993.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: albums like this are the reason I buy entire lots of 2,000 CDs by acts I’ve never heard of and then commit to listening to all of them and sharing my findings. If everything else I picked up in that lot sucks (and it doesn’t, obviously, because what would those odds look like? 2000:1?), one or two gems like this make the purchase worth it. We close out the week with an eccentric EP from a couple of alt-rock luminaries…
The Minus 5, 1995 – The Emperor Of The Bathroom
I’d heard of The Minus 5 but didn’t know anything by them. Apparently, the group is side project by Scott McCaughey of Young Fresh Fellows and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, along with Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow from The Posies. They started out back in ‘93 and they’re still going, having released their latest in 2019.
The title of the EP caught me as off-kilter enough that I was pretty keen going into this. It turns out to be quirky and clever alt-pop that refuses to take itself too seriously (at least in this early incarnation). The title track is a bit of lyrical nonsense (or I just don’t get it). “Heartache For Sale” is self-aware quasi-country. “Story” is a noisy rock tune with no chorus that is still super catchy. “Vulture” is a downtempo sketch, almost demo-like, with moments of real vulnerability. The EP closes with “This Little Woody,” a cover of an old surf tune by The Fantastic Baggys that sounds nothing like the original.
Overall, this disc serves as an appetizer. In many ways, without knowing any of their other music, it seems like the perfect introduction to The Minus 5 – short and sweet while still giving you a feel for the band’s different styles and eclecticism. Most importantly, it leaves me wanting more. All bow down to The Emperor.
Only two more installments of Hello, My Treacherous Friends left in the year. I think I’ve finally found a format and frequency that works for me, so I’ll continue writing regularly into the new year with none of the ugly extended gaps that have, unfortunately, occasionally characterized this blog in the past. All my gratitude to those who have continued reading despite the irregularity of my reviews.
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Until next time, keep those discs spinning.