Monthly Archives: January 2016

Sound ‘Round: Weezer / Fountains of Wayne

Twenty years of girl problems

Weezer – Pinkerton (Geffen, 1996)

weezer pinkertonRivers Cuomo embellishes his anti-rock star persona because he’s smart enough to understand he’s no such thing. His verses often reconcile unwanted fame with the plight of the every-nerd. So when he begins his best album by claiming to be tired of the loveless sex that comes with the job, know he’s not being cute. “Why can’t I be making love come true?” he asks after one-off affairs with Denise and Louise. That quest for lasting affection fuels this raw, under-produced classic. Written during the fallout from their blue-album afterglow, the lyrics lean dark. Nothing is so morose as “Across the Sea,” where a letter from a Japanese fan leads him to ponder her wardrobe and masturbation habits. You’re right to feel uncomfortable, just like you’re right to chuckle a few songs later when his ideal woman turns out to be a lesbian. Though we don’t know if he takes his “El Scorcho” muse to that Green Day concert, we know he offers amends to all the women he’s wronged, or simply annoyed, on the finale. “I did what my body told me to / I didn’t mean to do you harm.”  We don’t have to accept his apology, but we should give him credit for trying. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “El Scorcho” / “Pink Triangle” / “Across the Sea”

Fountains of Wayne – Fountains of Wayne (Atlantic, 1996)

fountains of wayne 1996Before Stacy’s mom gave them a wet dream and their only radio hit, Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger churned out this debut replete with the signature empathy, humor and bashfulness they would later master. They’re only a band in theory here. Without the full-time drummer and lead-guitar man who arrived soon after release day, the duo share songwriting credits and split much of the rest save vocals (Collingwood) and drum duties (Schlesinger). This fits the standard rock-pop formula — power chords and steadfast choruses. What endears them other than their melodic know-how is concern for the well being of women. “Sick Day” sympathizes with a “hell of a girl” who fights professional boredom and an uncooperative copy machine. More pressing is the nameless female on “She’s Got a Problem” who is “a danger to herself” due to substance abuse. Their deft lyricism honors  the real-world subject matter they relish and counteracts their distanced point of view. Exhibit A as to why they don’t get too close  despite their best intentions comes on “Leave The Biker,” wherein a leather-clad dunce has his arm around every man’s dream. “I wonder if he ever has cried cuz he couldn’t get a date for the prom,” they ponder. Probably not. But you know they have. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Sink to the Bottom” / “Sick Day” / “I’ve Got a Flair”

Sound ‘Round: Sonic Thoughts Ep. 18 – The (Podcast) Force Awakens

star warsJon R. LaFollette returns to the pop-culture podcast world with his newest episode with artist/writer Dave Beauchene. The pair discuss Star Wars, lack of diversity at the Oscars, critique Mad Max, discuss Leo’s lack of Oscar gold and more!

Podcast was edited by Scott Raychel.

Sound ‘Round: The Chills / David Bowie

A comeback and a farewell

The Chills – Silver Bullets (Fire, 2015)

the chills silver bulletsMartin Phillipps is a survivor. Though his decades-long career found him leading New Zealand’s greatest band, his life is marred by tragedy and excess. Drummer Martyn Bull died of leukemia in 1983, constant turnover resulted in 28 different band members and a litany of drugs left Phillipps with stage four Hepatitis C. Despite the grief, his first album since 1996 doesn’t want pity. Phillipps instead seeks forgiveness and redemption. However, his aim is more personal than spiritual. He’s doesn’t beseech Yahweh to save humanity on the song regarding climate change, but Gaia, Greek goddess of the Earth. More touching than his knowledge of mythology is “Tomboy,” wherein he apologizes to a childhood classmate who demonstrates the feminism he admires as an adult. Expressing sympathy for fellow plebeians is endearing, but belies an embattled songwriter with plenty of angst left. “Pyramids” — as in pyramid schemes — decries corporate greed while “Underwater Wasteland” uses aquatic imagery (Plesiosaurs!) to empathize with the world’s poor. Best yet is “America Say Hello,” which mocks Uncle Sam’s shoot-first foreign policy agenda. Ill but invigorated, Phillipps goes down swinging against the prophets of doom whose world-wide oligarchy will reign long after he’s dead.
GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “America Says Hello” / “Tomboy” / “Silver Bullets”

David Bowie – Blackstar (Columbia)  

David Bowie - BlackstarBowie was always an uncompromising weirdo. Whether expanding the parameters of Brit-rock, pioneering punk or redefining pop, unpredictability was the common thread throughout his life and music. It’s fitting this final album is his most avant-garde in 30 years. Recorded while suffering from liver cancer and released two days before he succumbed to it, these seven songs are driven by one dichotomy. The lyrics have a singular fascination with the macabre while the music, challenging and dynamic, is unbounded — zig-zagging through free jazz, neo-soul and middle eastern chants. The most demanding song is the opening title track — a 10-minute suite composed of daemonic hymns, goth-pop attitude and a prophecy regarding his pending death. “Something happened on the die he died / Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside / Somebody else took his place and bravely cried.” He outdoes himself on the finale, the most profound goodbye in the history of rock. “Seeing more and feeling less / Saying no but meaning yes / This is all I ever meant / That’s the message that I sent.”  Though Bowie is frail and near death, his artistic purpose remains resolute. His final words are somber, but rightly so. When I play this record in 50 years, they’ll still drop me to my knees with grief. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Lazarus” / “I Can’t Give Everything Away” / “Blackstar”

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This article appears in the Jan. 15, 2016 edition of The Monitor. 

Sound ‘Round: Selena / Rough Guide to Rare Latin Groove

A Hispanic icon and a few lost Latin gems

Selena – Amor Prohibido (EMI Latin, 1994)

Selena - Amor ProhibidoSelena Quintanilla-Perez’s rags-to-riches story is nothing new to rock ’n roll. What separates her from Hendrix, Cobain and other musical martyrs is her Hispanic womanhood. History-framing and Tejano music are often male-dominated endeavors, but Selena’s murder created a rare moment of posthumous iconography for a woman of color. Her heritage petrified record execs, but it endears her to an audience — composed mostly of women — who annually celebrate her life in the city where she eternally rests, Corpus Christi. She died at the age of 23 with four Spanish-language albums to her name. From such a limited library, this final release is the best because it summarizes everything she is: romantic, charming and ebullient. No song here is more playful than the reggae-cumbia mesh of “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” but her vocal talent is better employed on the forbidden love of the title track. There, she harbors husband and band mate Chris Perez from the ire of her overbearing father. Her seductive alto is at an expressive peak and is as strong as her desire for a crossover hit. She comes close on “Fotos Y Recuerdos,” which apes a Pretenders melody in a simultaneous effort to celebrate multiculturalism and grow her bank account. Such a marketing strategy is as American as apple pie. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “Amor Prohibido” / “No Me Queda Mas” / “Fotos Y Recuerdos”

Various Artists – The Rough Guide to Rare Latin Groove (Volume 2) (World Music Network, 2015)

rough guide to rare latin groove (vol 2)My favorite element of Hispanic music is this album’s selling point. Although I covet hooks above all when it comes to my musical consumption, I’ll settle for sheer visceral feeling as a worthy consolation prize. The tracks offered here are more beat savvy and rhythmically inventive than those found on its predecessor. Each of these 15 selections is heavy on the record’s namesake and light on formal song structure. Just eight tunes come with vocal accompaniments ranging from standard verse-chorus arrangements to call-and-response jingles. The remaining instrumentals rely on polyrhythms and swaths of piano, brass and bass to carry the load. The bulk of the music comes by way of South America circa 1960s. After an opening one-two punch of bar-room mamba courtesy of acts from Britain and New York, comes eight consecutive bangers from Venezuela and Peru. Nearly all borrow elements of salsa’s rhythmic propulsion, but each track varies enough so as to differentiate the sonic palate — Afro-Latin rock flourishes here and psychedelic surf there. I’m not fluent enough in Spanish to parse out the lyrics, though I’m sure Google translate would bring a deeper appreciation. I’m fine with just dancing on my own. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks:  “El Cencerro Shingaling” / “Un Clavel, Una Tarjeta Y Un Lapiz” / “Camuri Chico”

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Sound ‘Round: Babyface / Wes Montgomery

Chilling out with talent from the Hoosier state

Babyface – Return of the Tender Lover (Def Jam, 2015)

Babyface - Return of the Tender LoverKenneth Edmonds earns a living relishing the kind of nice-guy-next-door charm that appeals to moms who wish their daughters didn’t listen to assholes like R. Kelly, Chris Brown or Justin Bieber. This album, his first batch of originals in a decade, name checks the title of his 1989 breakthrough. But where that record sounds like a man hopelessly behind the likes of Prince, these songs breathe with an ease befitting of a careerist who knows how to milk a night of pillow talk all the way to the bank. There are platitudes aplenty — fighting for love, love conquering all and love being the answer — but the lack of lyrical imagination doesn’t hinder this Indianapolis native’s likability or vocal prowess. At 56, his smooth alto and finessed falsetto have never sounded so creamy. And though the subject matter is as soft as his ideal mattress, Edmonds’ boyish charisma lends an endearing element to songs that put women’s needs before his. So what if a line like, “You are the good in my good times,” could come from anywhere. Give the guy credit for knowing the value of stating the obvious sometimes. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Walking On Air” / “I Want You” / “Love and Devotion”

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Wes Montgomery featuring the Eddie Higgins Trio – One Night in Indy (Resonance, 2015)

wes montgomery - one night in indyRecorded in January 1959 at the Indianapolis Jazz Club (R.I.P.), this performance captures the only instance guitarist Wes Montgomery shared the stage with Chicago pianist Eddie Higgins. The tapes were relegated to the dustbin of history until a collector / photographer turned them over to historians in 2012 during the beginning stages of a Montgomery archives project. Released on Record Store Day for a first-run on vinyl, each of these six tracks are slated for future releases in various formats. Montgomery is 35 here, but just two years into a solo career ended by a fatal heart attack in 1968. His playing is as inspired as it ought to be coming from a long-time machinist who played gigs on the side when he could. Segueing from sentimental octaves to furious block chords and sweeping arpeggios, his style emphasizes fluidity and ease without sacrificing command. His brief stint as a backing musician during the late ‘40s pays dividends as well when Higgins and his blues prowess takes a crack at the lead. His playing mirrors and complements Montgomery’s — relaxed but inspired. Not a bad way for a pair of pros to stay warm on a cold winter’s night. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Give me the Simple Life” / “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home” / “Prelude to a Kiss”