Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Beulah - The Coast is Never Clear

While I have enjoyed all three of the Beulah albums I own, The Coast is Never Clear just makes me giddy. Part of it is the fact that I love the title and cover art to an almost ridiculous degree. The other half of the equation lies in the music. This is the very best Beulah is capable of. From When Your Heartstrings Break it's clear that this is a band with a very high ceiling, and they blast right through it on this album.Just take a listen to a song like "A Good Man is Easy to Kill" and I think you'll be blown away as well.

I think this album is best expressed in the following Venn diagram:

Anyway, this is by far my favorite Beulah album. Everything about it is perfect. If you haven't given yourself the pleasure of listening to "Popular Mechanics for Lovers," get off your duff and do it. Also, bonus points if you pick up on the Magnetic Fields reference.

Beulah - When Your Heartstrings Break

Elephant 6 is such a solid label/musical collective that you could pick up almost any album they've produced and enjoy it. That's pretty much what was at work when I got into Beulah. I had listened to every single Apples in Stereo record, and had given my lone Olivia Tremor Control album a few spins. I just needed some more E6, and Beulah fit the bill.

I planned on enjoying this album, but I didn't expect Beulah to be quite as good as they are. This is some exceptional power pop with impeccable arrangements that border on Left Banke-ish retro perfection. The horn section brings a Bacharach feel to many of the songs on this album, which only adds to the retro-deliciousness already present on this record. This is clearly the work of a perfectionist, and the result is stunning.

Baleeted? Not so long as I still enjoy 60's-inspired pop.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Beta Band - Heroes to Zeroes

As far as Beta Band albums go, this is the most straightforward and pop-oriented as they come. Since I already dropped a Flaming Lips comparison in an earlier review, let's just say that this is Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. It has the greatest crossover potential of any Beta Band album, yet it still remains true to who the band is and has always been.

Oddly enough, a few of the tracks actually sound like they could fit on Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (I'm looking at you, "Space"). Flaming Lips comparisons aside, Heroes to Zeroes is a great listen. It's dreamy and flowing, and yet it doesn't have a single track that even reaches the 5 minute mark (this is the first Beta Band album to keep things so short). If you don't know whether or not The Beta Band is your bag, this is probably the best place to start.

The Beta Band - The Beta Band

The Beta Band doesn't bend genres so much as it folds them into a quantum singularity. Yeah, I'm pretty proud of that opening line, so let's just roll with it.

Anyway, The Beta Band is an indescribable mass of indie tomfoolery. They do precisely whatever they please, and they end up appealing to the sort of people who have heard a bazillion verse/ chorus/ verse songs, and are simply tired of it. They are gloriously weird. They're the Scottish Flaming Lips.

This, their debut album, goes in fifteen different directions at once. It baffles and amuses in unpredictable ways. When I'm in the mood for it, it's one of the best things I own.

Baleeted? No. Not until I can figure it out, which will probably be never.

Benny Goodman - Verve Jazz Masters 33

As far as jazz artists go, Benny Goodman is one of the few (along with Dave Brubeck and Ella Fitzgerald) that I really know anything about. He was the king of swing who turned the clarinet, the dorky instrument for girls who couldn't make it on the flute, into the signature swing jazz instrument. Not only that, but he probably did more for desegregation in jazz than just about anyone. Legend has it that he forbade anyone from dropping the n-word in his presence, and he toured with black musicians (even taking them into Carnegie Hall) during a time when such a thing was just not done. Dude was way ahead of his time in oh so many ways, and has had as much of a lasting impact on jazz as anyone could ever hope to have.

Listening to the few live tracks on this album, it's apparent that audiences simply couldn't get enough of the man, and I can't get enough either. He still sounds hip today, even though some of these performances are over 70 years old. While I actually prefer the Columbia greatest hits compilation to this one, there are plenty of great songs on this album which do not appear on the Columbia compilation. It's worth owning for Benny Goodman fans and Verve Jazz Masters completists.

Baleeted? No. I support this man and everything he has ever done.

Ben Webster - Verve Jazz Master 43

While a great number of jazz saxophonists can equal or even best Ben Webster when it comes to outright wailing, it's hard to beat this guy when it comes to the slow, sultry numbers. When he lays down a dreamy tune like "That's All," you can hear his every breath as his saxophone sighs, quivers, and moans. His instrument truly comes alive when it's taking on the slow songs.

This particular album is another fine entry in the Verve Jazz Masters series. Back in the day, Verve started buying up many of the great names in jazz, putting out quality albums and giving their predominantly African American artists a fair shake in ways that other labels had never done. The Jazz Masters series is no joke. Verve had some of the true masters of jazz in their stable, and this series compiles some of the best tunes from each of these artists.

I honestly don't know how much more quality Ben Webster stuff there is outside this compilation. This album represents the sum total of my Ben Webster knowledge (I try not to pretend that I really know jazz. I only know a few key things about a few key artists). As such, I really enjoy it. You really can't do much better than some of the finest songs by one of the genre's finest artists.

Baleeted? Not when it's the only thing I own by this guy.

Ben Kweller - Live at Lollapalooza 2006

I'm not even sure where I got this live EP. Probably from a torrent if I'm being completely honest. I generally try to support the artists I love by giving them money in exchange for their music, but sometimes you find that despite having ready money, there's something you want that you can't acquire. That's what happened with Twilight of the Innocents by Ash, and that's what this EP is: something I would have paid for if only I could've.

This set came right before the release of Ben Kweller's self-titled third album. There are a couple tracks from the new album, a few classic tracks, and the set closes with "Wasted and Ready," which has been a fan favorite for years. It's a very nice live sampling of Ben Kweller, and it shows that the man is every bit the master of his music on the stage as he is in the studio.

Baleeted? No. And I'll buy this thing if ever I find it in a legit format.

Ben Kweller - Go Fly a Kite

After a jaunt into country which nobody could have foreseen, Ben Kweller returns to classic form on Go Fly a Kite. As a matter of fact, the album opener "Mean to Me" opens with some of the loudest guitar work in the Ben Kweller stable. It immediately shows that not only is he back doing what he's always done, he's still reaching for new heights. If nothing else, you have to respect Kweller's relentlessness.

There are only a couple hints of Changing Horses left on Go Fly a Kite. "Out the Door" and "I Miss You" are a little country-tinged, but that's about it. The rest of the album is straightforward Ben Kweller pop craft. "Jelous Girl" could fit on Sha Sha just as easily as it does here. This is classic Kweller. If nothing else, it's just good to hear him rocking out again. He's really really really ridiculously good at it.

Baleeted? No. This is what I always want Ben Kweller to do.

Ben Kweller - Changing Horses

After establishing himself as a power pop wunderkind on his first three albums, Ben Kweller cut a major zag away from all his previous zigs. Changing Horses is an honest-to-goodness country album. This is The Byrds cutting Sweetheart of the Rodeo all over again...except Sweetheart of the Rodeo is a much better album.

The major problem with this album mirrors the problem in much of Alex Chilton's solo work. Chilton fancied himself a soul man, but he has the voice of a power pop genius. His soul comes off as a bit weak and contrived. Kweller's country isn't really country enough to be played on country stations, but it's 100% more country than anything else Kweller has ever done. The problem is that he doesn't suddenly sound like George Strait, he sounds like Ben Kweller singing country tunes.

The best two songs on the album are "Wantin' Her Again" and "Things I Like to Do," but those are the two songs that sound the most like non-country Ben Kweller songs. Changing Horses is a fine attempt at country, and the album isn't particularly offensive in any way. It just isn't country enough or good enough to make fans like myself forget Ben Kweller's true calling: rocking out to gorgeous tunes. I recommend this album as a curiosity, but not as a replacement for Kweller's other work.

Baleeted? No. This is a fairly decent album, even if it is a departure from the things I want Ben Kweller to do.

Ben Kweller - Ben Kweller

Ben Kweller's self-titled 3rd album is a solo album in every sense of the word. Not only did Kweller write every song, he played every single instrument on this album.

I have to admit that I might not be able to provide objective analysis of this album. It came out right as I was dating and getting engaged to my wife. I put most of the songs on this album on mixes for her, and several of the songs appeared on the playlist at our wedding reception. "Run," "Sundress," "Thirteen," "Magic," and "Until I Die" are all just such perfect songs for my wife that objectivity regarding this album is no longer a realistic possibility.

Disclaimer aside, I honestly believe this is the strongest set of songs Ben Kweller has ever written. There isn't a single note on this album that doesn't hit me in exactly the right place every single time. This is Ben Kweller in his most perfect form.

Baleeted? The only way I can see tossing this album is if the wife and I go through a messy divorce and I suddenly find that this album tears my heart out. I don't think such a thing is on the horizon, so this album will be staying.

Ben Kweller - On My Way

This is Ben Kweller's sophomore slump, by which I mean it's only slightly less awesome than Sha Sha. This is still a compilation of great songs with varied arrangements which indicate both the depth of Ben Kweller's talent and the breadth of his musical taste.

On My Way is bookended by teo of the best songs in Ben Kweller's catalog with "I Need You Back" and "Hear Me Out." Considering the greatness of those two songs, everything in the middle should be just gravy, but it's not. It's better than gravy for two reasons: 1) I hate gravy. Saying something is gravy is like saying it's a bowl of heated earwax. Either way I ain't eating it. 2) Tracks 2 through 9 and 11 stand up just fine on their own. On My Way is another fine Ben Kweller album, but it's just a nose short of the greatness of Sha Sha.

Baleeted? No. I think you'll find that I'll be keeping all my Ben Kweller.

Ben Kweller - Sha Sha

Ben Kweller's debut combines the best parts of Weezer (loudness and distortion applied to songs with strong melodies) and Ben Folds (excellent songwriting with a wisenheimer bend). Considering how talented the guy is and how great his albums have been from the start, it's surprising that I have never really met a die-hard Ben Kweller fan. I've spent most of the last 2 decades in record stores and have never even heard anyone really rave about Ben Kweller. Maybe I should be the one to do it, because I love the man's music.

Sha Sha is as much a testament to Ben Kweller's greatness as anything in his catalog. Every song is a hand-crafted piece of perfect power pop. The arrangements are constantly interesting and varied. "Family Tree" could easily be a Jonathan Richman tune, "Wasted and Ready" sounds like a great Weezer song, and Kweller actually sounds a little like Rivers Cuomo on this track. "Walk on Me" could be a hit on any Ben Folds album. "Falling" could have been an Elton John hit in any decade. The album is almost its own mix tape.

Baleeted? No. But I should listen to this album again, and soon.

Ben Kweller - Freak Out, It's...

This self-produced album predates Sha Sha, which is generally seen as Ben Kweller's debut. A number of tracks from this album also appear on Sha Sha, so it's easy to view this album as a demo, but that's not entirely fair.

The audio quality on the album does suggest a demo, but the songs themselves are fully formed. "Walk On Me," which was a highlight on Sha Sha is presented in an alternate and equally compelling form here. Even a song like "I Don't Know Why," which wouldn't find an "official" release for another 6 years is still presented perfectly on Freak Out, It's... Ben Kweller is simply a superb songwriter, so his songs are still compelling even when the audio quality isn't. If you enjoy Ben Kweller's other albums, you'll enjoy this one as well. Even though it is out of print, it is still fairly easy to acquire on ebay, and it isn't as expensive as you'd think. Go get it.

Baleeted? Never. A songwriter like Ben Kweller doesn't come along every day.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Ben Harper - Diamonds on the Inside

As always, Ben Harper puts out a decent album and I fail to see any redeeming qualities in it. I honestly hope that other people are out there enjoying the living crap out of Ben Harper because I just can't do it.

Baleeted? Yeah, just like the others.

Ben Harper - Burn to Shine

Not only is Ben Harper a talented dude, he always seems to have sweet album artwork. Burn to Shine is probably his best album cover. They just look like a bunch of dudes who mean business.

Unfortunately, this album includes the awful "Steal My Kisses" which begins as a "I need to put this on every mix tape I make for cute girls" and ends up as, "If he says steal my kisses one more time, I'm going to find out where he lives and punch him in the face." Aside from that one awful song, the album is solid. And as always, I am unaffected by Ben Harper's music. I still can't explain it and won't attempt to do so here.

Baleeted? Yeah, unfortunately this one's gotta go. Fortunately, "Steal My Kisses" goes with it.

Ben Harper - The Will to Live

Once again, I understand that Ben Harper is a great musician. As a matter of fact, I recognize the supreme truth that Ben Harper deserves every single bit of the spotlight Lenny Kravitz has ever gotten (yes, in a perfect world, Ben Harper gets Lisa Bonet too). Even so, I just can't do anything with the guy's music. It doesn't move me at all. I recognize his greatness while deleting his songs from my itunes library.

Baleeted? Yeah. Sometimes things just aren't your bag.

Ben Harper - Burn to Shine

I feel like I have been giving Ben Harper nothing but chances for years now. I mainly feel obliged to listen to his music because I was once going through the belongings of a close friend of mine who passed away at a tragically young age, and I found several Ben Harper albums in his collection.

After all the chances I've given the man, I think it's time to admit that Ben Harper doesn't penetrate my soul at all. I know he's a fantastic musician. He might very well be the greatest steel guitarist on the planet. Even so, I just can't dig his music. It goes in one ear and out the other. I find myself wishing I was listening to something else while at the same time acknowledging that Ben Harper is a super talented dude worthy of my respect.

So do I like Fight For Your Mind at all? No, I really don't. I can't explain it to myself, so I can't possibly explain it to anyone else. I acknowledge the quality of the man's work, but I leave it for everyone else to enjoy.

Baleeted? Yes, Because I just don't dig it at all.

Cheap Trick - Cheap Trick

Cheap Trick hit the scene like nothing before them or since, unless you count Weezer (which I do). They were half pretty boys rockstars and half schlubs. They were all at at once hard rocking and hilarious (check out "He's a Whore" if you need to know what I'm talking about). They were both glorious and weird and gloriously weird as well.

I posted before about how Cheap Trick is perfectly formulated to appeal to every human being on earth on some level. I absolutely believe that to be true. You just can't say anything bad about a band that does everything so well. They're like Scottie Pippen: doing everything you could ever want them to do while constantly being underrated.

Cheap Trick's self-titled debut is a perfect album. I found myself both banging my head and laughing out loud as the album unfolded. I actually played through this album twice in a row (a rarity because mp3's have given me a sort of musical ADD) because I didn't feel like I squeezed all the enjoyment it deserves out of my first listen.

Peter Cetera - Solitude/Solitaire

When Chicago evolved from the jazzy rock band that gave us "25 or 6 to 4" into the power ballad dynamo that gave us "You're the Inspiration," Peter Cetera found himself in the spotlight. He did what anyone does in that situation: he struck out on his own.

Solitude/Solitaire is his second, and probably best solo album. If you know this album, chances are it's because of the hit ballad "Glory of Love" which was prominently featured in Karate Kid II (a movie which looks better and better with each successive failure to produce a decent follow-up to the original Karate Kid. Yeah, Will Smith's kid, I'm talking to you. Oh, and don't think you're getting off easy, Hillary Swank). Aside from the obvious hit tune, this album is an amiable collection of AOR. Nothing particularly offends on this album, but I wasn't really swept away by anything either.

Johnny Cash - Time-Life Country & Western Classics

I picked this 3 LP set up at a yard sale, which is usually not my style. I find that yard sale vinyl (and thrift store vinyl for that matter) tends to be all scratched up. There's nothing worse than picking through a crate of records, finding one you really want, and pulling out the record to find deep scratches and cat hair all over the surface. I'll pay the extra couple bucks to go to a record store where I know that someone else has okayed the record before I find it in the bin. Anyway, I was at a yard sale, and was surprised to find that this set was actually in fantastic shape, as was the Marty Robbins set I also purchased. Despite the sparse album artwork, this is actually a pretty great compilation.

Yes, there are better compilations of Johnny Cash's work (I really like Love, God, Murder both for its excellent packaging and its thematic presentation of Cash's music) but this is three LP's worth of solid Johnny Cash. You really can't hate on it. The sound quality is generally good, the song selection is about what you want/expect. This is a solid compilation which you can probably acquire without spending too much. Nothing wrong with that.

Johnny Cash - At San Quentin

This is the second of Johnny Cash's two live prison recordings. While pretty much everyone agrees that At Folsom Prison is the better of the two, At San Quentin is nothing to snuff at.

The major comparison point between the two albums are their tracks which were written specifically for the inmates in each respective prison. "Folsom Prison Blues" is an indisputable classic and one of the best songs in the Johnny Cash catalog. "San Quentin" is significantly less poignant and actually comes off a bit trite when compared with its counterpart.

While "San Quentin" pales in comparison with "Folsom Prison Blues" the albums from which these tunes originate are actually neck and neck. As a matter of fact, if it weren't for the difference between those two songs, the albums would be dead even. Don't forget that At San Quentin gave us "A Boy Named Sue," which is as great a song as has ever been written (Shel Silverstein of Where the Sidewalk Ends fame wrote "A Boy Named Sue." Sometimes a Jewish cartoonist can't help but write one of the greatest country songs in the history of the genre).

Anyway, the point is that the difference between the two albums is slight. If At Folsom Prison is worthy of 5 stars (and it is), At San Quentin deserves at least 4.9999999 etc.

Johnny Cash - At Folsom Prison

At Folsom Prison is the quintessential Johnny Cash album because it both encapsulates everything the man was about and captures him in one of his best live performances. If an alien were to land on this planet and ask what Johnny Cash was all about, this is the album you would hand them. It just is.

Johnny Cash was a longtime proponent of prison reform. The man had done some time behind the bars himself, so he knew what he was talking about. When he rolled his show into Folsom Prison, he presented a perfect show for the inmates who were lucky enough to see it. Cash wrote "Folsom Prison Blues" for the occasion, and it became one of his best-known songs. For some reason, the inmates all cheered uproariously when they heard the line "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die." I've never understood their reaction to that line, and I don't know if I ever will. Anyway, if you've ever want to hear people enjoying a concert in a way nobody has since a few corseted dainties passed out at a Franz Liszt show, this is your album. It's perfect in every way.

Badger Postulate #2

Postulate #2: Overweight women do not benefit from having pictures of thin women tattooed to their bodies.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking the husky gals. I'm not a thin man myself. I'm just saying that I've seen an abundance of the mudflap silhouette lady and Betty Boop tattooed on women whose bodies do not conform to that standard. In every case, the tattoo made its owner look worse in comparison.

I'm not against tattoos either. If I weren't already an overwight uncool dude who drives a minivan, I would probably get some ink. I just wouldn't permanently attach a picture of Jon Hamm to my flesh, no matter how big of a man crush I have on him.

The Cars - Greatest Hits

This is the first Cars compilation ever to be brought into the world, and as such it does everything you could ever want it to do. It compiles all The Cars most instantly recognizable hits and does so in a mostly chronological fashion. What more could you want?

Well, I suppose if you're enough of a Cars fan to want more than 13 of their greatest hits, there's their fantastically packaged double disc compilation Just What I Needed: The Cars Anthology, which gives you 40 awesome Cars tunes. Beyond that, you just need to buy all the albums.

Anyway, for a fairly brief overview of The Cars career, you really can't beat this first compilation. Even a fan like myself can't really pass on the opportunity to have most of the band's best tunes on a single platter.

The Cars - Heartbeat City

This is another great Cars album which is almost unfairly laden with hits and/or great songs. "Hello Again," "Magic," "Drive," "You Might Think," and "Why Can't I Have You" are all classic cars tracks. Most of the tracks on this album feature The Cars' perfect blend of synths and guitars. These are the musical fathers of The Rentals, and don't you forget it.

The only song on this album which doesn't really fit the rest is "Drive." 1984 was well into the years of the obligatory power ballad, and even though The Cars weren't a hair metal band, they still churned out a song for high school freshmen to awkwardly shuffle to under the light of a half-dimmed gymnasium. At times I find I really hate "Drive" and its formulaic lyrics, and other times I think it's brilliant. I can understand those who hate the song just as much as I understand those who love it.

Aside from the one polarizing tune in "Drive," the rest of the album is the pulsing synth rock you know and love. "Hello Again" is my favorite track on the album as it conveys the 1980's trademark "is this a happy song or a sad song, I can't figure it out?" vibe. If you're into The Cars, you really should own this album.