Friday, March 30, 2012

The Minus 5 - The Lonesome Death of Buck McCoy

The Minus 5 is a supergroup, but not like any you've ever encountered before. The band is the brainchild of Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows) with Peter Buck (R.E.M.) as the other permanent member. The band is known for bringing in talent from all over the musical map and making it work. They did an entire album with Wilco (2003's Down With Wilco) and have also worked with Mike Clark (famous jazz drummer), Dennis Diken (Smithereens), Mark Eitzel (American Music Club), E (eels), Morgan Fisher (Mott the Hoople), Robyn Hitchcock (I don't need to explain him), Rami Jaffee (The Wallflowers and a half-dozen other awesome things), Mike McCready (Pearl Jam), Presidents of the United States of America, Colin Meloy (The Decemberists), Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Sean O'Hagan (High Llamas), Paul Collins (The Beat. Also, he's a power pop god), Robert Pollard (Guided by Voices), Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth), Patti Smith (known for being awesome), Ken Stringfellow (The Posies), Wreckless Eric (don't know him, but awesome name), Jon Wurster (Superchunk), Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate), Pete Yorn, and about 20 other random musicians. So yeah, The Minus 5 has a lot of range. They're like The Travelling Wilburys of a new generation.

With all the lineup changes and constant collaboration, one would hardly expect The Minus 5 to sound as cohesive and awesome as they do. Also, with the title of this album specifically, one would expect super-mopey alternative country that can't stop crying about the dustbowl. What this album delivers is a mix of music that falls somewhere between Posies-esque power pop and Jayhawks-esque alt-country. When I first heard about The Minus 5, I expected a band that sounded like a side project (by which I mean a band that is not given the same care and attention as the artist's main band) but that's not what The Minus 5 are. They're a real thing. They're not some half-cocked half-baked idea. They're serious. Think Rocky when Apollo Creed goes to his corner and his trainer tells him "He doesn't know it's a show! He thinks it's a fight!"

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Milli Vanilli - All or Nothing

When you grow up in a small town, you tend to catch trends after they've either stopped altogether in the big cities or have become so commonplace they are no longer trendy. In the pre-internet years it was a complete chore to have any semblance of coolness if you lived in a small town.

My sister picked this album up on cassette right before Milli Vanilli were exposed as frauds and run out of town on a rail. Their story is a cautionary tale that has absolutely no bearing on the world in which we now live. Very few pop stars actually sing their music live in 2012. Most of them can't sing at all and rely on autotune to compensate for their lack of skill. If Rob and Fab came along in 2012, they would be bigger than the black eyed peas (a group I hate so much I refuse to capitalize their name. If I have to hear about what a great night they think tonight is gonna be one more time....(now picture me doing a really good Jackie Gleason impression)) Oh, and while I'm making ridiculous parenthetical statements, here's one I've always wanted to make: (Ever since a friend introduced me to Scott Weinrich, I've been a bog doom metal fan (Even though most of my doom metal is Scott Weinrich projects, there's one non-Scott Weinrich band that I really like (Sunn 0))). That's good writing right there. Not only did I use Sunn 0)))'s name correctly in a multi-parenthetical statement, I did it in the middle of a review of a Milli Vanilli album. I should get this entry bronzed.

So yeah, Milli Vanilli got pegged for being fake because we couldn't abide it in 1989. What they got busted for would blow over in a single week in 2012, and that's if it's a slow news week and the media needs to pick on someone. Anyway, the copy of this album that I own came out post-scandal. You can tell by the little sticker in the lower right hand corner that lists the names of the actual musicians and give Rob and Fab credit for, "Featured Visual Performances." We're far enough into this review that I really should give my take on the whole issue because I haven't heard a lot of people say it.

I still love Milli Vanilli. They were like nothing else at the time. You had these two super ethnic dudes (chiseled black guys from Germany?! How many of those have there been in the history of time?) that were churning out this crazy highly danceable yet romantic enough for a mixtape music. Whoever made this music was bona fide awesome. I remember the day after Milli Vanilli got busted I was listening to All Or Nothing on my old Sony Walkman (Which I still own to this day. It still works and I still love it) and a friend asked me what I was listening to. I told him it was Milli Vanilli and he almost laughed me off the block. He explained that they were frauds, and I tried to play the "Yeah, but the music's still good, right?" card. It was no dice. I sauntered away shamefully. I stopped listening to Milli Vanilli after that, but picked it back up in the early 00's when I came across this album in a thrift store. I originally intended it to be a "This guy has this sucky album on display as part of his collection? He must have serious cred!" purchase, but it turned into a serious purchase when I realized that after all this time I still dig Milli Vanilli. If you have read any of the entries in this blog, you'll know that I have a higher than average sentimentality and indulge in nostalgia a little too often. There is a definite nostalgic element to All Or Nothing, but I genuinely think I enjoy this music on its own merit. I know this is not a tremendously popular opinion (or it might be. I never hear people talk about Milli Vanilli anymore. Maybe it's because I don't have VH1 and wouldn't watch it if I did). Let's end this review as off-topic as it began.

Millencolin - Home From Home

This is Millencolin at their slickest and most polished. I take the fact that robots are standing in for the band in the video for "Kemp" as a metaphor for the rest of the album. It does have a very robotic feel, but the songs are still very good if you can look past the glossy sheen.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Millencolin - Pennybridge Pioneers

Throughout the 90's Millencolin had been treading water as a middle-of-the-road punk act. When 2000 hit, they released Pennybridge Pioneers which established them as a force to be reckoned with. Every song on this album is great punk in a sort of Bouncing Souls/NOFX-ish vein. You may recognize the classic "No Cigar" from Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2. Anyway, this is one of the best punk albums I own and it has earned repeated listens over the years.

Mighty Mighty Bosstones - Let's Face It

If you were into the 90's ska scene (I was in it big time), this album was the benchmark against which all other ska albums were judged. It featured the first true breakout ska hit of the 90s in "The Impression That I Get" and was slathered in great ska songs like "Noise Brigade" "Rascal King" "Royal Oil" and "1-2-8". This is not necessarily the greatest ska album ever made (though it's certainly in the running) but this is the most important album of the 90's ska revival. It is to the 90's what The Specials was to the late 70's and early 80's.

Midtown - Living Well is the Best Revenge

Midtown is a slightly better than average pop punk band, but I enjoy them as if they were a really really good pop punk band. This album was part of the soundtrack to one of my all-time favorite summers. "Become What You Hate" and "Like a Movie" found their way onto several of my mixes during that era. I never thought I had that strong of a nostaligic connection to this album, but I guess I really do.

Metallica - Black Album

This is the last really great album Metallica ever made (or will likely ever make) and it has still been accused of being overly-commercial and too accessible to the non-metal public. I guess I can see the logic on those arguments in that this album was accessible to me back in the day when the hardest-rocking thing I owned was Green Day's Dookie.

Here's how I would answer any arguments against this album: the songs are still great. "Enter Sandman" "Sad But True" and "The Unforgiven" are metal classics. They stack up with the very best any other metal band has ever produced (well, maybe not Dio, but who can compare with him. I'm serious. Ronnie James Dio is the very best metal singer in the history of the genre. It is indisputable). Yes, after this album Metallica cut their hair and started making music for people who weren't their fans to begin with and punished their fans with frivolous lawsuits, but the Black Album is the last moment of true greatness for one of the greatest metal bands ever. Respect it for what it is.

The Merrymakers - Bubblegun

This is one of the best power pop albums I own. It's so astoundingly sweet that my brain can't hardly handle it all at once. The Merrymakers hail from Sweden, a land known for its sugary-sweet pop. This album benefits greatly from the production of Andy Sturmer (of Jellyfish fame) who brings a bit of the old Jellyfish charm to the album. The result is harmonies so thick and gooey they stick in your ears, and arrangements lavish enough to set before a king. This is power pop beyond reproach.

Material Issue - Freak City Soundtrack

Freak City Soundtrack just isn't as good as International Pop Overthrow. The album sounds good and has nice production values, but the songwriting isn't nearly as strong as it was on Material Issue's debut. There are a couple great songs like the opener, "Going Through Your Purse" as well as "Ordinary Girl" but the rest of the songs are just generally good rather than great, and fall a little short of the best Material Issue has to offer. This is a decent album, but a little disappointing when compared to International Pop Overthrow.

Material Issue - International Pop Overthrow

Material Issue tends to be underrated by the general public as well as slightly overrated by the power pop community to compensate for the fact that they are underrated elsewhere. As a member of the power pop community, it's hard for me to feel like I'm putting this album in its proper perspective. The biggest power pop festival in the world is named after this album, so there's your indicator as to what Material Issue means to the powers that be in power pop.

So yeah, this is a really great album. I know I'd feel that way about it even if I wasn't a huge power pop fan because I was introduced to "Diane" when I was in high school and had no concept of power pop. Anyway, if you like music from the 90's that has a fascination with the music from the 60's and 70's, this is a great disc to add to your collection.

Lateef and the Chief Present: Maroons - Ambush

There are certain record labels whose imprint on an album is an absolute assurance of quality. If you're an indie dude, that label is Sub-Pop. If you're a hip-hop fan, Quannum will never do you wrong. I own most of the Quannum catalogue and will attest to its overall high quality. Speaking of hip-hop in this manner makes me sounds pretentious, ridiculous, and irredeemably white. So yeah, my first introduction to good hip-hop (I'm not counting my early 90's fascination with MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice) was Blackalicious. Shortly after I became addicted to Blazing Arrow, Blackalicious played a free show at my college. They did a few songs from Blazing Arrow and Lateef the Truthspeaker did an awesome battle with Gift of Gab (I believe Gift of Gab won, but it was close). Anyway, I had no idea who Lateef was at the time. I just knew he was a white dude (he's white, right? All the stories tell me his parents were affiliated with The Black Panthers, but I swear he's white. None of the pictures online show him in his dreadlock phase, which is when I saw him. He was a fairly skinny dude back then, but it looks like he's beefed up and his skin is a shade or two darker. The first time I saw him, I just knew he was white. Now I'm not so sure) with some serious skills. Anyway, when I heard that Chief Xcel from Blackalicious and Lateef the Truthspeaker (who you may know from Latryx) were doing an album together, I literally could not buy it fast enough. I talked my local record store into selling it to me before it was scheduled to be released. This album (which is more of an EP in length) is exactly as good as I wanted it to be. It's full of interesting beats, strong social statements, and great rhymes. If you like Jurassic 5 or The Roots, this is an album that should be right up your awesome hip-hop alley.

Bob Marley - Legend

Everyone owns this album. It's the Frampton Comes Alive of my generation. Seriously, even if you don't think you own this album, dig through your cd's again and I promise there's a copy of it in there somewhere. There's a reason why Legend is owned by every person on the planet who ever went through a reggae phase: It's awesome. Seriously, there is no weak point on this album. Even if you don't do modern reggae (I don't. I can't stand the fact that synths have worked their way into reggae and have replaced all the other instruments. Reggae bands used to have a horn section and somebody would be rocking a Wurlitzer or a Hammond. Now it's all crappy synth horns and synth organs. It sounds bad and the people who make it should feel bad) there's a universal appeal to the very best of Bob Marley. Great songs are great songs regardless of genre. Bob Marley's songs are accessible to every white suburban teenager who doesn't even understand the concept of a shanty-town. Bob Marley's Legend  is simply beyond reproach and should be owned by everyone on the planet (assuming they don't already own it).

Roger Joseph Manning jr. - Land of Pure Imagination

Roger Manning is an interesting dude. He was in one of the greatest power pop bands of all-time (Jellyfish) and now he has the cred and the freedom to do pretty much whatever he wants (as evidenced by the fact that he and Brian Reitzell released the soundtrack to a fictional sequel to Logan's Run. Like I said, whatever he wants). Land of Pure Imagination is his first domestically-available solo album (it was originally released in Japan as Solid State Warrior and was slightly different than the U.S. release) and it shows exactly why he's one of the most respected experts in the use of analogue synths since Walter/Wendy Carlos. Land of Pure Imagination is exactly as lush as its title indicates. The harmonies are Jellyfish-sweet, the instrumentals are rich and thick, and the songs themselves are unpredictable yet highly enjoyable. I love everything about this album.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Belle and Sebastian - Push Barman to Open Old Wounds

Belle and Sebastian, like any self-respecting indie band, have a nice catalogue of EP's as well as full length releases. Push Barman to Open Old Wounds collects a number of Belle and Sebastian EP's, which gives a nice overview of the band as well as the ways in which their sound has remained awesome despite changing drastically over the years. Seriously, I think the super quiet days of "Dylan in the Movies" are far behind us, never to be seen again. Even so, they've given us "Step Into My Office, Baby" and other songs in a similar vein, which are just as awesome if not more so. Anyway, Push Barman is a great collection. Belle and Sebastian are no less potent in EP form than they are in album form. Oh, and I love "I Love My Car." It makes my brain happy.

Beck, Bogert and Appice - s/t

You know how Wired didn't sit well with me because of the whole jazz fusion thing? Well this album is an improvement in that it's good old bluesy rock as Jeff Beck was born to play it. On this LP he teams up with the rhythm section from Vanilla Fudge and just works out some great 1970s blues rock. It's no masterpiece in that it can't quite stack up to Zeppelin or Cream, but it's still highly enjoyable. I put it up there with Baker Gurvitz Army which was a comparable piece of 70s blues rock.

Jeff Beck - Wired

I bought this LP because I felt that Jeff Beck could lend some cred to my vinyl collection. I don't know who I think I'm impressing, but given my criteria they are either the strangest woman ever or a 40 year old man. Anyway, these are not the sorts of things you think about when the cashier at the record store (a 40 year old man) tells you you made a good choice. Mission accomplished?

So Jeff Beck is one of the all-time great guitar gods. He ably filled Clapton's shoes in The Yardbirds, which says something of the man's status. I have no qualms with his status. He's definitely better than most when it comes to all things six strings. But what do you do for the guy when you genuinely don't like the actual songs he's noodling with on an album? That's what Wired is for me. I just don't like the whole jazz fusion thing. I like jazz just fine, but somehow the fusion part always kills it for me.

Anyway, Wired features some very vibrant playing by Jeff Beck in which he explores the full range of his instrument, but it ultimately goes nowhere for me because I genuinely don't like the songs. There are much better Jeff Beck outings (I'm reviewing one of them next). Wired just falls flat with me. I know that most of the 40 year old record store employees of the world would tend to disagree, but I hear what I hear.

The Beatles - Let it Be

Let it Be is the last Beatles album to ever be released although it was not the last to be recorded. Depending on where you stand, Let it Be was either made more awesome by Phil Spector or completely ruined by Phil Spector (I tend to think Phil Spector did a fine job given the task at hand). There's even Let it Be...Naked which is just as controversial as the original even though it strips away all the Phil Spector touches. Rather than blather endlessly about what might have been with Let it Be, I'm more than content to let it be and enjoy what exists and not worry too much about what might have been. This attitude reflects my status as a non-first generation Beatles fan. If I saw them on Sullivan, I might feel differently about it.

The Beatles - Rubber Soul

The Beatles look tired from constant touring and hounding by their fans and almost sick of their own career on the cover of Rubber Soul (I once took a college course on The Beatles and learned that the cover photo on this album very much reflects how The Beatles were feeling at the time. Yes, three credit hours for listening to The Beatles. Love it.). The music on Rubber Soul is anything but tired and worn out. Rubber Soul has early forays into weirdness such as "Norwegian Wood", but also sings sweetly as ever on songs like "Michelle" and "Girl." It's as solid an album as The Beatles ever put out, which is remarkable considering how wiped out they were at the time.

The Beat - s/t

Paul Collins is something of a power pop legend, and my opinion of this album is certainly influenced by his position as an elder statesman of my favorite genre. That said, I think I still really like this album and not just because I'm contractually obligated to do so. Some of the power pop of the 70s and 80s really drowned in the production values of their respective eras, but Paul Collins made sure The Beat stuck to a more classic and timeless sound. As a result, this album is great and will continue to sound great well into the future.

The Beach Boys - Smiley Smile

I bought this album right as Brian Wilson's Smile was coming out because I wanted to hear the versions of these songs that existed in the era in which they were written. Of course I have no problem with The Wondermints (Brian Wilson's touring band who helped him re-record and complete the much-ballyhooed Smile) but I wanted to know what these songs sounded like without the benefit of modern recording equipment. Smiley Smile is not Smile, but it's similar. Because it isn't the answer to Sgt. Pepper that Beach Boys fans were looking for, it's a bit underrated. That sounds like an odd statement for an album that features both "Heroes and Villains" and "Good Vibrations", but it's true. I found Smiley Smile to be an excellent album and well worth the price of purchase.

The Beach Boys - Endless Summer

I was raised on The Beach Boys. When my Dad was buying Beach Boys albums for us kids (he's an old surf rock fan. His favorite band growing up was The Ventures) I didn't know that they weren't new. These albums were at least 20 years old and I honestly thought they were just the greatest music being made in the 80s. My ignorance of history aside, The Beach Boys are awesome. Endless Summer is a perfect overview of The Beach Boys' surf rock years, which was my favorite period of The Beach Boys career when I was growing up. Oddly enough, I hated Pet Sounds when my Dad bought it because it didn't have nearly enough songs that mentioned surfing. I think it's important to point out that I was 8 years old at the time. Anyway, this review is rambling. Just know that Endless Summer is one of the best Beach Boys compilations available.

Count Basie and Joe Williams - The Greatest!! Count Basie Plays, Joe Williams Sings Standards

I don't know a ton about jazz. I used to talk to this guy Vinnie who now runs Rainbow Records in Delaware. He worked at Hoodlum's at the time and we used to shop together at the now (sadly) defunct Eastside Records. He would walk out of the store with stacks of jazz vinyl telling me all about how his $40 record purchase would go for $200 or more on the East Coast. I guess it's no surprise that he's now running a record store on the East Coast. Anyway, he knew a ton about jazz. He would buy an album because it featured a dude who once played drums for Brubeck. I know a few of the major names in jazz, but I don't know anyone beyond the bandleaders and singers.

I bought this album because it features a major bandleader in Count Basie and a major singer in Joe Williams. I love Joe Williams because he has a lot of range. He can croon as sweetly as Sinatra, but can also wail on the blues as emphatically as Muddy Waters. Add Count Basie's big band to the mix and you've got a dynamite combo. This record features a bunch of jazz standards, which is fine by me. My limited jazz knowledge leads me to favor versions of songs I already know. There's a world of jazz out there that I have yet to discover, but for now I'm happy to dip my toe in the pools I know. This record is just that.

The Bangles - Different Light

This album is a varied affair. There is plenty of great 60s-esque classic Bangles pop on the record in songs like "If She Knew What She Wants" and the Big Star cover "September Gurls." The album also features the biggest sellout of the classic Bangles sound in "Walk Like an Egyptian." Oh, and let's not forget Prince's contribution in the excellent "Manic Monday."

Anyway, "Walk Like an Egyptian" sounds stuck in the 80s and is exactly as gimmicky as it has ever been. It wasn't a great song in the day (even though it was received as one) and it has become less so over time. The pure Bangles pop that shines through on this album sounds so fresh it could have been recorded yesterday. This album clearly tells the tale of commercialism intruding into the career of The Bangles. I get the feeling this album would have been much better if The Bangles just did what the did on their debut EP.

The Bangles - EP

The Bangles debut EP is super awesome. While so much of the music made in the 80s sounds completely stuck in that decade, The Bangles managed to sound unique. They have a clear affection for the 60s, but they also just make good pop music that has outlived the era in which it was made. This EP may very well be the best thing The Bangles ever did, which is saying something. Oh, did I mention that I love Susanna Hoffs? It needs to be said.

Band of Susans - Love Agenda

If you like discordant college rock, this is one for your collection. Band of Susans is one of the greats in experimental noise rock, but they don't get as much cred as, say, Sonic Youth or My Bloody Valentine. "Sin Embargo" is everything you need to know about this band and this album. It's altogether wonderful and terrifying.