Departure and Farewell

Hem has released their fourth album, Departure and Farewell. Given some cryptic messages on their Facebook page, I gathered the band was in trouble, and they have since confirmed they nearly broke up. Instead, the band soldiered on to make a new album.

Tourniquet, the fittingly named lead single shown above, is simply gorgeous. Had it been their swan song, it would have been as fine an exit as one could have asked for. Thankfully, it was not. More thoughts later, but my first impression is that it’s not quite up there with Rabbit Songs or Eveningland, but roughly on par with Funnel Cloud.

03.04.2013 • Permalink



Julian Smash!

I’ve always preferred Julian Bream to John Williams. This cover is part of the reason why.

19.02.2013 • Permalink

Susanna Hoffs’ new album, Someday, is a charmingly breezy affair. Her first solo outing, When You’re a Boy, hid her pop classicism under an uneccessary layer of plastic, whereas the production of Someday is suitably low-key, allowing the songs to shine. Musically, it’s hardly a revolutionary affair, and I sometimes miss the the added bite of The Bangles (on fine display on 2011’s Sweetheart of the Sun). No matter: if you enjoy retro-tinged Californian pop as much as I do, you won’t be disappointed with Someday. (Spotify link: Susanna Hoffs – Someday)

07.08.2012 • Permalink

Bad ideas

The reason Lulu is so terrible is because the people making this music clearly don’t care if anyone else enjoys it. Now — if viewed in a vacuum — that sentiment is admirable and important. But we don’t live in a vacuum. We live on Earth. And that means we have to accept the real-life consequences of a culture in which recorded music no longer has monetary value, and one of those consequences is Lulu.

Chuck Clostermann isn’t terribly impressed by the Metallica / Lou Reed collaboration Lulu. Also:

I’m glad Metallica and Reed tried this, if only because I’m always a fan of bad ideas.

Clostermann makes an interesting point about the de-monetization of music. Read the whole thing, it’s worth it.

25.10.2011 • Permalink

Ben Folds: Way To Normal

Being a Ben Folds fan isn’t always easy. He’s either considered too smug or too lame, and as a fan, you get lumped right in there with him. Still, his first three albums, recorded with the Ben Folds Five (there were only three of them – oh, those ironic nineties), somehow straddled the great divide between snarky and affecting. Novelty songs such as “Song for the dumped” resonated with every guy who’s been let go. It’s not a very good song, but it has a kind of emotional resonance that comes with tapping into something primal. “Underground” recognized and poked fun of our attempts to eke out an identity via subcultures (you have little trouble imagining Folds with a mullet), and “Brick” is probably the loveliest song written about being a self-absorbed asshole. The reason Folds gets away with it, is that he is not his songs – he’s a good storteller, and I think (hope) he’s smart enough to recognize his own flaws in the way many of his characters don’t.

Yet for all the jokey moments, Folds’ songcraft is also sharp and affecting, because: 1) he’s a supremely gifted tunesmith, with a McCartney-esque way of knocking out a memorable melody, and 2) He writes insightfully about the everyday stuff most normal people know and live. I defy anyone to listen to, say, “Fred Jones, pt 2” and not be moved in the slightest.

But with his second solo effort, “Songs for Silverman”, he seemed to have lost his way. It was a fine album, I suppose: Well-produced and as immaculately arranged as ever. (This is one of Folds’ best tricks – he’s so adept at writing sophisticated arrangements that lesser efforts like “Stan” and “Zak and Sara” seem far better than they really are). But it also felt like a dead end – there was little passion to be found, and the oddball observations and sly humor that gave his songs their heft had somehow fallen by the wayside. Regretfully for the listener, Ben Folds seemed…happy. I can count the times I have listened to “Songs for Silverman” on one hand and still have fingers to spare. (In fairness, in the course of crafting this note, I had to move up to two hands. Maybe it’s a grower…albeit a very slow one.)

So I was eager to hear what his new album was like. Several reviewers has marked it a return to form, which did little to lessen my excitement, even though I should know better. But – and I really hate myself for writing this – when I read that his marriage had ended and that this album largely came out of that, I could sort of believe it.

The album opener, “Hiroshima” (B-b-benny hits his head)”, signals that Folds the smart-aleck is back. Referencing Elton John’s “Benny & the Jets”, “Hiroshima” is the tale of Folds hitting his head as he goes on stage in Japan. “There’s blood on the keyboard…oh my God” he laments, then squirms in full view of his audience: “They’re watching me fall”. It’s a good example of Folds turning fluff into something more: A driving beat, Folds beating the hell of his piano, and loud background vocals that drive the song forward. It’s a fairly propulsive kick-off, and carries through to the next song, “Dr. Yang”, where the heartbreak begins. “Tell her that I love her so / she hurt me more than she could know”.

On the “Frown Song” Folds returns to character studies, writing snarkily about hipsters and their affectations. It’s not unlike something the Fountains of Wayne would come up with. Like “Dr. Yang”, however, it’s not terribly inspired, though, and musically and lyrically plods along.

The fourth song in, and also the first single, is where it really picks up: “You Don’t Know Me” is just a great pop track. A marching beat, sharp strings and interweaving voices smartly drifting back and forth between Folds and Regina Spektor’s guest vocals all add up to a very enticing pop cocktail; lyrically, Folds returns to the self-doubt that always infused his best songs: “Why the fuck would you want me back / Maybe it’s because / you don’t know me at all”.

In the song “Cologne”, he exlores a failing relationship further, as he counts down plaintively: “4…3…2…1…I’m letting you go” and later adds: “I will let you go if you will let me go.” It’s another beatifully scored song, and seems almost like a companion piece to “The Luckiest” from his first solo album (one of the most beautiful love songs), as Folds mentions reading about the astronaut who drove 18 hours to kill her beau, which again sounds like something from a Ben Folds-penned song.

Folds claimed in an interview that “Way To Normal” isn’t a break-up album, but that seems hard to believe. The largely tuneless “Free coffee” does little to dispel those suspicions. “When I came back, I had an ex-wife, kids, boxes full of photographs”…still, it’s mosty a set-up for the spoken word intro to the lovingly titled “Bitch went nuts”. It’s another half-novelty tune, related to “Song for the dumped”. Folds once again uses his piano more as a percussive instrument than actual piano here, and the fuzzed-out bass and drums brings the sound of the early Ben Folds Five back.

The album, I should add, is blissfully short, running a pert 40 minutes. Only one song hits the 5-minute mark, and that is the lovely “Cologne”; the rest are around three and a half minutes. There’s something to be said for economy in pop songs, and Folds doesn’t wear out his welcome. (Roger Joseph Manning Jr.’s two solo efforts are both brilliant, but most of the songs seem to run that extra verse longer than they maybe should.)

Like I said in the beginning, it’s not always easy being a Ben Folds fan. When he finds the right balance between the snarky and the affecting, his songs are near-perfect. Of course, part of his appeal is precisely a willful descent into immaturity; Folds doesn’t pretend to always keep a stiff upper lip and stoically face the empty side of the bed; who truly does? Life hurts sometimes, and we don’t always react as gracefully as we should. Folds is an honest chronicler of our foibles, and while “Way To Normal” isn’t quite the return to form I would have wanted – it’s too uneven overall – but it’s a good stride in the right direction, and one I easily can live with.


04.10.2008 • Permalink

Rust in Piece

Poor old Dave Mustaine. In 1982, he was unceremoniously booted out of his first band for excessive drinking and drug abuse. He was furious, and got his act together, at least enough to start Megadeth; one of the seminal trash-metal bands, they quickly climbed to the pantheon of gods of such matters. His achievements were impressive, yet it was as much to get back at his old bandmates as for his own glory. After conquering the world, selling millions of albums and being hailed as one of the great innovators of the genre, one could forgive his former band for regretting his termination — unless, of course, that band happens to be Metallica.

In the recent Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster, Mustaine admits that being booted out of that band was the worst day of his life. But, to be quite honest, I can’t say that I’m too broken up over dave’s predicament. After all, there’s nothing that says the sum of these parts would have amounted to something greater than the sum of what we already had. And let’s face it, if Mustaine was still with them rather than in Megadeth, we the public would likely have been cheated of both Rust in Peace and Countdown to Extinction. And that, dear reader, would be a loss: It’s difficult for me to verbalize exactly what it is about Rust that I find appealing, but I suppose that to summarize, I could say: Holy flippin’ fuck!!!

The first time I heard Holy Wars, I was bowled over. I mean, holy Christ, what was that?! The cascading guitars, the thundering drums and Mustaine’s pained yelping over it all — this was unlike anything I’d heard before. It was great. Unlike most of their peers, Megadeth always seemed to have sly sense of humour about them, as if they knew it was partly a joke. Hangar 18, whilst also swirling like a dervish (I’m told dervishes swirl) also deftly anticipates the X-files, with its space ships and hidden fortresses. One supposes that the lyrics as such is unimportant — the skill on display renders lyrical shortcomings irrelevant anyway — also, Mustaine is too smart a guy — and too funny — to really take this stuff all that seriously.

Thrash metal mostly did away with ghost n’ goblins and all that fairy bollocks that thanks to the hippies were the lyrical pinnacle, (At least until Limp Bizkit came around and it was all suburban angst, all the time.) and Mustaine always did have a knack for a political lyric. I won’t claim he’s written great poetry, but still: Bob Dylan wrote his share of clunkers, and given the choice, I’d go for this sort of technicolour extravaganza over early Dylan monochrome dirges most days. Mustaine sings lines like “Don’t look now/to Israel/it might be your homeland” with an urgency that belies the sometimes clumsy lyrics. And a line like “They killed my wife and my baby/first mistake/last mistake” is more clever than one surmises at first look. Mustaine is ppresumably singing about the Palestine/Israeli conflict (Nutshell problem: They’re all nuts. Quick solution: Fence ’em all in, let them fight amongst themselves and leave the rest of us out of it) in a clever way. He neglects to state who’s singing, it could be from either side. While deep analysis of the lyrics might ot yield too much, Mustaine deserves credit for trying to say something more than the usual crap: Hell, lines like “Don’t ask/what you can do/for your country/ASK/what your country/can do for yoooouuu” are priceless. Dave Mustaine, nihilist, flying a bright red flag.

Lyrically, it doesn’t really matter. Sophomoric, yes, but as stated, the music is what it’s all about. Thrash metal does not have trappings in which it’s easy to do anything interesting except play really, really fast. Rust In Peace is such a great album because it is unflappably melodic, heavier than a lead enema and faster than the roadrunner on speed. But the fact that the melodicism is so effortless within this sort of grind is nothing short of spectacular.

The line-up of Dave Mustaine (guitar), Nick Menza (drums), David Ellefson (bass) and Marty Friedman (guitar/big hair) is considered THE Megadeth line-up by most, and it’s not difficult to understand why. We have here the four virtuosi of the apocalypse, and it certainly sounds like it. Weird time signatures, changes in pace, and layered solos that almost reminds me of — dare I say it? — jazz. More precise than laser-guided missile and tighter than a chickens bum, very little can measure up to this.

Megadeth recently came to an end when Dave Mustaine sustained injuries in his hand. It was unclear whether or not he would ever play again, but he’s nothing if not a survivor (the guy’s even been clinically dead! Not one to do anything by halves, he fell off the wagon with a vengeance and died. Obviously, they revived him.). After some pretty extensive surgery and retraining, he apparently can play again. Sadly, Megadeth are to remain a closed chapter. Still, it was fun when it lasted.

UPDATE: Megadeth are back on the road.

07.01.2005 • Permalink

Realer Than Real

The point of “reviews” on the web is obviously to pretend to wax lyrically/blabber about something that interests you and that you feel everybody else should know about, ostensibly making connections and sharing a field of interest with other fellow fetishists, while in fact you are waxing lyrically/blabbering about something you find far more interesting, namely yourself. I admit it freely: I will surely be guilty of the same. A random anecdote seems far more pointed if it’s presented along with something seemingly substantial. That’s how it works on the world wide web, for better or (mostly) worse.

Anyway, like many boys growing up in the 80’s, I had a major crush on Belinda Carlisle. And Susanna Hoffs (all of the Bangles, actually, except for the big, tall one), but that’s a different review for later. I never liked Madonna much, so there you go. As anyone can tell you, Belinda Carlisle is a major babe. While Samantha Fox rather forcefully dragged us into puberty in the mid-80s with Touch Me, a track only slightly subtler than Je T’Aime, Belinda represented something slightly more sophisticated, making impending adulthood less frightening. I won’t divulge any secret fantasies I had (and still have) and I am convinced you, my dear reader, will be all the better for it. Belinda obviously had two monster hits with Circle in the Sand and Heaven is a Place on Earth. Suddenly, after slogging around the early ‘80s punk scene with the seminal Go-Go’s, and overcoming the usual addictions, she was a major star. She followed that album with Runaway Horses which in my humble opinion is a MOR masterpiece. Sure, it’s overproduced, but it’s still great. Leave a Light On even features the late, great Dark Horse himself, George Harrison, MBE, on slide guitar. Then followed her third solo album, Little Black Book aside, a relentlessly dull affair, completely lacking in songs, a rather jarring problem for any musician (unless you’re like Fugazi; too hard for tunes). As I remember it, it didn’t do much for anyone, myself included, and sank quietly. Myself, I was busy discovering AC/DC, Metallica, Jellyfish and the like. A greatest hits compilation followed, a perfectly servicable affair, but ultimately begging the question “can songs be this nice?”.

Then, in 1993: Real. Welcome!

Yes, Real is still MOR, AOR, ETC; this in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a myth perpetrated by indie bands lacking sales, production values and, frequently, tunes, that accessibility is bad. No, what really makes MOR rock bad so often is the frequent lack of wit and passion, indeed of any kind of vivaciousness. Take Oasis’ debut Definitely Maybe, as an example; it was a spirited affair, hungry and rough, but firmly rooted in a retro vein, lifted (mostly) from the Beatles. Of course, after half of Bolivia’s GNP disappearing up their noses, a promising artistic (note: artistic, not commercial) career fizzled out in a few notoriously torpid and dull albums.

But I digress. Real is a gem, power pop mined from the same vein as classic Cheap Trick, Big Star, the Ramones, the Go-Gos (duh) et al. It’s full of memorable choruses and soaring melodies. The then-current grunge wave seems to influence somewhat the slow verse/loud, big and in fact, FUCKING HUGE choruses. The first thing to strike you is that it’s less orchestrated, opting for a more straightforward guitar pop sound. Belinda’s voice was always a force to be reckoned with and here it’s displayed prominently, as is right. This is a good thing: She pushes her voice far beyond the climes she inhabited on her last solo effort and on some of the songs contained herein, she pushes her voice to a throaty rasp that you just can’t argue with. Check out her wail on Windows of the World, for example, or Here Comes My Baby, where she effortlessly extricates herself from the overwrought stylings of the Celines and Mariahs of the world. And when she’s not busy shattering glass, she delivers her lines with a lazy, near post-coital drawl.

The most profoundly important change was, of course, the songwriting team. Production/writing team Rick Rowley and Ellen Shipley were swapped for (former) Go-Gos Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffrey and some ex-Bangles, among others. The garage-pop edge shines through all the way. Lay Down Your Arms and Wrap My Arms (Around the World) have the sort of soaring choruses that grab you by the throat; it’s custom-made for your car stereo. Man.

Some Go-Go’s show up to play, the odd ex-Bangle, and for some added hipness, guitarist Pat Smear, briefly of Nirvana and Foo Fighters. I have a feeling this album was sort of a warm-up for the reasonably successful Go-Go’s reunion that followed a few years later, when they were finally acknowledged as an influential voice on the LA pop scene. Here, Belinda sounded like a rock chick again, and more importantly, as if she’s having fun.

Real did rather poor business, and is currently out of production, I think, but all the same, I wanted to pay tribute to its inherent great popness; it’s become a minor favourite of mine, resting comfortably among my Semisonic, Teenage Fanclub and Jellyfish CD’s. So now you know. And knowing…is half the battle, says Duke.

22.08.2002 • Permalink