Friday, March 30, 2007

Gwennie Gwen Gwen

Most of you already know how much I love Gwen Stefani's first solo disc, Love Angel Music Baby. I pulled it out today after an extended absence, and it accompanied me throughout the day - I listened to it walking to and from campus, played "Serious" for my students before class started (I've decided this is the best song on the album), and took it with me to the track. So good!

Perhaps predictably, last year's follow up The Sweet Escape paled in comparison. Many reviewers commented that overall, the album sounded like leftovers from its predecessor. I also panned the disc when it came out, and I stand by that. However, the title track is a great pop tune, and it's been in my skull for over a week. The station I'm working with for a project pulls a satellite feed for overnights, and I've heard it on there at least twice. Even better, the host of the morning show played it as a breaker yesterday, commenting afterwards, "What a great song!" And this is not the kind of guy I would expect to say that about Gwen Stefani's music.

Because this tune has been in my head for days on end, I've resigned myself to buying the album used at some point. The song's just that good. And from what I remember, there are handful of other good ones on there too...but a lot of mediocrity as well. Maybe next time, Gwen.

Here's the video, which is amusing. And of course Miss G is looking fine as ever.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Operator Please

Remember high school? Remember when you were in a band? Remember when you won the battle of the bands, landed a deal, went on tour and brought your popppy goodness to the masses?

Yeah, me neither. I think the bands I was in got paid a couple times, but that was about it. Such is not the case with Operator Please, out of Australia. From their myspace page:

Operator Please began life as a band in the depths of the Elanora high school music block preparing for the awesome-o annual battle of the bands comp 2005. After winning the said competition in front of a phenomenal crowd of 15 and walking away with a box of doughnuts, the band was made as permanent as a permanent marker. We like lots of things from kitties to cheese but most of all we love each other.
And playing music.
And playing shows.
And you.
We'll bring the chips and fizzy drink, you bring the PARTY TIME!

I initially came across a couple of their songs through one of my favorite blogs, Off the Record. They just put out their debut EP, Cement Cement. They've also put out a UK only 7" of another tune, "Just a Song About Ping Pong" (which you can hear on their myspace page and buy via iTunes).

These kids are actually pretty good. The music is indie pop, the bouncy, dance-y kind. They are in the midst of an Australian tour, with a few UK dates as well.

They've even made a few videos! Here's my personal favorite, for "Crash Tragic."

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Operator Please (myspace page)

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

MJ Mix

Following my recent post on Michael Jackson's voice, I've been really going back to those records and thinking about his career. Recently, I challenged Matt to a duel - each of us making a career-spanning MJ mix. This is what I came up with, along with some brief annotations on my justification for the selections.

1. Jackson 5 - I Want You Back

There were a number of J5 songs that I axed due to time. "Dancing Machine" and "Looking Through the Windows" were the two most regrettable cuts. I went with this one because it is hands down the quintessential Jackson 5 song, musically and vocally. And how can you hear this song and not think of the accompanying dance routine?

2. The Jacksons - Enjoy Yourself

The first of three Jacksons tunes on the disc. The Jacksons selections point to my bias for MJs earliest and best dance material. This song is just a fun little number. What kept it from getting cut were those great syncopated brass hits.

3. The Jacksons - Blame it on the Boogie

Destiny is probably the best Jacksons album, and hints at what MJ would do with Off the Wall. I had "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)" in the lineup, but it's 7 minute length had to be sacrificed. There's also a great promo for this, which I've tacked on to the end of this post.

4. Rock With You

Although a great song, "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" is overplayed, so I went with "Rock With You" instead. The synth flute is infectious, MJ's voice is full of youth and energy, and if you recall, he had that great sequin jumpsuit. The first side of Off the Wall is so incredibly solid, it blows my mind. I can't say the same for the second side - I'm not into the cheesy ballad "She's Out of My Life," or the McCartney/Stevie Wonder covers.

5. Working Day and Night

Hands down the best song on Off the Wall, and perhaps eking it way into my heart as the best MJ song of all time. The rhythmic vocal track, the brass, the whole arrangement is just spot-on. This is as close as MJ ever got to doing a James Brown song.

6. Get on the Floor

I recently rediscovered this gem, which is sadly overlooked. While it can be said to be somewhat akin to side 2's "Burn this Disco Out," the latter seems to lack the integrity of this track. "Burn" seems more faddish, but "Get on the Floor" seems more legitimate in lyric and music. The strings are a great touch, and another great vocal performance.

7. The Jacksons - This Place Hotel

When MJ played 2 nights in Pittsburgh on the Bad tour, local (and long defunct) entertainment show Evening Magazine did their entire show on MJ both nights. Of course I didn't have tickets, so this was the best I could do. It was on this show that I first heard a clip of "This Place Hotel," which I immediately loved. It wasn't until years later that I tracked down the Triumph album from whence it came. It's just so atypically dark and weird for MJ.

8. Billie Jean

How couldn't I? That bass groove is killer. I wanted to include the 12" version (which emphasizes this groove even moreso), but I couldn't find a digital copy.

9. Baby Be Mine

The lost classic on the Thriller album. His vocal performance is stellar, the groove is tight (particularly from a rhythmic standpoint) and the juxtaposition between chorus and verse is really interesting. Why is this the one song on the album that gets no love? (ok, maybe "The Lady in My Life" is similarly neglected, but that was at least sampled by LL Cool J.)

10. PYT
11. Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'

The two hottest dance tracks on Thriller. I'm perhaps partial to PYT, but both will get people dancing, I promise you.

12. Leave Me Alone

Partially included for its novelty, partially because I actually think it's a pretty good song. The video, while interesting, cheapens the compositional and performative quality of the song I think. But then, the entire home video of Moonwalker cheapened Michael Jackson as it was such a self-indulgent and self-laudatory film. On the other hand, did you ever think you would see Michael Jackson, Sean Lennon and Joe Pesci share scenes? Me either.

13. The Way You Make Me Feel

Probably my favorite from the Bad album. I love his vocal, I love his layered backing vocals, I love the the bass groove - simply a great pop love song. I've also really wanted to do this at karaoke, but it's way out of my range. There are two songs in MJ's catalog that I think I can pull off at karaoke, but I'll let you try to figure out which ones.

14. Smooth Criminal

Another of those "how could I not include it" selections. I actually remember when this video premiered and thinking it was the coolest thing ever. Although I don't quite understand the lyrics. Is MJ the 'smooth criminal?' If so, why is he speaking in the third person? If not, who is?

15. Who is It

I was not expecting this to be included. I've previously mentioned in conversations that Dangerous is pretty much a dated and not very interesting album. I stand by that remark, but there are bright spots. This is certainly one of them, and also a song that (unlike the rest of the album) doesn't sound *so* 1992. I remember MTV had a contest where people made videos for the song and sent them in. They were all shown during a special, and maybe people called in to vote, I don't remember. But the winner was supposed to get their video as the "official" video for the song. I actually don't think that panned out. The video I remember seeing as the 'official' version was just a bunch of stock MJ footage strung together, but there were some really interesting submissions as I recall.

16. Remember the Time

Here's one from Dangerous that DOES sound totally dated. Taking that into account, it's a pretty good pop tune. Although again - why does it have to be accompanied by this ridiculous video starring Eddie Murphy, Iman and Magic set in an Egyptian theme? And John Singleton directed it? Jesus.

17. Scream

There are three songs that I actually like on HIStory, and this is the best of them. "They Don't Care About Us" and "Stranger in Moscow" are the others, but both of those also have pretty high cheese factors, and I probably like them for sentimental reasons more than anything. The rest of the album is dookie, and this is where I stopped paying attention. I did buy Invincible, but couldn't even make it through the entire album because it was even worse than HIStory. Alas.


Blame it on the Boogie:

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Detroit Cobras

I initially came across the Detroit Cobras sometime last year. I'm not even sure what made me give them a listen. My music geek mind works in mysterious ways. A lot of great garage and other rock bands have come out of Detroit (Alice Cooper, the Stooges, the White Stripes, MC5, Gore Gore Girls, etc.). Also, for some reason the name reminded me of the opening line in "Search and Destroy" - "I'm a street-walkin' cheetah with a heart full of napalm." I don't know why that was triggered. At any rate, this rather absurd logic proved to pan out for me. The Detroit Cobras are now one of my favorite neo-garage groups.

Unbeknownst to me, they do pretty much all covers on their albums, and this one has but one exception, the great "Hot Dog (Watch Me Eat)." That said, they don't pick obvious, overplayed rock and r&b classics, but forgotten tracks and lost gems. I'm now compelled to track down the originals for these songs, which in my mind is the mark of a good cover.

The album's single, a cover of "Cha Cha Twist," produced this fun little video:

The Detroit Cobras also have a new album due 4/24, Tied and True (great title!). Hopefully they'll hit the road in support of the new disc, and I'll be able to catch them live. Lastly, the US release of Baby includes the import EP Seven Easy Pieces. I've provided Baby - buy the cd and get the EP too, ya lousy bum!

So crack open some whiskey, crank it up, and enjoy the weekend.

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Death Cab for Cutie

For as much as I claim to be a music geek, I'm very often a late comer to certain bands, and Death Cab for Cutie is one of them. I was at least aware of them throughout college, but never really listened to or got into them. To be honest, I figured they were to emo for me.

Fast forward to last semester when a student of mine randomly burned me an album by The Postal Service (another band I'd known of, but written off). And I actually liked it. After that, I tracked down Death Cab for Cutie's 2001 disc The Photo Album, and I like it. A lot.

What was surprising to me was how many songs off of this album I already knew from hearing through WPTS. "A Movie Script Ending," "We Laugh Indoors" and "Blacking Out the Friction" were not only immediately familiar, but quite enjoyable, as is the entire disc. I'm not really familiar with the rest of their catalog (as far as I know), but this is worth checking out. And I promise, it's not too emo.

I also can't help but wonder if they took their name from the ultra-creepy performance by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band in Magical Mystery Tour:

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Another post due later today, so check back!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey

For years (at least since high school), I've been fascinated/obsessed with the theremin. I can't even tell you what sparked my initial interest in the instrument. I remember seeing Jon Spencer use one at a concert around 1999 or so, but I'm fairly sure that wasn't my first exposure to this wonderment of electricity. Anyhow, I recently watched the above documentary, and it served to reinforce my interest in the theremin.

The film is great. It starts as a biography of the instrument's inventor, Leon Theremin, then goes into how the instrument has been used over the years. What struck me was that the theremin was conceived and initially used as a legitimate instrument, not merely a novelty (as it's been taken up in American popular culture). Professional theremin players such as Clara Rockmore took the instrument to the concert hall, performing with symphony orchestras and the like. Watching folks like Ms. Rockmore (even in her old age) work the theremin added a whole new dimension to my interest in the instrument. This also made me consider how much the theremin can be made to sound like a violin. At any rate, I highly recommend checking out this documentary. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the trailer on YouTube, but you can view it on the Internet Movie Database here.

Now I need to see the documentary about the Robert Moog and his instrument (he also makes an appearance in the theremin doc).

For years I've been saying "This summer, I'm going to build a theremin." I'm getting a little more serious about it now. I've already started doing research and pricing kits. I will keep you all posted, for sure.

Lastly, given my infatuation with old school video games, I leave you with this gem I found on YouTube.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

"Metal up your ass!"

At a recent late-night gathering, I somehow got to talking about heavy metal with a colleague of mine. Since that night, I've been going back to my roots and dusting off some of those albums from the glory years of metal. When I was in 6th and 7th grade, metal, so-called "alternative" and the ambiguously labeled genre of "hard rock" were basically all that I listened to. Ah, those adolescent Saturday nights spent flipping between Saturday Night Live (when it was still good) and Headbanger's Ball (ditto).

I also recently watched the documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. I actually didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would. It has its moments, for sure (one of those coming up in a bit). And it's true - you don't have to be a fan of Metallica's music to watch it. It was just a bit too much for me. It's over two hours which is insanely long for someone who hasn't listened to or cared about Metallica since about 1992. Watching them make St. Anger in the studio is painful given the quality of the music.

Of course the draw to the film are the band's group therapy sessions in the wake of Jason Newstead's departure. One of the highlights from these sessions is this clip featuring Dave Mustaine and Lars Ulrich. Apologies for the Hungarian subtitles.

This clip strikes me as a bit ridiculous on both ends. We already knew that Lars Ulrich was a self-righteous asshole (most clearly evidenced in the Napster debacle). But that Dave Mustaine has apparently been plagued by his rejection from Metallica twenty years ago seems a bit much, particularly given the success Megadeth has had in the interim. Honestly, I always liked Megadeth a little bit more anyhow.

With that, enough of my babble. I give you what I take to be each band at their peak - you decide.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Review: The Stooges: The Weirdness

Early today I was looking something up on All Music and came across their review of the new Stooges album, The Weirdness (released today). It was an incredibly harsh review. The sad thing is, I agreed with pretty much all of the writer's complaints.

I've been anticipating this album from the day the project was announced. The fact that the New York Dolls pulled off a reunion album fairly well (last year's One Day it Will Please Us to Remember Even This) gave me confidence that the Stooges disc would be at least as good. How could it not be? One of my favorite bands of all time reuniting, recruiting Mike Watt on bass, being produced by Steve Albini? How could it possibly go wrong? I was further enticed by "My Idea of Fun," which has been on the band's Myspace page for a couple of months. The song fucking rocks. It's exactly what I'd hoped the marriage of the Stooges and Steve Albini to sound like.

I rarely run to the store on the day of a release anymore. Generally, it's only with albums by my very favorite artists (Prince, Bowie, the White Stripes, etc.) that I make a point. So today after a morning appointment, I went to Best Buy to pick up my most anticipated disc of the year thusfar.

I threw it in as soon as I got to the car. The first song, "Trollin'" was so-so. Knowing the strength of the single, I was confident the disc would get stronger.

Unfortunately, it got worse.

The music is decent. The Ashetons and Mike Watt lay down some pretty solid rock. Not mind blowing, but pretty good. It pains me to say this, but the problem with the album is Iggy. The lyrics are absolutely horrible. They're incredibly trite, and at times even embarrassing to listen to:

"I hang out at the ATM / I hang out at the ATM / The Stooges fight poverty in secret / The Stooges fight poverty in secret" ("ATM")

"Deep fried / Refried / Stir fried / I'm Fried" ("I'm Fried")

"Maybe I should swallow a little pill / Maybe I should listen to Dr. Phil" ("Mexican Guy")

Wait...did Iggy Pop just name drop Dr. fucking Phil?

If the lyrics are subpar in their content, they are equally so in their delivery. Iggy's voice is rarely on in these songs. As the All Music review notes, it's often flat or sharp. The vocal rhythm is often not quite right either.

Look, I wasn't expecting them to remake Fun House. In fact, I expected that out of 12 songs, 9 would have been solid. But really, "My Idea of Fun" remains the shining moment here. There are other songs that are decent, but nothing even close to living up to the legacy this band holds in rock history. On Zack's report card of rock, The Weirdness at best garners a C (and I think that's being pretty generous).

I'm told that the band's live shows are still excellent. Perhaps they should have stayed on the stage and out of the studio. 30 years from now, this album will be largely forgotten. The original trilogy of 1969's self-titled debut, 1970's Fun House and 1973's Raw Power will remain the band's canon. And rightly so. Personally, I'd like to just pretend that The Weirdness never happened.

Monday, March 5, 2007

sweet soul music

Here's a great album that I've admittedly forgotten about for a few years. Fitting, perhaps, as the album was famously neglected upon its release in 1974. When Luaka Bop reissued it in 2001 however, Inspriation Information was all the rage. And rightly so. I remember playing it often on my radio show when it was rereleased.

What's interesting about the album is that it doesn't sound 1974. It could easily have passed for an especially well executed neo soul album. 2001 was after all, the time of D'angelo's sophomore album (pre-flab, pre-arrest), Maxwell's third outing (what has that guy been up to in the last 6 years?) and Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun. Especially once given the remaster treatment, Inspiration Information fits directly into this context. This is perhaps a testament to the album's 'lost classic' status. He's got a great voice, and the grooves here are simply delectable. I'll admit that this is the only Shuggie Otis album I've heard, but my recent rediscovery has compelled me to explore the rest of his catalog. If it's all this good, I've been missing out for far too long.

(link expired) This is sans bonus tracks. Buy the cd, ya cheap bastid!

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Wherein Your Faithful Narrator Rants About Michael Jackson

Let me start off by saying that I'm not a Michael Jackson hater. In fact, he was the first artist I remember really getting into (yeah, me and 2905832405983234 other kids in the eighties). My earliest memories of popular music revolve around listening to my mother's copy of Thriller (which now resides on my record shelf, of course). Granted, I don't pay much attention to his new music. I liked Dangerous when it came out, but I've come to realize it is one of the most dated-sounding records ever released. Even when HIStory came out, I was only able to find 3 songs that I truly enjoyed. I found a used copy of Invincible a few years ago, and didn't even make it through the whole disc.

But I do love that original trilogy of Off the Wall-Thriller-Bad, not to mention the Jackson 5/Jacksons material (well, most of it anyway).

With that established, lets move on to the rant, shall we?

Recently, I downloaded an audio bootleg of a 1996 Michael Jackson concert. Normally I wouldn't even pay attention to such things, but I was mildly curious, and the great thing about the Internet is that you don't have to be discriminating in your choices. I listened to about 15 minutes of it before I regretted having wasted 15 minutes of my life.

Here's the deal: we all know that Michael Jackson lip synchs a hell of a lot, and has for some time. So listening to a 'performance' of a pre-recorded vocal track is pretty useless (taking it to the extreme, his performance of "Stranger and Moscow" seems to be lifted straight from the album, complete with his own backing vocals!). But of course, MJ also sings a handful of his set live. So maybe that would make such a listen worthwhile, right?


His live vocals are fucking atrocious. He's alternately hyperventilating, missing lines, and trying to sing but more accurately grunting what lyrics he can get out. The classic defense is "Oh, but he's doing all of that dancing, so he's out of breath, yatta yatta yatta." Fine, but then a) why bother singing live? Everybody knows he lip synchs half the time anyway; b) I can think of some other very physical performers who sing live just splendidly c) why was he able to pull it off in the old days? He was dancing just as much then (in fact, he's still doing the same damn moves).

Michael Jackson has always been an entertainer first and foremost, a singer second, and a "musician" (HA!) third. Let's face it, he's not much of a musician by any stretch of the imagination (except his). And I think we can safely revoke him of being a talented singer as well. This got me thinking - was MJ's voice always just an overstatement? So I started doing some research. On YouTube.

What I've found is that it seems Michael Jackson *used* to sing live a lot more than he has from 1992 on. I present you with a comparison. The best examples would have been two of the same song, but I opted against it. One of the songs where this is most obvious is "Human Nature," for which I couldn't find a HIStory tour clip. Another is Wanna Be Startin' Something, but with the Bad tour clips I found, I couldn't be sure if he was lip synching or singing live. So here is a flaw in my little study.

Still, the difference is glaring. In not even a decade, his voice has deteriorated immensely. The first clip is from the Bad tour, 1988 - "Working Day and Night." The second is "Wanna Be Startin' Something" from the HISTory tour, 1996. Sifting through the clips I chose "Working" from the Bad tour because the vocal is imperfect - it's clear that he's singing live. But it's still quite good, particularly in comparison to the HIStory performance. Also, these songs are fairly close in tempo and key, so it's not a totally unfair comparison. Actually, I think the HIStory clip is down a notch or two from the album version (this is especially apparent in the guitar solo). Of course, many artists put their songs into different keys as they age so that their performances can still be up to snuff (Stones and Bowie among them). But it didn't do anything to help MJ's case, that's for sure. At any rate, listen to both and compare.

"Working Day and Night" (1988 Bad Tour)

"Wanna Be Startin' Something" (1996 HIStory Tour)

My final analysis: Michael Jackson *did* in fact have a pretty great voice, particularly for the type of music he was recording in the 1970s and 1980s. But the man's voice is shot. Who knows why. Maybe the oxygen in the hyperbaric chamber? Too much Jesus Juice? I don't know.

Hey, you know who can still sing like a mother?