Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Advantage - s/t

This is music for only the nerdliest of nerds. Do you like the soundtrack music from old Nintendo games like Mega Man 2 and Bubble Bobble? Have you ever wished you could own versions of these songs performed by a rock band? Allow me to welcome to the wild world of video game cover bands.

The Advantage (named after the NES Advantage, an arcade-style joystick for the NES) is one of only a handful of bands to devote themselves entirely to the performance of vintage video game music. What kind of market is there for such a thing? Much bigger than you'd expect. I bought it, if that tells you anything.

The downfall of The Advantage, and just about every other video game cover band out there, is neither the band's talent nor their ability to effectively mimic vintage video game tunes. They all just tend to have really poor production values. I don't know if this album was self-produced or just locally produced, but it sounds like it was recorded in someone's living room.

Despite the shortcomings in production, this is still a very enjoyable album, provided you are a huge nerd. I was especially appreciative of the Ghosts n' Goblins and Bubble Bobble covers on this album, but it was fun to not look at the track listing and try to guess which game the song came from. I was right most of the time, which is why I'm in the target market for this kind of music. Anyway, if you're a big ol' nerd, you might find yourself enjoying this album.

Acceptance - Phantoms

Phantoms is Acceptance's major label debut. Although it's still better than your standard pop punk fare, it's still a little disappointing that "Permanent" is still the best song on the album even though it debuted on Black Lines to Battlefields EP. Phantoms is okay, but it isn't the major step ahead one would expect from Acceptance's EP's.

Acceptance - Black Lines to Battlefields EP

Despite having a cover that looks like it was designed for the naked apes from Jersey Shore, Black Lines to Battlefields is an excellent EP.  Acceptance stands well above their pop punk peers because they don't sound like another New Found Glory ripoff (which describes half the bands on Drive-Thru Records). They actually have a bit of a Jimmy Eat World circa Chase This Light, which is a nice touch. "Permanent" is the best song on this EP, but everything else is also fantastic. If you ever want to know what good pop punk sounds like, this is it.

Blackalicious - Blazing Arrow Instrumental Album

This was the first record I owned when I started owning vinyl again. It was given to me as a free promo by Hoodlum's when I picked up my copy of Blazing Arrow. I took it to the show Blackalicious performed on ASU campus and got it signed by The Gift of Gab, Chief Xcel and Lateef the Truthspeaker who was on tour with them as well. I then stuck it in a drawer where it got dinged up and developed a light ring because I didn't really know how to keep records in good condition yet. Anyway, I eventually started buying records and the guys at Eastside's taught me how to take care of it, so I no longer commit crimes against vinyl.

This album is exactly what the name implies: just the instrumentals from Blackalicious' groundbreaking Blazing Arrow (go buy it. It's the greatest hip-hop album I've ever heard). While this double LP set was no doubt intended to be used by DJ's, I listened to it straight through. It was an enlightening experience to dig a little deeper into what makes one of my favorite albums great. I could hear all the little nuanced instrumental bits that were buried underneath a barrage of Gift of Gab lyrics on the original album. I can't say that it's better to listen to this album this way, but it was certainly an interesting experience.

Pat Benatar - Get Nervous

Get Nervous boasts one of the best album covers of the 80's. The back cover might even be better than the front (the back cover features the band pulling on the arms of Pat's straitjacket). Even so, it makes you wonder just what Pat Benatar wanted people to think of her. Her first two album covers showcased her sexuality (she only wore the front half of a shirt on In the Heat of the Night and seems to be checking herself out on Crimes of Passion), her third was 80's cute, and her fourth was crazy/dangerous. It must have been somewhat confusing because people didn't know which crowd to lump Pat Benatar with: the rockers or the pop divas. She's clearly a little bit of both, but she's also her own unique woman.

Regardless of where she fits genre-wise, this is another fine Pat Benatar album. "Shadows of the Night" is clearly the best song on the album, but there's plenty of good in the rest of the album. I was especially impressed with "Looking for a Stranger" and "I'll Do It." If Pat Benatar is your bag, it follows that this album is as well.

Pat Benatar - Precious Time

Over the course of her first four albums, Pat Benatar wears more and more shirt. She only wore the front half of a shirt on In the Heat of the Night. She upgraded to a shirt with a back, but no sleeves on Crimes of Passion. By the time she got to Precious Time, she wore a shirt with not only sleeves, but significant shirt tail. Of course there was nowhere to go but crazy on Get Nervous where she rocked a full-on straitjacket. Anyway, it's just a little pattern I noticed, and I don't suppose anyone else will find it remotely interesting.

Precious Time is probably my favorite Pat Benatar album. It starts of with "Promises in the Dark," which, if I remember correctly, is the first Pat Benatar song I ever heard and the reason I became a fan in the first place. "Fire and Ice" really allows Pat to wail, and "Helter Skelter" is an interesting if not necessary Beatles cover. This album just comes together a little better than the others as far as my ears are concerned.

Pat Benatar - Crimes of Passion

Crimes of Passion is a more rock-oriented album than In the Heat of the Night was. Not only does it have the mega-hit "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," which is one of the best songs in the Pat Benatar catalogue, it also has the somewhat confusing "Hell is for Children" (please tell me I'm not the only one who, based on the title alone, thought the song was anti-children rather than pro-children and anti-abuse).

Crimes of Passion really established what it is that Pat Benatar does. She's not quite a pop diva and not quite a rocker. She's somewhere between Madonna and Lita Ford, incorporating elements of both rock and pop into her music. It works well for her, especially when the songwriting is strong. Crimes of Passion has some of the best songs Pat Benatar has ever performed, so it makes for a nice listening experience.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Pat Benatar - In the Heat of the Night

I am a latecomer to the Pat Benatar party, but I'll never be able to explain why. She just flew under the radar for me for way too many years. I rocked out to Tiffany, Belinda Carlisle, The Bangles, The Go-Go's and many other ladies of the 80's (I feel like a creep saying it that way. I think it's because of that Dmitri Martin joke) but somehow missed Pat Benatar who is one of the greatest female artists of her era. Anyway, I made up for lost time by buying Pat Benatar's first four (and four best) records on vinyl, and this is the first of the bunch.

In the Heat of the Night opens with "Heartbreaker." It's an amazing song that still absolutely rocks, but I can't escape the mental image of Steinbrenner from Seinfeld singing it in the episode where George builds a nap space under his desk. "We Live for Love" is the other major hit on the album, but I was most blown away by the awesomeness of "I Need a Lover," but was sad to find out it was a John Cougar Mellencamp song. Anyway, In the Heat of the Night is a great debut for Pat Benatar. She rocks the weird non-shirt on the cover and rocks all the tunes on the album. I like me some Pat Benatar, and this is as nice a slice as any.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

AC/DC - Black Ice

While Black Ice is a legitimately rockin' AC/DC album, I always feel like it gets a little bit more credit than it deserves just because of AC/DC's longevity and status as elder statesmen of rock (kind of like Bridges to Babylon for the Rolling Stones, the only differences being that AC/DC is actually a good band and Black Ice is actually a good album. Yeah, I don't like the stones).

I honestly believe that "Rock 'n Roll Train," the album's opener and lead single, came about for two reasons: 1) they all decided Ozzy's "Crazy Train" was a good song and 2) They needed another song they could build an elaborate stage prop for. They already had the giant cannon for "For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)" and the giant bell for "Hells Bells" and they wanted a reason to have their stage crew build another monstrosity. Nothing will convince me otherwise.

Anyway, although Black Ice isn't nearly as good as the other AC/DC album with the word "black" in the title (you know the one I mean) it's still a solid effort. AC/DC sounds like a band that has been doing what they do for a really long time so it's best to just step aside and let them do it. I get the feeling that they can put out albums like this for another couple decades if they feel like it, and heaven help us they just might.

AC/DC - Ballbreaker

Ballbreaker is in every way comparable to The Razor's Edge in both quality and pure rock power. Just when you thought AC/DC didn't have it anymore and couldn't cope in a shifting music landscape, they went Wolverine on you (showing you that they're the best at what they do). This is hard rock for people that love hard rock. It doesn't have a runaway all-time classic (The Razor's Edge had "Thunderstruck") but it does boast an impressive lineup of really good rock songs.

AC/DC - The Razor's Edge

As AC/DC transitioned from the 80's to the 90's, they made one significant change that allowed them to survive: they went back to their roots. They got a little lost in the shuffle in the 80's when they were no longer the most dangerous or hardest-rocking band in the land. They righted the ship when they decided to do what they do regardless of what else is happening in music at the time. It's this simple change in perspective that has allowed them to put out quality rock and roll a full four decades after the group formed. As they now stand, they should be able to keep going for as long as Angus is able to duck walk.

Anyway, Razor's Edge is the much-needed long-sought-after return to form that longtime AC/DC fans were looking for. It has the first truly spectacular AC/DC tune in a nearly a decade in "Thunderstruck." Songs like "Moneytalks," "Are You Ready" and the title track are great - if not all-time-great - rockers as well. The only song on the album I didn't really care for was "Mistress for Christmas," but that's only because I don't like Christmas songs on non-Christmas albums. This is a solid album by AC/DC and it marked a big step back toward greatness.

AC/DC - Blow Up Your Video

While Blow Up Your Video is hardly a return to AC/DC's top-of-the-world 1970's hard rock form, it's significantly better than the two albums that preceded it, which happen to be AC/DC's very worst.

AC/DC songs are like jokes in that you have to buy into the premise in order for there to be a payoff. If you don't buy the fact that a rabbi, a horse, and Obi-Wan Kenobi walked into a bar, chances are you won't laugh at whatever hilarious thing the bartender says. If you don't buy into AC/DC's metaphors for hard rocking or sex, chances are you won't enjoy the song. Case in point: "Brain Shake" from Flip the Switch. It's a stupid premise and therefore a stupid song.

Blow Up Your Video is a bit of a mixed bag. While there are legitimate rockers like "Heatseeker" and "That's the Way I Wanna Rock and Roll," there are also duds like "Go Zone" and "Kissin' Dynamite." The songs that work on this album work very well. The ones that don't just fall flat. Taken as a whole, Blow Up Your Video is a better album than Flick the Switch or Fly on the Wall, but it's still a far cry from Highway to Hell.

AC/DC - Fly on the Wall

And this is where the bottom fell out. Don't be fooled by how good "Shake Your Foundation" is. It's the lone marshmallow in a sea of blandly disgusting puffed grains. Fly on the Wall is the absolute worst AC/DC is capable of. I don't know what happened, but I would guess that they were beginning to feel threatened by the metal bands on the Sunset Strip and this is their attempt to out-metal the metalheads. The problem is that AC/DC is not now nor have they ever been a metal band. They're a hard rock group, and yes, there is a difference.

Aside from the lone good moment on this album in "Shake Your Foundation," this album is filled with subpar music. On songs like "First Blood" and "Stand Up," I had to look at my iPod because I couldn't for the life of me figure out what Brian Johnson was shouting. "Sink the Pink" is an embarrassing non-innuendo (it can't be innuendo when you just come out and say exactly what's on your dirty mind) worthy of Spinal Tap. The same could be said of "Playing With Girls." AC/DC is better than this and everyone knows it.

AC/DC - '74 Jailbreak

Between 1983's disappointing Flick of the Switch and 1985's abysmal Fly on the Wall, AC/DC decided to release some of the unreleased material from the Bon Scott era. Even though '74 Jailbreak only has 5 tracks, it still eclipses Flick of the Switch and Fly on the Wall in terms of quality. If you ask me, this EP is responsible for a good deal of the "Bon Scott is way better than Brian Johnson" discussion.

Anyway, all 5 songs on this EP are great, especially the classic "Soul Stripper" and the look inside the life of a rock star in "Show Business." '74 Jailbreak was a timely and necessary release in 1984, but it stands very well on its own today.

AC/DC - Flick of the Switch

Flick of the Switch sounds like an album by a band that was getting tired of itself. It has all the appearance and sound of a really rockin' album, but somehow feels a bit empty on this inside. There are a couple decent songs, but "Brain Shake" is one of the dumbest songs AC/DC has ever written.

AC/DC - Back in Black

Back in Black is simply one of the greatest rock albums ever made. Not only does it distill the AC/DC formula down to its purest form, it proved that AC/DC could keep going for decades even though they lost Bon Scott. Now here's the thing: I know people like to say that Bon Scott is better than Brian Johnson because he was there first and he wasn't part of any of AC/DC's less great albums in the 80's. When people get into it with the Bon vs. Brian talk, I feel like Will Farrell's character in Zoolander. The two singers sound almost identical. Sure, Bon was a little throatier and Brian has a little more growl, but Bon Scott and Brian Johnson are closer to identical than that Filipino kid and Steve Perry are. It's not even a debate to me. Sure, I would have liked Bon Scott to keep on living, but you literally could not go into a lab and create a better replacement than Brian Johnson. He wrote the lyrics for this album and they are absolutely worthy of Bon Scott's legacy. So yeah, Back in Black is a great album and a crucial transition in AC/DC's career, but more than anything it's basically exactly the same as everything AC/DC had done before...perhaps even more so.

AC/DC - If You Want Blood, You've Got It

If You Want Blood, You've Got It is a pretty straightforward album. It's a document of the way AC/DC rocked in the 70's back when Bon Scott was still alive. There isn't anything mind-blowing on this live set, and none of the songs are in any way better live than they were on the studio recordings. 90% of the reason for seeing AC/DC live is the part where you actually see the band. You want to see Angus do the duck walk in his schoolboy uniform. You want to see Malcolm knocking out super solid rhythm guitar while hardly moving or drawing attention to himself. You want to see the crazy props and stage elements. Sure, AC/DC can pull of their music live just as easily as they can in the studio, but that doesn't mean I want to own the music divorced from the spectacle. For the entirety of this album I kept thinking "I wish I was seeing this." It made me want to put on my Live at Donnington DVD. So yeah, as far as AC/DC is concerned, the live albums are strictly for completists and hardcore fans.

AC/DC - Powerage

Powerage is actually my buddy Nathan's favorite AC/DC album. I love a lot of things about this album (especially the cover. I kinda wish AC/DC had never run out of album titles that reference electricity. Oh, and how could people possibly think AC/DC stood for Anti-Christ Devil Children or After Christ Devil Comes when they make clear references to electricity? I don't know how they could have made it more clear without actually naming an album Alternating Current/Direct Current) but I can't say that it particularly blows me away. It's solid, but not great. "Kicked in the Teeth" is the only song on the album that feels truly great to me, and at least half the reason I feel that way is due to the way Bon Scott shrieks "Two-faced woman with your two-faced lies." Anyway, Powerage is good enough to own, but not good enough to be on the Mount Rushmore of great AC/DC albums.

AC/DC - Let There Be Rock

Until recently I had been perfectly content to stay in the shallow end of the AC/DC discography. I was familiar with their more popular albums like Highway to Hell and Back in Black, but I hadn't really plumbed the depths. This is not to say that Let There Be Rock is an obscure or odd album. It's just not the first album most would point you to if they were introducing you to AC/DC for the first time. Somehow I managed to own this album for a few years before ever bothering to listen to it. Shame on me because Let There Be Rock is some of AC/DC's finest work in the 70's.

Here's the thing about AC/DC: they have a tried and true formula for making great rock. They take big chords, throw some distortion on them, and toss in some lyrics about one of the following: 1) Causing trouble 2) Rocking really hard 3) Loose women. So yeah, that's pretty much it. The funny thing is that even though AC/DC's music is ostensibly simple, nobody else is able to do it like they do, and their formula has proven that it still works nearly 40 years after they invented it. Anyway, Let There Be Rock has great songs about causing trouble in "Bad Boy Boogie" and "Problem Child," a great song about rocking hard in "Let There Be Rock," and great songs about loose women in "Go Down" and "Whole Lotta Rosie." While it isn't as iconic as Highway to Hell or Back in Black, Let There Be Rock is a solid chunk of 70's hard rock that should please any fan of the genre.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A.F.I. - The Art of Drowning

This is the album that happened right before Sing the Sorrow, and while it foreshadows how A.F.I. would fall out of my good graces (and into the good graces of everyone else on the planet. It's more about me being weird than the rest of the planet being wrong) it's still pretty much the same old A.F.I. punk. This album's release was preceded by three EP's which were increasingly obsessed with the macabre. While A.F.I. has always had at least a passing interest in death and goth iconography, they really started to turn a corner on this album in terms of lyrical content. The construction of the songs is still more punk than goth, something that would change on Sing the Sorrow. So yeah, this is pretty much the last hurrah for the A.F.I. I knew and loved.

As far as I'm concerned, this is the best thing A.F.I. has ever done. The songs on this album are not all superfast no-holds-barred punk, as it was with previous A.F.I. albums. They mix things up a bit, but don't really stray too far outside the confines of whatever it is that makes punk punk. A song like "The Despair Factor" is a far cry from "Yurf Rendenmein," but it still seems like oldschool A.F.I. Anyway, this is the best A.F.I. album in the world, at least according to the guy who prefers what they were to what they are.

A.F.I. - Answer That and Stay Fashionable

I tend to hate that guy who claims to be on every trend before it hit the big time. I have only done this a couple times, both completely by accident. Of course I have bragged about it and hated on anyone who wasn't there from the start. I'm nothing if not a massive hypocrite. Anyway, I saw A.F.I. on the 2001 Warped Tour and was blown away by them. Davey Havok was dressed in tight black leather like he was The Crow or something, and the band absolutely brutalized the crowd (that's a good thing in punk). It was one of the most crazy shows I had ever seen, and I had seen dozens of punk shows by that time. Anyway, I got right onto the A.F.I. bandwagon. They were hardcore and I loved them for it. A couple years later they went sort of goth/alternative with Sing the Sorrow and I hated it. I wanted them to be a punk band for the rest of their lives, but apparently that wasn't on their agenda. Because Sing the Sorrow was a major commercial breakthrough for the band, I was able to play the "they sold out" card. As everyone in the world jumped on the Sing the Sorrow bandwagon, I found myself as the only guy in the world who liked them better as a punk band. I've given it plenty of chances, and I just don't like Sing the Sorrow. It's not that I don't like goth things because I've seen Depeche Mode in concert, I love The Cure, and I own Clan of Xymox on vinyl. I'm goth in every way except the funny pants and makeup. So yeah, after the dust has settled, I don't know why I don't like Sing the Sorrow. I just don't.

That said, Answer That and Stay Fashionable is exactly what I like from A.F.I. They included soundbites from random movies on this album, so it feels like a punk mix-CD from the late 90's (did you guys ever do the thing where you put weird .wav quotes and stuff in-between songs? It was all part of being awesome in the late 90's). The songs are a blur of furiosity (also a good thing in punk) and don't let up for a single moment. As I hear these songs, I am always transported back to that violent mosh pit in 2001 where I first heard A.F.I. It makes me more happy than straight up punk should.

a-ha - The Definitive Collection

Okay, it's weird that I've reviewed a few a-ha albums and haven't yet mentioned that Morten Harket, lead singer of a-ha, totally looks like Patrick Swayze. Seriously, look at that picture and tell me you don't see Swayze.

Anyway, this album compiles a-ha single dating from their former synthpop days all the way into their elder statesmen of Euro rock years (no seriously, they get a lot of props in Europe. Bands like Keane and Coldplay cite them as major influences). If you want an overview of a-ha's career, this is a good place to start. It's not necessary if you own most of their studio albums, but that could be said of almost all compilations.

a-ha - East of the Sun, West of the Moon

This is simply the very best a-ha album ever made (and no, it's not the one with "Take On Me." I tend to compare this album to U2's Joshua Tree in my mind. Joshua Tree had "Where the Streets Have no Name," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," and "With or Without You" as the three songs that are so great that they absolutely eclipse everything else on the album. East of the Sun, West of the Moon has "Crying in the Rain" (yes, an Everley Brothers cover), "Slender Frame," and "Waiting for Her" which, though not sequential, still eclipse everything else on the album. Joshua Tree has "Running to Stand Still," and "In God's Country" as great songs that tend to be overrated because of how great the big three songs on the album are. East of the Sun, West of the Moon has "Early Morning" and "East of the Sun" filling that same role. Oh, and let's not forget the outdoor black and white photo of the band on both covers. I know it may not be true for everyone, but to me, this will always be a-ha's Joshua Tree. Consequently, it also happens to be my very favorite a-ha album.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

a-ha - Scoundrel Days

Scoundrel Days is much more dark in its sound and lyrical content than Hunting High and Low. It doesn't have a runaway hit like "Take on Me," which is more than half the reason Scoundrel Days is generally less popular than Hunting High and Low.

Even though it doesn't have a major hit (songs from this album did make their way onto the charts, but not even close to the way "Take on Me" did), it's still an enjoyable album. "I've Been Losing You," is the best song on the album, but "Manhattan Skyline" is the song that best foreshadows what future a-ha releases would sound like. Oh, and for some reason I can't stand "We're Looking for the Whales." So yeah, that takes a couple points off.

a-ha - Hunting High and Low

I don't think I'll ever stop trying to convince Americans that a-ha is not now, nor has ever been, a one-hit wonder. Everyone knows them from "Take on Me," and while that is a fine song, there's so much more to this band than just that one number.

Hunting High and Low begins with "Take on Me," and it certainly doesn't end there. This album also has "The Sun Always Shines on TV," which was also a hit (see? I told you they aren't a one-hit wonder) as well as "Love is Reason" and "I Dream Myself Alive," which are better than average 80's songs. Hunting High and Low is a great 80's album. Go back and listen to everything that comes after "Take on Me." I promise there's a bunch of good stuff on there, you just have to be willing to find it.