Apologies for missing last week – sometimes the week gets away from you and hobbies take a backseat to real life. Glad to be back today with a stack of new reviews of old albums, including an old favorite, a new favorite, and at least one best left in the discount bins.
And if you’ve been a regular reader, you’ll notice something new this week: Spotify playlists. Yes, I will admit, I have been known to rail against streaming music from any soapbox I can find, excoriating it as the death knell of physical music media (and basically sounding like an old coot). Be that as it may (and I don’t take any of it back) it might have a use or two – like giving my readers the ability to immediately hear what I’m talking about when I’m writing about a specific song or album.
Of course, not all albums are on Spotify – sorry Jill Carole. (Who? Just read on.) In these cases, you’re S.O.L. But my hope is that if what I’ve written sparks your interest, you’ll give it a listen on the ol’ Spotify, and then, if you like it, go seek out a physical copy and support an artist.
Let’s get on with it!
Alannah Myles, 1995 – A-lan-nah
I’ve never heard any Alannah Myles – that I know of – apart from “Black Velvet” which was more about a singularly sultry video than it was about the song itself. The song is still great, but it was definitely overshadowed by that video clip.
A-lan-nah is in the same vein as “Black Velvet,” blues and soul-inflected pop/rock along the lines of Sheryl Crow or Bonnie Raitt, with a smattering of country thrown in here and there. Her music and voice conjure up a lone cabin on a prairie – think Clint Eastwood’s hovel at the beginning of Unforgiven – or a dark and smoky roadhouse that’s a little rough around the edges.
Nothing she did after her debut matched the success of “Black Velvet,” but the music is still worthwhile. It has a real Americana quality to it – a la Petty or Mellencamp – even though she hails from Toronto. “Mother Nature” is one of the standouts on this disc, a Dylan-flavored slice of acoustic guitar and barrelhouse piano that rocks out in joyous fashion. Even dark morality tales like “Family Secret” sound good with bluesy guitar and organ backing the track
Slower numbers sound fine but they aren’t what Ms. Myles is best at. “Irish Rain” is pretty and suitably sad, and “Simple Man’s Dream” has its share of evocative imagery, but they don’t carry any real weight or momentum and I find myself waiting for the next uptempo track instead.
In the end, this is back porch music. Or front porch music if you like your neighbors. It works both as background music or as something you can sink your teeth into and pull apart. A few songs – like “Lightning In A Bottle” – even make for a sort of rural-sounding dance music with the energy to get asses out of chairs. A-lan-nah might not contain anything with the ubiquity of “Black Velvet” but it is, at points, every bit as good.
U2, 1991 – Achtung Baby
What a great album. This is another one that was central to my formative years so that I’ve lost all perspective; the songs are now part of my genetic makeup. In 1991, this was a monumental release, the first album of all-new material by U2 since they’d become the biggest band in the world with 1987’s The Joshua Tree.
It was preceded by “The Fly,” and the beginning of Bono’s attempts at Bowie-like character morphs. The difference was, The Fly – and, later on, MacPhisto -were smarmy, tongue-in-cheek masks that Bono wore, whereas Bowie just was whoever he was in the moment – Ziggy, The Thin White Duke, Aladdin Sane, whichever. The release of “The Fly” was such an event that MTV advertised its upcoming debut for weeks and I had friends come over to watch it premiere.
The slick production of the teaser single made it clear that the band had changed since The Joshua Tree and its unofficial sequel The Joshua Tree Part II: Rattle And Hum. Gone was the brooding obsession with classic Americana. Replacing it was a prediction of 21st-century ‘roid rage America, one that embraced the ethos of “Greed Is Good” and “More Is Never Enough.” Not that Bono or the band were overtly greedy – this was the same era that he first became really visible as a spokesman for global causes – but as a frontman he was embracing all the overkill that went with that role in the ‘90s.
Even the over-the-top goofiness of The Fly (the character, not the song – the song was and is magnificent) didn’t give anyone a clue as to what lay in store on the album, apart from maybe expecting a slicker, more updated sound. We got that and so much more. The opening cut announces the album with a loud electronically distorted guitar, playing and repeating a quick descending pattern that is as loud and as rude as an alarm clock. And it serves the same purpose: wake up! This isn’t the old U2 anymore!
They still had their sensitive side; “One” remains one of the great somber rock ballads of all time, “So Cruel” and “Until The End Of The World” and “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)” are all excellent slower numbers. But Bono was stretching the meanings of words, playing with language in ways he hadn’t on earlier albums. The Edge is fully embracing what had become his signature sound. Adam Clayton’s bass is more prominent than on previous records, really anchoring the tracks with Larry Mullen’s drumming. It was the beginning of their experimentalism, which they explored more with the sequel Achtung Baby Part II: Zooropa In 1993 and fully indulged with 1997’s unfairly maligned Pop.
The more uptempo numbers are where this album really shines, and from where they mined most of their singles. “Zoo Station” starts the album in a huge way, its angry guitar opening echoed back by “The Fly” at the start of side 2. “Even Better Than The Real Thing” was reimagined on a CD-single as a whole slew of dance mixes, something U2 hadn’t done before. The mid-tempo “Mysterious Ways” became a monster hit, U2’s answer to Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy The Silence” a year earlier.
It’s a classic album for a reason, a statement album, proof that a band who’d been around for a decade could go off in a totally new and unexpected direction. After breaking through to the mainstream in the late ‘80s, their first release of the ‘90s was a declaration that if the world was going to make them rock stars, they’d damn well be the rockstarrest rock stars in the world. It would never have worked if they hadn’t actually managed to pull it off, but with Achtung Baby, they certainly did.
Ugly Americans, 1998 – Boom Boom Baby
I’ve written about Ugly Americans once before (HMTFv1.11) and ended with the statement that “I’ll have to check out the rest of their output now that I’ve heard this.” Four-and-a-half months later I’m making good on the statement with their 1998 swan song Boom Boom Baby.
I’m a big Bob Schneider fan, own all the albums, been to a bunch of shows. As a precursor to his storied solo career, Ugly Americans is an interesting preface. You can hear most of the ingredients that would combine to make his particular brand of music a few years later, a combination of hip-hop and rock’n’roll not unlike G. Love or Chucklehead in the same decade. The one aspect of his later work that is missing from this disc is his ability to tap into the human condition and manipulate emotions with a few notes on the guitar and a turn of phrase. “Texas Isn’t Big Enough” probably comes the closest, but that song still has enough mid-tempo jazz swing to it to feel like a late ‘80s Sting tune.
The album is great fun, though. The music on the disc is much fuller and richer than even on Bob’s full-band performances under his own name, giving it a vitality that carries you along even if you’re new to these songs and can’t sing along yet. There are heavy doses of funk in “Hippietown” and “Chilly In The Crib” if you like that sort of thing. Schneider spends more time rapping than he does singing.
The band is great. Bruce Hughes – who still regularly plays with Bob at his weekly Austin residency – has a great lead guitar style and wrote or co-wrote several of the tunes here. Sean McCarthy is an impressive bassist, grounding the hip-hop numbers (which sometimes threaten to fly apart in all directions) but driving the funk numbers. The addition of the Grooveline Horns on most of the songs adds to the overall cacophony and party atmosphere.
The album closes with the uncensored title track and it is filthy. Seriously, do not play this one around kids. Or coworkers. Or anyone whose respect you’d like to retain. But like the rest of the record, it is goofy fun, even if it’s enough, at points, to make Prince blush.
This is a very good album, but it probably falls short of being a great one, especially if taken on its own instead of as within the framework of Schneider’s overall career. That said, there’s a lot to love here as long as you don’t take it – or yourself – too seriously.
Brandy, 1994 – Brandy
I know Brandy was a popular R&B artist at some point in the ‘90s but I don’t know anything else about her or her music. Friends are always surprised when I make these sorts of comments, like, “Come on, you’ve got to know XXXX. Even if you don’t know who it’s by, surely you’ve heard it.” But I’d almost completely divorced myself from mainstream radio by that point, so I missed out on a lot of the most popular bits for the ‘90s, ‘00s, and ‘10s.
Brandy’s debut starts out with a funky little riff to open up “Movin’ On,” which I assumed had to have been a single given how catchy it is. But nope, not a single, just a great opening cut. The next three songs on the disc are singles and they’re all great, but the standout is “I Wanna Be Down,” a sexy, confident come-on that is the strongest of the bunch and also the album’s lead-off 7-inch.
This is followed by the first of three segues titled “I Dedicate,” in which she gives shout outs to the legends who came before her. This works to chop the album into thirds. The first third was mid-to-uptempo dance-pop. The second starts with “Brokenhearted,” a classic sounding R&B crooner which, but for its six-minute length, could have been released thirty years prior.
This album starts off with a ton of promise but suffers from being frontloaded with hits which, incidentally, comprise most of the best songs here. “Sunny Day” leaves me cold, with too much reliance on the chorus. “As Long As You’re Here” and “Always On My Mind” are generic R&B fare. They’re saved from mediocrity by Brandy’s delivery but they don’t achieve the same heights as the earlier tracks on this disc. The last real track on the album, “Give Me You,” comes the closest to keeping the promises made during the first half, its gospel accents are a perfect touch even if I don’t normally go in for the prayer & praise thing.
I have no idea what Brandy’s career consisted of after this album, but I’d be willing to find out if I stumble across any of her other CDs. This debut isn’t flawless by any means but it does offer a lot to think about and enjoy, particularly its singles.
The Beautiful South, 1990 – Choke
The Beautiful South is one of those bands that I’m hearing for the first time 30 years after the fact and wondering how I missed out on them for all these years. Built from the ashes of The Housemartins, The Beautiful South was initially a primarily acoustic pop/rock quintet, though after their first album they brought in a succession of female vocalists to bolster the group’s sound.
Clearly post-New Wave but also pre-Grunge, this record has a distinctively British sound to it, reminding me in turns of Scritti Politti, Pet Shop Boys, Culture Club, Poi Dog Pondering, Thomas Dolby, Erasure, The Blow Monkeys, and the Pogues while sounding not a bit like any one of those acts. They’re mostly an upbeat acoustic guitar band (think jangle-pop rather than folk) with flourishes from horns and piano.
This is one of those rare records where I hear it for the first time and immediately need to listen to it a second time, in part because I’ve enjoyed it so much and in part to make sure I’ve not missed anything. And inevitably I have. The lyrics are clever and sometimes cynical and the vocals – split between the two or three lead singers – are the main reason for the comparison to all those bands in the last paragraph – crystal clear and emotionally evocative. Stylistically it ranges from the aforementioned jangle-pop to ‘60s lounge music, from blue-eyed soul to wall-of-sound girl group, sometimes all in the same song.
I’m at a loss to further describe what I’m hearing. I will say that I’m fairly floored and very pleased to have stumbled across this disc. On second listen I still can’t pick out any standout tunes only insofar as they’re all excellent. I’m sure favorites will reveal themselves with repeat listens. And I foresee a lot of repeat listens for this album while I’m seeking out the other recordings from The Beautiful South.
Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, 2005 – Cold Roses
A week of firsts – this is my first exposure to Ryan Adams’s music. I know he’s very popular in certain circles and I know a guy who covers a lot of Ryan Adams on open mic nights but beyond that, he’s an unknown quantity. I don’t even know where this disc came from or if this is a good starting point or not (probably not, since it’s a double-album and eighteen songs long). Regardless, it’s my starting point.
My first impression is that this is too close to folk music to be really appealing to me. But first impressions don’t always last and I’m a big fan of acts like Leonard Cohen and Damien Rice, so it’s not like that type of music is anathema. The more I listen, the more I pick up on different styles – some rock, bits of country, the clever couplet with an indie-pop sneer, the bluesy drawl of the title track. This Adams fella is nothing if not versatile.
It’s also apparent that this disc will take several listens to get all of it. The longer it goes on the more I like it but I can’t pin down any one thing I like about it. Ryan Adams has a voice that’s perfectly adequate, but it isn’t particularly strong or even very distinct from any other voice. But his delivery is confident and his band weaves organically complex music around the vocals in a way that makes you take as much notice of the instruments as the lyrics.
Halfway through the first disc and I’m a convert, meaning this two-disc set might not have been the worst starting point. There isn’t a bad song on the disc and enough subtle differences in the arrangements to keep me focused and interested from one track to the next. It certainly won’t be the last Ryan Adams album I own. A glance at his Wiki discography page makes it clear that he is also nothing if not prolific, so I’ve clearly got a lot of exploration ahead of me. I’m looking forward to it.
Bobby Brown, 1989 – Dance!… Ya Know It!
Ugh. I’m dreading this. It’s not that I don’t like Bobby Brown – he had some great singles back in the day. It’s not even that I’ve got almost an hour’s worth of ‘80s remixes – which can often be of questionable production quality. No, the thing putting me off my feed before even the first note of this disc is the punctuation in its title. I can’t trust the sensibilities of anyone who would do that. I can feel my left eye starting to twitch just looking at it.
Let me say this, the disc is named Dance! but the first two cuts are slow jams that are more likely to cure insomnia than inspire an urge toward terpsichorean frenzy. “Girl Next Door” continues to be terrible for over six minutes. There is nothing fun about this… and dance mixes should be fun so that people will want to get up and dance. Another thing – L.A. Reid & Babyface couldn’t even be bothered to give these remixes their own names, not even tacking on “12-Inch mix” or “Dance mix” after the title. Each track is adorned with just the original song title.
Things pick up a little with “Don’t Be Cruel” but even this excellent single suffers here from the remix which tends to favor a repetitive stutter approach to the vocals when they can’t think of anything interesting to do with the song. I have a copy of “My Prerogative” on a 12” single from back in the day and those dance mixes aren’t nearly as bad as these. That was handled by producer Gene Griffin but it doesn’t appear that any of those mixes were used for this collection. Still, this remix isn’t as bad as some. The only bright spot – and the term is relative here – is the remix of “On Our Own” from Ghostbusters that manages to not completely ruin the original song in the course of remixing it.
I’m short, this is a cash grab meant to capitalize on Bobby Brown’s popularity in 1989. It worked, too, going platinum in the U.S. For me, though, it’s almost a complete loss. I do have to acknowledge, however, that if I’d had this disc in 1989 instead of 30 years later, I’d have loved it at the time. Tastes change – I’d like to think I’ve got a better ear now than I did at 18.
David Essex, 1974 – David Essex
My first exposure to David Essex was indirect. Martin Gore’s ‘03 solo album Counterfeit 2 (HMTFv1.17) features a cover of “Stardust” from Essex’s 1974 self-titled sophomore release. Gore’s cover intrigued me and I decided I’d check out the original and its corresponding LP.
I said at the time that I preferred the Martin Gore version, but after getting more familiar with the Essex number, I have to give that the nod, especially the 7” single version featured as the final cut on this CD.
Essex was never a star in the U.S. (though the title track to his debut album Rock On did go to number 5 on the Billboard charts) but had quite a following in the U.K. where he did double duty as a movie star. “Stardust” is from the film of the same name, a rise-and-fall rock’n’roll tale starring David Essex as Jim MacLaine, leader of a band called The Stray Cats (nothing to do with Brian Setzer).
This eponymous album suffers a bit from era-specific production. There are a number of good rock songs here that become lost beneath chamber quartet strings that wash out any edges the songs might have had. The songs are ambitious, featuring changes in time signature, unconventional arrangements, and glimpses of studio wizardry. However, the best songs are also the most straightforward: the piano-pop of “I Know” and the slightly goofy ramble of “Miss Sweetness” stand out.
In the end, this album comes off somewhere between mainstream MotR rock and glam-lite and it doesn’t fully succeed on either level. I enjoy it as a time capsule and a curiosity, but there are only a handful of songs that realize their potential on this record and that’s not enough to make for a great album.
Jill Carole, 1996 – The Easter Bunny, Sex & Santa Claus
The album title comes from a line in what passes for the chorus of the opening track: “You’re everything I ever wished upon / The Easter Bunny, Sex & Jesus, Santa Claus…” This is an album that has disappeared into the utmost obscurity: not only does Jill Carole lack a Wikipedia entry, therefore ensuring the utmost in anonymity, but my copy of this disc doesn’t exist on Amazon or Discogs. (By the time you’re reading this, I’ve updated Discogs at least.) There is a listing for an album of the same name by the same artist but with a 1997 release date and a completely different track listing – some of the song titles overlap, but in a different order, while many of the songs are exclusive to one version or the other, and my copy has twelve tracks while those already online show only eleven.
These are the discs that intrigue me most when I find them in my stacks. There is no information at all on this musician or her, apparently, only album. Nothing to do but dive in.
Initial impressions – through the first third of the disc – are that this is a prime example of 1996 indie pop-rock. The sound is not particularly aggressive (though there are some great chugging guitar licks on “Ground Zero”) but some of the lyrics are delivered with a scowl or a sneer. I don’t dislike it. Ms. Carole has a fine and expressive voice and I find myself really enjoying her more languorous numbers like “Road Atlas,” “Out Of Reach,” and “Heart Of Dixie.” Her stretches toward the operatic, though, as on “Deep Dark Secret,” are a little too melodramatic for my tastes. More upbeat tracks are enjoyable as well, “Wish You Were Here” and “Walk The Plank,” the latter with instrumentation that reminds me instantly of Sting’s “Love Is The Seventh Wave.”
Not a bad record at all, but apparently not enough to set Jill Carole apart from the thousands of other women with guitars and songwriting chops. Too bad, too, because with an introduction like this I’d have been curious to see what she did with future releases. Almost 25 years on, I’d say it’s pretty unlikely we’ll ever find out.
Martina McBride, 1999 – Emotion
I don’t know anything about Martina McBride except that she was a very popular country singer a few years back. I’ve been broadening my horizons when it comes to country music, so I’m predisposed to liking this album before I even put it on. Apparently, her biggest hit is on this disc, too, something called “I Love You.” I’m looking forward to it.
Unfortunately, the first song is about as country as a Cracker Barrel restaurant. It is straight pop music sung by a “country” singer. And it’s not real good. It gets marginally better; “Anything’s Better Than Feelin’ The Blues” actually has a little country-blues feel to it, even if the song title is obviously untrue. And that’s followed by that big hit which has a couple minor country affectations but sounds more like Sheryl Crow than Dolly Parton.
This is a short review in keeping with my tenet that if I cant keep it nice, I’ll at least keep it brief. In the end, this is an unimaginative MotR pop record masquerading as country by dint of the performer. Maybe McBride had some good songs that were actually country music – I don’t know – but these aren’t them. It is uninspired music-industry common-denominator stuff. Martina has a fine voice so I bet she could do something great with the right material. And I’m sure she made some decent money off this album, so good for her, but I still feel like I overpaid at 50¢ for a used CD.
Peter Parcek, 2000 – Evolution
A few weeks ago I wrote about finding a copy of K.D. Bell’s self-titled CD, having lost mine years ago (HMTFv1.17). I reminisced about going to see him play on a weekly basis at a local joint. And when I used to go see K.D. play live, Peter Parcek led the band. Peter would go on to be an acclaimed blues guitarist and songwriter, eventually putting out three albums (and counting), the most recent being 2017’s much lauded Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven. The first, however, was Evolution from twenty years ago, and long out-of-print. After replacing that K.D. Bell CD, I became intent on replacing my long gone Evolution disc, as well, and managed to track down a single copy on eBay (hence the inscription – my name isn’t Vinny).
I’ve been listening to this album for 20 years. Even after my original copy grew legs and walked away, I had a copy on my PC. I love the album. Part of that is sentimentality – over the years of seeing Peter on a regular basis, we struck up a few conversations and got to know one another a little bit. That said, I’ve always enjoyed his playing; you don’t keep going to see a performer for 20 years if you don’t appreciate their art.
Evolution isn’t a straight-up blues album. It embraces a fair amount of roots rock and even surf music in the mix. Nearly half of the tracks are instrumental, including the hilariously titled “Lightning Hopkins Goes Surfing” and the blistering “Tiny Moore.” Peter also employs a softer touch on weepies like “Tears Like Diamonds” and “New Year’s Eve,” a couple of Parcek originals that showcase his songwriting and vocals.
The album also includes a few songs by other writers: the title track, “Shame, Shame, Shame,” featuring lead vocals by Jennifer Trynin, Mose Allison’s cynical “I Don’t Worry About A Thing,” and my favorite cut on the record, “He’s Got A Way With Women,” a beautifully delivered heartbreaker of a song.
Coming in under 45 minutes, Evolution leaves you wanting more at the same time that it makes you feel you got your money’s worth. I enjoy going back to this album on a regular basis and it reminds me that I have to get out and see Peter again, as he still plays frequently in New England. I used to get to see him every week and, at the time, didn’t realize how lucky I was. Now, however, it’s been far too long.
I was going to stop at 10 albums this week, but I didn’t want to go out on a negative note with that Martina McBride record, so instead we finish on a high note with a local musician who has been a favorite for the past couple decades.
As always, thank you for reading!
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