Monday, April 30, 2012

The Poppin' Wheelies - s/t

This is a side project of a Gin Blossoms side project. It was produced as a concept for a never-produced animated show about a band in space. The Poppin' Wheelies are the exact same band as Gas Giants, a post-Gin Blossoms project for Robin Wilson and a few other Gin Blossoms regulars. As it was with From Beyond the Back Burner, the Gas Giants album that preceded this disc by a year, there is a distinct Gin Blossoms quality to the record, but there's also a sense of fun and artistic freedom that was somewhat lacking on Congratulations I'm Sorry (this album features a techno song at the end, so this is a band doing pretty much whatever they want). It's the sound of a professional band gone back into the garage and the result is a fine record with plenty of good tunes. If you're into Gin Blossoms (and I am), this is a disc you should own...provided you own all the regular Gin Blossoms releases first.

Polysics - Hey! Bob! My Friend!

Let's get this out of the way right now: Polysics are weird. They're the kind of weird you only find in Japan. They are ostensibly a new wave band, but don't expect anything reminiscent of The Cars here. Expect weirdness and a whole lot of zagging instead of zigging. Even so, there's plenty to like abut Polysics. They're certainly original and if you're in the mood for their shenanigans, they're a whole lot of fun. Take a look at this video and it'll tell you whether or not Polysics are the sort of thing you'd want to admit are your bag.

The Police - Greatest Hits

The Police were the most successful of all the white reggae bands (yes, there were several of them back in the day. It was mostly a British thing) but you would hardly know it because the Police songs most people seem to know aren't particularly reggae-ish ("Every Breath You Take" "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic"). The reggae leanings of The Police are a little more evident on this very nice compilation, and even more so on their studio albums. Anyway, this hits compilation is very good and provides a decent enough overview of the band for the casual fan.

Various Artists - Plea For Peace Take Action Volume 2

Whereas the first Plea For Peace Take Action compilation was pretty good, this compilation is dirty filthy garbage that should not be handled with bare hands. It features waaaaay more screamo than any disc ever should. You know how people do that thing where they say, "Every song in such and such a genre is exactly the same" but normally that statement is ignorant and shortsighted (yes, even if you say it about the many subgenres of electronic music). Well, I think I can safely make that statement for the vocal performances in screamo. Sure, I'll give the instrumentals credit for a decent amount of variation, but screamo vocals are unintelligible and absolutely interchangeable. If someone mashed up two screamo songs, do you think anyone, even fans of the genre, would be able to tell? I say no. Yeah, I know I'm just old enough to be outside the intended demographic for screamo, but my statement still stands. It's a crappy way to make music. So yeah, having to listen to Poison the Well, Avenged Sevenfold, Snapcase, and Curlupandie back to back to hellish back was the sort of torturous experience I wouldn't wish on Derek Jeter, and I wish all kinds of bad things on him.

Various Artists - Plea For Peace Take Action

I bought this compilation because it was cheap, had bands that I like on it, and had a bazillion songs. I figured it was pretty good bang for my buck, and I was mostly right. About half this album is right up my alley (Hot Water Music, At the Drive-In, Good Riddance, The (International) Noise Conspiracy, etc.) and most of the rest swings and misses. All in all, it's a decent batting average for a punk compilation.

I need to mention that this comp was my introduction to AFI. I saw them later that summer on the Warped Tour and loved how hardcore they were (Dave Havok wore all black leather in Phoenix in July. Oh, and the pit for AFI was brutal). I am the only person on earth who liked AFI more as a punk band than the goth-ish emo-ish thing they turned into with Sing the Sorrow. You heard it right. I like Answer That and Stay Fashionable more than Sing the Sorrow. Deal with it.

The Pistoleros - Hold on to Nothing

Back in the 90's, it seemed like Tempe, AZ (known for its awesome university and silly party laws) was going to be the new Athens, GA. There was a thriving music scene that spawned Gin Blossoms, The Refreshments, Dead Hot Workshop, The Pistoleros, and other great bands. Then the scene dried up and blew away as most of the relevant clubs closed and the bands moved on. The only surviving relics of the scene are Roger Clyne, who is a mythical cult figure in Arizona, and the albums produced during the era.

I was all about all the other Tempe bands as the scene was still happening, but I didn't catch on to this gem until much later. I'm glad I finally laid my hands on it because it's every bit as good as everything else the Tempe scene produced. There are shades of Gin Blossoms-esque pop hooks and Refreshments-esque southwest-tinged rock. It's Arizona rock at its best and I dig it. I dig it big time.

Dave Pirner - Faces and Names

You know Dave Pirner as the lead singer of Soul Asylum, which was my favorite band for nearly a year (they were ousted from the top spot in '94 when Weezer's self-titled debut dropped, but I'll always have a place in my heart for Soul Asylum) back in the day. Anyway, this is Dave Pirner's solo debut, and it's a decent listen. I used to put "Someday Love" on mixes for girls I liked because it's a non-specific love song and gave me wiggle room if anyone ever confronted me (nobody ever did). Songs like "Never Recover" "Faces and Names" and "Start Treating People Right" are exactly the sort of songs you write when you're the former frontman of a great 90's rock band and you suddenly find yourself getting older and having to make sense of it all. And I mean that in the best way. There's just a little more wisdom in Pirner's voice than there was when he was laying down Grave Dancer's Union. The extra years suit Pirner and make for a nice listen.

Pigeon John - And the Summertime Pool Party

When Pigeon John joined Quannum, I was excited. Not only was one of my favorite rappers now on my favorite rap label, it meant he could start laying down collaborations with guys like Gift of Gab and Lateef the Truthspeaker. Unfortunately, his first album on Quannum features no such collaborations. He does join forces with guys like RJD2 and Brother Ali, but none of his Quannum labelmates feature on this disc. That said, Pigeon John doesn't lose his stride at all with the album. He simply does what he does and what he does is great.

Pigeon John - Sings the Blues!

I tend to like hip-hop acts that don't trade on street cred and thug posturing. From that perspective, it should come as no surprise that I love Pigeon John. He's unlike any other rapper you know. He's self-deprecating, funny, and can sing a decent tune as well as lay down a decent verse. He's a talented man, and this album is a nice indicator of his many talents. It's as diverse as a hip-hop album could possibly be. I love this album. It's one of my all-time favorite hip-hop records.

Phantom Planet - The Guest

I bought this album when I was in the two best choirs at one of my alma maters. We were on tour and were given a much more generous daily stipend than I needed. I pinched my pennies and bought this album along with Nirvana's Bleach. I remember listening to The Guest and Bleach back to back over and over as we were shuttled from performance to performance. This was before a certain show called The O.C. (remember that show? People acted like it was going to be the new 90210 at the time and then it dropped off a cliff. I saw one episode and that was all I needed) overplayed "California" to the point that nobody who owned a television would be caught dead listening to Phantom Planet (I would argue The Rembrandts were similarly buried because they wrote the theme song for Friends. Their self-titled album was really really good, but you wouldn't know it because the last track was "I'll Be There For You"). I gave this album the better part of a decade off because I just couldn't handle the way it was being pushed. When I dusted it off a week ago (yeah, I listened to it right before my computer disaster) it sounded surprisingly great, and I'm including "California" in that statement. The Guest is a little more polished and obviously radio-ready than Phantom Planet is Missing, but it's still a solid album with a surprising number of good tracks.

Phantom Planet - Live EP

This promotional EP features 4 tracks (two of them live) from the then forthcoming album The Guest. Included with the set is the otherwise unreleased song "Shadows" which actually rocks quite a bit harder and in a darker way than the other songs on the EP. As promotional EP's go, this one is pretty good. It's not very useful if you're buying it after having heard The Guest in its entirety, but it provided a nice little whetting of the appetite in its day.

Phantom Planet - Phantom Planet is Missing

Phantom Planet's debut album is a fat slice of perfect guitar pop. Take a listen to "Local Black and Red" and try to tell me it's not a perfect song. I dares ya. Whatever you may think of Phantom Planet's later work (I'm speaking of course of the greatly overplayed "California" as well as Jason Schwartzman's exit from the band), Phantom Planet is Missing is awesome.

Computer Problems

So I deleted the posts I wrote all about how HP and Compaq knowingly put subpar parts in the machine you see at the left (That's a Compaq SR5710F, a decent mid-level mid-priced machine that has served me well for the past couple years). When my computer started having BSOD's (blue screen of death) even in safe mode, I was peeved. Be thankful I didn't throw Nvidia under the bus as well because plenty of people have issues with Nvidia drivers in Windows 7.

So here's where we stand: yes, Compaq and their parent company HP did put a subpar power supply into my computer. Bestec is a name synonymous with spectacular failure (just do a search and you'll be bombarded with tales of charred motherboards, capacitors that take off like bottle rockets, and fireworks shooting out the back of people's computers) and it does seem suspect that HP would still be using them as a supplier given the history of failure. Also, placing a 250 Watt power supply in a computer that features a dual core processor is not the best of choices. Not only that, but powering a 24 pin ATX motherboard with a 20 pin power supply that has no native SATA connectors is not the way to go if you're building a machine to last. They're not off the hook, but I'm not as angry at HP and Compaq as I was before.

When my computer started having BSOD's (with different messages each time, no less) at random intervals, I thought two things immediately: 1) I need to check my hard drive and 2) I need to check my RAM. Chkdsk came back with nothing on the hard drive, which was a relief. By the time I downloaded and burned a copy of memtest86, it was time for bed. They tell you to run the test for at least 6 cycles to be sure. I think it ran closer to 12 by the time I got up in the morning, but it showed no errors. The only other possible culprits were the motherboard and the power supply. I bought a new power supply because I was going to need one anyway (yeah, I don't trust Bestec at all). When I popped in the new PSU, I got a BSOD within minutes. I was ticked because I didn't want to go buying a new motherboard. I decided to cut my losses and strip all the useable parts from the machine. I stripped it clean in no time at all and started using the case as a footrest. I was using a Power Mac G5 in the interim, and that should be another entry in itself. Developers really dropped support for non-Intel Macs of a cliff. I can run the latest itunes on a 10 year old PC, but I can't do the same on a 5 year old Mac? Please explain.

As I was reading in a computer repair forum later, someone suggested running memtest86 for each individual memory module separately. I had run them together and came up with bupkis. I figured it was worth a try because I wouldn't be able to buy a new computer for a while anyway. I set up the test for the first module and left the room because it takes a while. When I came back, memtest86 found over 3000 errors in that particular module. I ran the test for the other stick and it came up clean. So now I'm running way less memory than I'm used to, but the Compaq is back up and running. I'll be purchasing more memory when we take a trip to the city this weekend, so everything should be fine again. Even so, I'm still constantly afraid that I will get a BSOD in the middle of a

Thursday, April 19, 2012

RIP Levon Helm 1940-2012

It's hard to say that Levon Helm's passing was anything but inevitable. The man was 71 years old and had been battling throat cancer. It's hard to act shocked when a man of his years who has lived the rich life he did passes away after a long bout with a terminal disease. Of course I feel for his family and those close to him. He will absolutely be missed. He was releasing fantastic albums as recently as 3 years ago, so nobody could say he had nothing left to give. I'm just trying to put into perspective the fact that he was a rock star who lived the rock star life all through the 60's and 70's when life on the road was literally killing people (something Robbie Robertson made a great statement about in The Last Waltz) and The Band had contemporaries flaming out before their 30's. Rick Danko and Richard Manuel lived relatively long lives for rock stars (56 and 42 respectively) and Levon Helm outlived them by a couple decades.

Maybe I'm getting off on the wrong foot. I just didn't want to start this with any false indignation about Levon Helms' death. I can't say that I'm shocked and I can't say that it truly affects me like it would if a close friend or family member passed. I'm trying not to co-opt the pain that will surely be felt by his closest friends and family.

As a longtime fan of The Band, I do feel some sadness at his passing. The Band got me through some very hard times. Music From Big Pink and The Band literally carried me through the roughest parts of my life thus far. It's hard to put into words just what The Band has done for me. It transcends the music itself and the men who made it. I just have a very personal connection with those first two records, and I will always be grateful that I had them when I needed them. Levon Helm was a crucial part of the band (it's odd to refer to them as the band and not by their name: The Band. It's grammatically correct, but it's still weird). He was the only American in a band otherwise made up of Canadians who had a fascination with the American South. His voice was unmistakable and honest. Oh, and let's not forget the fact that he was a singing drummer. That's not an easy thing to do, but he made it look easy. He also played a mean mandolin and held his own on the banjo. He was a man who loved to make music and he did it right up until his body wouldn't let him do it anymore. His passion and his unique musical talent will be missed. The body of work he leaves behind has already been a powerful force for good in my life and will continue to do so. I always thought Levon Helm seemed like a really nice guy and an all-around decent human being. He is being described as a "beautiful soul" by those who knew him best, so I at least take solace in the fact that if I had ever met Levon, I would have liked him as a person. As I said, my heart goes out to his family and close friends. He will be missed, but his music will live on.

Various Artists - Phantom of the Opera: Original London Cast

I never thought it would, but this soundtrack is starting to sound dated. When it came out, we all thought the electronic drumming in the title track was fantastic, but it now sounds nearly as ridiculous as the gunshots in MC Hammer's "Crime Stories." Most of the non-standard instrumentation in this soundtrack now sounds hopelessly behind the times though it was absolutely cutting edge in its day. Even though it is beginning to show its age a bit, Phantom will always be remembered as one of the greatest musicals in the history of the genre. All of the vocal performances are top notch, and the songs are as good as ever. As a matter of fact, this recording is a perfect example of my love/hate relationship with all things Andrew Lloyd Webber. I tend to find Sir Andrew to be generally ridiculous, but his tendencies toward the pompous actually work well here. Also, I always thought Michael Crawford a silly choice for the phantom. He is, after all, Condorman. He always seemed to do better in light-hearted affairs like Hello Dolly!, but he is most certainly one of the best phantoms to ever don the half mask (Oh, and he's milked Phantom for more than Andrew Lloyd Webber ever has. How many different versions of "Music of the Night" has he recorded? Seriously). Oh, and Sarah Brightman sings like she has a stick up her butt (take a look at her performance in the 25th anniversary show and try again to tell me how awesome she is). Despite the fact that all the ingredients of this musical seem created for the express purpose of making me hate it, I actually really love it. It somehow all works.

Peter, Paul and Mary - Ten Years Together

This is my jam right here. My Dad was a folkie from back in the day (even played in a folk band of his own) and Peter, Paul and Mary were an important part of my childhood. Oddly enough, I didn't really care that much about "Puff (The Magic Dragon)." I was big on "Stewball" "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" and "Blowin' in the Wind." There's a certain quivering quality in Paul Stookey's voice that I find especially comforting. Of course I also love the pipes on Mary Travers and Peter Yarrow (yes, I knew their last names without having to look them up), but Paul's voice puts the whole thing over the top for me. Anyway, as far as folk groups go, it would be hard to do better than Peter, Paul and Mary. Chances are, you know at least half the songs on this album. Chances are, you'd like them all if you heard them.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Pet Shop Boys - Release

Release is not the return to form I had been waiting for (that would be 2006's Fundamental) but it's certainly better than Bilingual. "Home and Dry" is absolutely fabulous. Oh, and let's not forget the fact that "The Night I Fell in Love" caused quite a stir with its implications about Eminem.

Pet Shop Boys - Bilingual

Bilingual is an experiment in Latin rhythms. It mostly stinks and isn't worth owning as a part of an otherwise strong Pet Shop Boys collection. "Red Letter Day" is a nice song that doesn't get too far away from the things that make Pet Shop Boys awesome. All the other tracks are fairly forgettable and/or regrettable. I just don't get most of Bilingual.

Pet Shop Boys - Alternative

This compilation of Pet Shop Boys b-sides is surprisingly strong and actually works as a cohesive album. Pet Shop Boys have always had a bit of a darker side, and that side really becomes apparent on this double disc compilation. Even when the songs are seemingly happy musically, they are decidedly less so lyrically. Case in point: "What Keeps Mankind Alive?". Also included in this set are a couple of very nice straightforward non-electronic ballads ("Your Funny Uncle" and "If Love Were All"). I love nearly every single song on this album. I say nearly every song because there's one song that has no business being called a song. It has no business being on this album and it had no business getting recorded let alone conceived as what I am sure was a part of some bizarre experiment Chris and Neil did with hallucinogens. I am talking, of course, about the abomination that is "The Sound of the Atom Splitting." Aside from that lone track, everything else on this double album is super great. Own it, and promise me you'll skip track 13 on disc 1 every time.

Getting Back Into Little Rubber Guys

Back in the day there was a seemingly endless supply of little rubber guys ready for your collecting pleasure. I had a few M.U.S.C.L.E. figures, most of the Guts Laser Fighters and Underwater Demo team, and I remember collecting pieces of a multi-piece Voltron-esque robot figure that I never completed. Little rubber guys were the thing in the 80's/early 90's.

Fast forward to now and I haven't collected little rubber guys for years. I don't know what happened to all my figures from years past, but I can only assume they were yard sale fodder at some point. Anyway, I was in Wal-Mart not too long ago because I live in a small town and there is a real dearth of shopping places. I was wandering through the toy section with my daughter and I happened upon a bunch of brightly colored balls with the Marvel logo on them. My curiosity was piqued. What I was looking at were Heroics. These are tiny rubber action figures featuring some of Marvel's best superheroes. I ended up buying a few Heroics that day, and have been hooked ever since. My Wal-Mart originally only stocked the Marvel line, but recently started stocking DC as well. I am now the proud owner of nearly all the figures in this line. I had to go online and see which figures are in which balls and buy a bunch of figures to finally get chase figures like Red Hulk. Below are a couple pictures of my collection along with a breakdown of how many of each figure I own.

Standing Wolverine - 1 (Odd that I don't own more of these)
Jumping Wolverine - 4
Hulk - 9
Red Hulk - 2 (chase figure)
Clear Spider-Man - 1 (chase figure replacing the now rare black Spidey)
Spider-Man - 4
Spider-Man with web - 5
Thor - 4
Iron Man - 5
Captain America - 4

Standing Batman - 4
Jumping Batman - 6
Up and Away Superman - 5
Superman - 3
Justice Lords Superman - 2 (chase figure)
Flash - 8 (all these flashes in a row look like 1 flash running)
Reverse Flash - 1 (chase figure)
Martian Manhunter - 2
Green Lantern - 3
Joker - 3

Anyway, for more information on these nifty little rubber guys, I refer you either to the product website or to the fantastic forum entitled Little Rubber Guys. Who knows how far it'll go with these guys? Maybe I'll get back into collecting Guts or something. You can see I've got a few other little rubber guys lurking in the background.

Pet Shop Boys - Very/Further Listening 1992-1994

Sometime in the 00's Pet Shop Boys started re-releasing their old albums along with bonus discs entitled Further Listening. I already owned Very, but was intrigued by the fact that there was more to be heard. Further Listening discs tend to collect b-sides, remixes, and unreleased tracks. Most of the remixes are non-essential, most of the unreleased tracks aren't too great, and the b-sides are fantastic but were previously made available on the double disc Alternative compilation. So if you've been collecting Pet Shop Boys all along, there's really no reason to own the Further Listening versions of these albums.

Pet Shop Boys - Very

The Lego-style cover of this album really takes me back. It was such an interesting way to package an album, but the music on the inside is what really blew my mind. This is the first Pet Shop Boys album I ever heard. I was immediately swept away with the highly-danceable yet gorgeous tracks such as "Liberation" "Different Point of View" and "The Theatre." My friends and I even had a choreographed dance we did to "Go West." Oddly enough, none of us are or have ever been gay. Yeah. Figure that out. Anyway, Very is the best studio album Pet Shop Boys ever made. If you can't dig this, I can't help you.

Pet Shop Boys - Discography

Discography was the holy grail when I was in high school. It was hard to come by in my small Northern Arizona home town (oddly enough, Erasure's Pop! The First 20 Hits was readily available). Those who owned it were constantly loaning it to people who needed to tape it. When I found this copy at Wal-Mart in Show Low I snatched it up.

Discography collects Pet Shop Boys' first 18 hits on a single disc. It's a great overview of the band, and is required listening for fans of synthpop. In case you're wondering, yes "West End Girls" is on the album. I hate the fact that people only seem to know Pet Shop Boys for "West End Girls" the same way they only know a-ha for "Take on Me" and Erasure for "A Little Respect" because it was on that one episode of Scrubs (That was a really good episode though). Aside from "West End Girls", which is far from Pet Shop Boys' best song, there is a whole slew of really great tracks on this album. I highly recommend "Always on My Mind" "Domino Dancing" "Let to My Own Devices" and "Was it Worth It?".

Pet Shop Boys - Actually

Of all 80's synthpop bands, Pet Shop Boys have the sharpest wit and provide the most biting social commentary. Actually tosses out more than a few barbs, and still manages to be a thoroughly enjoyable album. I can't stop loving "Shopping" and yet I am fully aware of its strong political statements. This album is as good an example as any if you want to show how Pet Shop Boys have managed to be artistically true, socially conscious, and still generally popular.

Pet Shop Boys - Behaviour

The first Pet Shop Boys album I ever heard was Very. The second Pet Shop Boys album I ever heard was Discography. All my friends in high school were big Pet Shop Boys fans, so I was eventually introduced to their other works, such as this album. Behavior is neither as dancy as Very nor as diverse as Discography. It's actually quite subdued. The fact that it starts out with "Being Boring" and "This Must Be the Place I Waited Years to Leave" is an indicator as to the tone this album takes. It's a fascinating album, provided you already like Pet Shop Boys. Oh, and the first time I ever heard "Nervously" I wondered how Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant crawled inside my mind and figured out exactly how I felt as an awkward teenager.

Peachcake - The Chain Letter EP

I literally could not purchase this CD fast enough. It was from the first promising young Arizona band since The Format (I hated The Format at the time. They hadn't released Dog Problems yet, so I was partially justified) and it seemed like something substantial. I tend to really enjoy synthpop and the closely-related genre of indie electronic. Peachcake is a little of both, but they ultimately end up sounding like a bit of a gimmick rather than a serious band with long-term aspirations.