Monthly Archives: January 2017

Sound ‘Round: Michael Jackson / Prince

The King of Pop and the Purple One, 30 years later

Michael Jackson – Bad (Epic, 1987)

michael-jackson-badThriller is his singular achievement, a monolithic mega-seller that pleased metal heads, pop perfectionists and R&B diehards. It was also the catalyst of his musical undoing, the moment he bought into the myth of bigger being better. Of course there are hits on this scattershot follow up — it’s a goddamn Michael Jackson record. But his aim at repeating grandiosity hinders many of the songs from existing on their own terms. “Speed Demon” stalls in the pits and “Dirty Diana” ranks among the decade’s most sexist hits, a true achievement given it topped the charts in the era of hair metal. Credit producer Quincy Jones for saving the day by reigning in Jackson’s fragile and ever-fraying psyche, surrounding the auteur’s most utilitarian material with crisp, energetic beats, synths that won’t quit and horns to buoy his spirit. For all of Jackson’s failings, be they in the studio or his demented Neverland reality, it’s easy to give the benefit of the doubt due to the simplicity of his message. Things he likes: world peace, self-improvement, and the way that Liberian girl makes him feel. Things he hates: criminals and the paparazzi. Moralizing M.J. will always be difficult. All we can do here is take limited joy in the sound of two studio pros doing the best they can. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “The Way You Make Me Feel” / “Man in the Mirror” / “Smooth Criminal”

Prince – Sign O’ the Times (Paisley Park, 1987)

prince-sign-o-the-timesHis best record was born out of compromise, but what a brilliant compromise it is. Culled from an ambitious and failed project that would have spanned three discs, this curtailed double-album is one for the history books. Unlike many of his contemporaries who would undertake such a feat, Prince cares not for grandiose themes, overarching concepts or profundity. The blueprint is elementary — an icon in his prime with fully-formed sex muscles and artistic gusto struts across any genre he sees fit, occasionally creating new ones along the way. Aside from the live cut that gives love to The Revolution and the summertime jam that lets Sheila E. do her thang on the kit, Prince plays damn near every instrument on every track. Each song is a wondrous playground of sounds and textures from the man who would turn his name into a symbol. He gleefully messes with jazz, gospel, rock, pop and blues as if they were finger paints. The topics at hand — pillow talk, party jams, religious odes and doomsday prophecy — are found elsewhere in his library, but never was he better than this. Justified in his earth-swelling ego, this is an 80-minute victory lap from a man who, even on his worst day, made us all look like fools. GRADE: A+

Key Tracks:
“U Got the Look” / “Sign O’ The Times” / “Housequake”

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Sound ‘Round: Todd Snider / Neil Young

Protest albums from yesteryear for the Age of Trump

Todd Snider – Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables (Aimless, 2012)

todd-snider-agnostic-hymns-and-stoner-fables
Classism is America’s secret shame, a topic kept away from the dinner table by people who view the lottery as their 401k. So consider Snider the humorist-in-chief for schlubs like you and me. His rag-tag brand of folk recalls John Prine and Steve Earle, but his sardonic lyricism and funny bone make him the anti-hero we need. This album capped a mid-life renaissance that began in 2004 after he ditched opiates and features his best material regarding his favorite subject matter. “In the Beginning” is a morality play in which religion is created by the wealthy to trick the poor, and “In Between Jobs” opens with the truism, “If I had a nickel for every dime you have / I’d have half of your money.” He one-ups himself a few tracks later when mocking a cliché regurgitated by privileged folk everywhere: “They say that living well is the best revenge / I say bullshit / The best revenge is revenge.” But give him a golden parachute for “New York Banker,” about a high school teacher swindled of his pension by Wall Street tricksters. “Good things happen to bad people,” goes the chorus. It’s a line so sad and prophetic it will be a fitting title for Trump’s presidential memoir. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “New York Banker” / “Too Soon to Tell” / “In Between Jobs”

Neil Young – Living With War (Reprise, 2006)

neil-young-living-with-warYoung is idiosyncratic and cantankerous, a combustive combination that makes him a spirited geezer and an old kook.  His post-Y2K releases are in his wheelhouse — anti-war and pro-environment — but his obsessions have gotten the better of him. No matter your support for electric cars, does the world need an entire album about them? Young thought so on 2009’s Fork in the Road. But his impulsiveness is also inspirational, just like this hyper-political album released as the Bush administration plunged into catastrophe. Recorded in nine days with a 100-person choir, this is his most urgent collection of songs. With lyrics as direct as the music is steadfast, this captures the zeitgeist in a way American idiot Billie Joe Armstrong never did. His grievances are aimed at Dubya, but he always sympathizes with the little guy, like the soon-to-be-dead soldier who wishes he was home (“Families). “Let’s Impeach the President” states its case well and is a worthy protest sign, but give Neil credit for extending an olive branch to the warmongers. When contemplating who will succeed Bush, he dares namecheck Colin Powell so long as he “rights what he’s done wrong.” Putting “America the Beautiful” as the finale is icing on the patriotic cake. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Families” / “Flags of Freedom” / “Let’s Impeach the President”

Sound ‘Round: Rilo Kiley / The White Stripes

Revisiting their farewell albums a decade later

Rilo Kiley – Under the Blacklight (Warner Bros., 2007)

rilo-kiley-under-the-blacklightAfter three albums in which Jenny Lewis became the indiesphere’s most acidic and articulate breakup artist, her final outing with Rilo Kiley dabbles in the showbiz underground — a subject she mastered as a youngster doing commercials for Jell-O. It’s those experiences that inform a song like “15,” wherein a one-time ingénue turned opportunist is “down for anything.” But L.A. is more than a city of losers, suckers and thieves. For Lewis, it’s a place as vibrant and eclectic as the music found on this, her most adventurous and unpredictable record. Assisting the band in their search for new sounds are producers Jason Lader (Maroon 5) and Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Carrie Underwood). Lader brings the cool in the first half, ditching their trusty guitars while surrounding Lewis’ irresistible contralto with organs, a church choir, and reverb. Elizando takes them to the club the rest of the way, playing up the big beats that sell the humor in songs about smoking in bed and an atheist mother who lets her promiscuous daughter stay out late. This being a Rilo Kiley album, however, there are still breakup songs aplenty — the best one is titled after the deed itself. “Ooh, it feels good to be free,” she sings. The bulk of her solo career says otherwise. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “Under the Blacklight” / “Breakin’ Up” / “Silver Lining”

The White Stripes – Icky Thump (Warner Bros., 2007)

the-white-stripes-icky-thumpThis never sounded like a goodbye because it mirrored everything that came before: guitars galore, Coca Cola color scheme, songs so catchy and immediate they negate their deliberate flaws. Jack White’s weird, brief reign as America’s last great axe man was a product of showmanship and marketing. He shreds with the best of ‘em and still swears drummer Meg is his sister and not his ex-wife. Whatever the title of their relationship, cherish the excellent “Rag & Bone,” wherein the pair rummage for garbage to pay the bills. The song is a playful, ebullient back-and-forth, and a worthy throwback to the era before “Seven Nation Army” echoed in football stadiums. White’s lyrics range from hopelessly vague to vaguely hopeful, but he’s as forthcoming as ever on the immigration-themed “Icky Thump.” Politics ain’t his aim as much as it’s the senorita that gets him drunk and robs him blind. Be it a conquista or poor Meg, women are often objects of disdain for White — an icky trait picked up from the blues masters of yore. Credit him nonetheless for giving her the mic on the song with the bagpipes. “What do I need to say?” the notoriously shy Meg asks. Nothing, he says it all with his guitar. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Rag & Bone” / “I’m Slowly Turning Into You” / “300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues”

Sound ‘Round: Those Darlins / Sounds of the Syrian Houran

Fighters and survivors from Music City to the Middle East

Those Darlins – Screws Get Loose (Ow Wow Dang, 2011)

SCREWS ALBUM 1

I liked this Nashville-based band of country grrrls well enough upon discovering them six years ago. The songs are catchy, the music is punchy and their sassy humor kicks your ass harder than bottom-shelf whiskey. But I wasn’t a true convert until seeing them turn a small Indianapolis club into the center of the universe, thrashing, howling, yelping and sweating the night away. That was a long time ago, before they called it quits in early 2016 and before front-grrrl Jesi Wariner was diagnosed with stage II cervical cancer in November. Her prospects are grim, but she ain’t afraid. However her health situation winds up, let this album — the band’s finest — stand as a testament to the wild spirit that defines her. She searches in vain for her anxiety meds on the title track before telling her man-friend with a one-track mind to keep it in his pants on “Be Your Bro.” With platonic love for the boys, they invite Linwood Rosenburg to make his debut on the kit where he bolsters their bar-crawling guitars into big-time instruments that match their big-time attitudes. This is rowdy music for the gutter rat in us all. That they own their persona with such devil-may-care indifference should inspire us all to raise hell while we still can. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Be Your Bro” / “Screws Get Loose” / “Boy”

Various Artists – Dabke: Sounds of the Syrian Houran (Sham Palace, 2012)

As humanity moves on from Aleppo — a city devastated by deliberate civilian strikes ordered by Putin — realize the crisis goes beyond viral photos of shell-shocked children. While you’re at it, picture the Middle East not as an isolated hot bed of violent extremism but the deeply flawed product of failed Western policies that have affected the region for millennia (Anyone remember the Crusades?). To better humanize that part of the world, dig this irresistible seven-track sampler of wedding songs recorded during the late ‘90s in southern Syria. “Dabke” is the literal Arabic translation for “foot-stomping,” the perfect descriptor for music replete with polyrhythms as meaty as they are beaty. Not one word is uttered in English, but comprehension ain’t the mission. The point here is unadulterated feeling. A traditional reed called the mijwiz appears throughout, droning and buzzing in a way Western ambience never does. The performers — including a breakout turn from Mohamed Al Ali — chant, grunt and ad-lib in the spirit of James Brown. There’s call-and-response for blues lovers and four-on-the-floor bangers for the club crowd. The music is totally foreign yet completely familiar, and I can’t get enough of it. Only 1,000 physical copies exist, so act fast to add one to your library. For everyone else, search your preferred streaming outlet. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “Mili Alay (Sway to Me)” / “Love is Not a Joke” / “Your Love Made My Head Hurt”