The Pale Pacific – Urgency

Every once in a while, I run into a band that is in every way good enough to “change my life” and what-not, but they are so buried in obscurity that really I’m only able to get about 1 or 2 albums from them before they disappear forever.

Such a band is The Pale Pacific.

This is the biggest picture I could find, just deal with it!

Now, as I understand it, The Pale Pacific are considered “indie” and I am not sure how to take that. They definitely produced their stuff independently, and they do enjoy reverb on guitars and such, but if I had to call it anything, I’d call it melancholy pop, something that sounds great on a dreary rainy day, of which Washington state (where the band resides) has plenty.

The band actually started out a lot more upbeat, back when they were simply called The Pale. Actually, if one took the previous album to this one, titled Gravity Gets Things Done, it was more half-upbeat, half-dreary, and very long. I suppose the addition of “Pacific” to the band’s moniker signaled the advent of a new all-dreary sound. The only Pale Pacific album, Urgency, however, is really good for being so dreary.

The album opens up with “In The Sun, Pt. 2”, the first part of which is on the Rules Are Predictable EP, the Pale Pacific’s first EP under that name. Really though, the song is not a true sequel, it’s actually just a re-recording of the original, where driving beats and distorted guitars are replaced with mellow E-piano and acoustic guitar. The song is quite short, and almost sounds unfinished, but serves really well as an intro to what’s coming up.

The song “Sucker Punch” should rightfully be considered the best song on the album, which is not to take away from the rest of the album, but it’s a really good song. The beat is trippy, the vocal/e-piano melody gorgeous (hence my hesitation to call it an “indie” song as they hardly ever feature any kind of discernible melody), and the guitars are reverb’d to the moon. The only thing that keeps me from declaring “perfection” with this song is the awkward bassline that doesn’t really follow anything. I guess it works, but I guess being a bassist myself, I can’t help but imagine it being better.

The climactic ending of “Sucker Punch” brings the album up quite nicely from the murky climate it had established into a slightly more energetic phase, and that is continued with the song “Tied To A Million Things”, which features a sinister wall of reverbed guitar and a crunchy bassline that makes me forgive the bassline from the previous song.

After that wall-of-sound mess (a pleasant mess, mind you), we are then treated to a cleaned-up pop song called “Identity Theft”, a straight-forward song about not getting into a life of crime with your dad. It’s got a catchy beat that the song is more-or-less built around, and despite the fact that almost NOBODY I show this album to ever warms up to this track, I think it’s great. It features some real quick strumming from the guitarist as well, which is always fun.

The album is then brought down a spell by the irrepressibly mellow “Fortune Folds”, which is a track that I probably shouldn’t like because it really does kind of sound like an “indie” song at least until the chorus, where it is really a magical little number. The lyrics are really vague though, but in a way that kind of helps to not pay attention to them. After all, if the melody’s good enough, who needs words that make sense?

Speaking of which, the next song is another more “cleaned up” number called “Your Parent’s House”, which is apparently sung from the perspective of a dude who really hates hanging with his girlfriend’s parents and likes to complain about it for 4 minutes in song. Despite the wussiness of the lyrics, it’s a rockin’ track that is every bit as strong as “Sucker Punch” as far as the arrangement goes.

We then move on to “Written Down”, a straight-forward guitar-driven song again sung from the perspective of a selfish wimp, someone who just had a child but wanted a son but got a daughter and proceeded to be all bitchy and passive-aggressive about it (I am guessing anyway, the whole thing is slightly vague). All in all, a fairly fun song.

The tone is then slowed down for “The Strangest Second Chance”, which tells the story of an alienated small-town friend who leaves her group of jerk friends to drive in her truck until she feels better about a recent fall-out. She then proceeds to fall asleep and crashes the car, waking up with amnesia and doesn’t remember the bad stuff her friends did, and loves them again, hence “The Strangest Second Chance”. Uhh, I kind of told the whole story of the song there, but hey if you like really mellow guitars and a slow beat, you should still give the song a listen.

The next song is more of a straight-up pop song, and I’m as fond of it as the others, but it is put together quite well. “If Only She’d Leave Town” is a song about pushing away a woman the singer feels ambivalent about or somethin’ like that. It is one of the only “upbeat” songs on the album, and maybe that throws it off for me.

The album slows down with “Back To You”, about an awkward childhood moment the singer reflects on. It’s a nice, introspective number that I’m sure many particularly sensitive people who recall their pasts often can relate to. I don’t know any of those people, though.

Finally, the album ends with the epic 8-minute crawl of “Fall To Place”, a song so slow you can sometimes forget you’re listening to it between the beats. I really dig it, and in fact the previous album had a very long ending track too, so I guess it’s a running theme. The song is very sad, and in a way that seems appropriate to the overall feel of the album.

It’s not so bad
When you look back
Keep your chin up
But don’t hope for more than you should

It takes an entire minute and a half to sing that much. There are some really fun low frequencies that drone on in the background, though, so I always wind up listening to this track for the duration. Subtlety, eh?

So that’s the album, and it was probably my absolute favorite album for the entire year of 2006, the year after its release. I was pretty depressed all the time, though, and one tends to gravitate to these kinds of albums when that happens. I still am quite fond of it, and I really would like The Pale Pacific (and maybe their “sister” band, Fair, of whom I will definitely be speaking of alter) to come back to Texas, as the only time they came out this way was in 2005 touring with Dredg, of all bands. I was so impressed by their performance that I bought all the CD’s they had available. Still, such is the curse of “independent” bands, they are almost never independent of the amount of money and time it takes to go touring. Moreso the shame, but maybe they’ll put together another album and tour, I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on their Myspace page to be in the know when they do.

 

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Johnny Cash – Orange Blossom Special

I hesitated at first to write much about Johnny Cash on this blog, mainly because I didn’t want to reveal just how obsessed with the Man In Black I really am. Fact is, there’s not much else I can do to deny it. According to my zune.net profile, since October 4th when I got my Zune, I have listened to Johnny Cash over 713 times, which averages out to about 6 songs every single day. Also, since I have about 30 albums of his (if you count the box sets for The Complete Sun Recordings, Unearthed, At Folsom Prison, and At San Quentin as one album each), it’s a matter of course that I should write about them here.

Today’s album is actually one of the first I ever obtained, the 2002 re-issue of Orange Blossom Special:

Gol'dern it, where DID I put them keys?

Orange Blossom Special fits into the whole Johnny Cash legacy as being one of the string of really successful mid-60’s albums he did for Columbia, when he was essentially on fire, starting right around the album Ring Of Fire: The Best Of Johnny Cash and ending up somewhere in the 70’s. Speaking of fire, the year of this album’s release, 1965, was also the year when Cash’s truck accidentally caused a forest fire, for which Cash was sued by the government, making him the first and possibly only person to be sued for started a forest fire.

All right, on to the album. It starts with the title track, which would become a hit that Johnny would use for most of the rest of his career, and as I mentioned in the At San Quentin album, it features a two-harmonica solo that is really fun to watch (not so bad to listen to as well). It also features a bit of dialogue between Johnny and some really old guy which, according to my dad, was quite the catch-phrase:

Man: Say man, when you goin’ back to Florida?
Cash: When am I going to Florida? I don’t know, don’t reckon I ever will
Man: Ain’t you worried about getting your nourishment in New York?
Cash: Weeelll I don’t care if I do-da-do-da-do-da-do-da-do-da-do

I really like it myself.

The next song is one of my absolute favorites of Cash, a cover of “Long Black Veil”, written by people I have no idea about and am too lazy to research. It’s about a man who is hung for a crime he didn’t commit, but wouldn’t give an alibi at the trial because he’d “Been in the arms of my best friend’s wife”, and the chorus goes:

She walks these hills in a long black veil
She visits my grave when the night winds wail
Nobody knows, nobody sees
Nobody knows but me

It’s a great song and typically Johnny performed it by himself in concerts, which added to the isolated feel of the song. Quite a stunning effect.

The first of three Bob Dylan-penned songs on the album is “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, which is one of the more popular duets Johnny did with future wife June Carter. One thing Johnny Cash always did well was songs about disenchanted lovers, and he’s in top form on this particular track. The song also features mariachi horns, so beware if you have allergies.

The next song is “The Wall”, which is one that probably became more popular after At Folsom Prison, since it’s a prison song. It’s a great song about a prisoner who tries to escape from jail, with consequences strikingly consistent with Johnny Cash songs of this nature.

Then we have another Bob Dylan song, probably one of his most famous since it’s one of the very few I actually know, “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)”. In fact, Johnny’s version is better than Dylan’s, but this is one of the very few times when I feel like it’s not really Johnny’s song, which is probably why he later took the same melody and wrote a much better song called “Understand Your Man”. Such a move might be considered illegal these days, but Johnny Cash was very upfront about whatever music he stole from, heck even “Folsom Prison Blues” isn’t an original tune.

One thing that’s noticeably slim on Orange Blossom Special would be actual Johnny Cash-penned songs. The middle of the album contains 1 of the 2 original songs, “You Wild Colorado”, which is kind of a tribute to one of America’s greatest rivers which doubles as a love-lost song. It doesn’t stick around long, at 1 minute and 50 seconds, but it’s a nice song either way.

Then the third of the Dylan songs (also covered by Jeff Buckley many decades later) comes up, “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind”, which is a pretty good song, and kind of echoes the previously-mentioned disenchanted feel of the previous songs. This one feels much more genuine I think, but that might be because I have never heard the original. The song also features a bouncy saxophone solo, so again people with allergic reactions to horns may take caution and the proper medication.

The next song is what I would consider kind of bizarre. It’s called “When It’s Springtime In Alaska (It’s 40 Below)”, and is another duet with June Carter. It’s kind of a love song that ends badly, as he dances with “red headed Lil” in a saloon in Alaska, but then founds out that she’s “Big Ed’s wife to be” and he kills the singer with a knife, the thing that weirds me out about this song is that June sings the character of Lil and is just completely unaffected by any of it. I dunno, maybe you’ll just have to give it a listen. It makes a lot more sense when Johnny sings it by himself, which I’ve only ever heard on his Personal File compilation.

We then come to the second Johnny Cash original, “All Of God’s Children Ain’t Free”, which is a good semi-political song which serves as one of the many explanations as to why Johnny Cash never adopted the glitzy honky-tonk country singer image, so in essence it’s one of the songs about why Johnny Cash is way better than all other country singers. He’d later drive this point home with the song Man In Black, the album for which I don’t even think has ever come out on CD. Tragic waste, that.

The only track I’m not crazy about any time that Cash or anyone else sings it is “Danny Boy”, which is at the tail-end of the album and is preceded by about a 2 minute spoken intro, which is kind of odd for a 3 minute song. The spoken word part is great though because Johnny does an irish accent for it, and well he’s not known for his accent work. I will say I am a bit more fond of the version of Danny Boy that appears on American IV: The Man Comes Around, not least for the reason that there is a beautiful church organ in that version.

The next song is a cover of Maybelle Carter’s “Wildwood Flower”, which is nice because it’s probably the first “hit” country song ever, but it’s kind of weird to hear Johnny Cash singing it, since it was written by a woman from the viewpoint of a woman, and that’s always awkward to hear when it’s been turned around to be about a man, no matter how expertly. In this particular version Johnny Cash’s woman calls him her flower, see what I mean?

Finally, we come to a traditional gospel song called “Amen”, and it’s a good song, but probably better suited for live shows, as it is kind of stilted for the recorded version, but then again, a lot of Cash’s earliest gospel songs seemed that way. I guess it’s because he got so dang good at them after he kicked the drug habit, that it overshadows his previous efforts. Maybe I’m just too picky about my gospel music? Either way, it’s a good song.

There are some bonuses on the 2001 re-issue, most importantly “Engine 143” which is a Carter Family song about a train-wreck. It’s significant mostly for the reason that, in 2003 when Johnny Cash played his final show, it was at the Carter Family Fold and he ended with this song. Johnny Cash loved train songs, as his song “Like The 309” is the last song he ever wrote. The ending of the song, and thus the last words that Johnny sang in public was “Nearer, my God, to Thee”.

Now please excuse me as I wipe away a single tear.

 

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Muse – Showbiz

In my last post about Muse, it was pointed out that, when I called Origin Of Symmetry the “rockin” album, Absolution the “epic” album and Black Holes And Revelations the “pop” album, I didn’t say anything about Showbiz. So I decided to give Muse’s debut album a spin, not even a week after writing up Origin Of Symmetry. Oh yeah, I’m dangerous like that:

Cor blimey, I stepped in some kind of Photoshoppe thing, what a to-do!

Thing is, when a band comes out with a debut, the only classification that one can really give it is “The best stuff we used to play before we struck oil and got signed”. Bands like Muse who only took 7 years to get a debut album out tend to make for awkward debuts because they had been playing many songs for many years and in many styles, so really Showbiz is a collection of just a bunch of radically different styles thrown together to see what sticks.

Turns out, what sticks are songs like “Sunburn” and “Muscle Museum”, placed conveniently right at the front of the album. Man those songs are hot.

Sunburn” has an excellent if not simple (for Matthew Bellamy’s considerable piano skill anyway) piano riff that plays throughout, and the beat that comes in is also fantastic. Everything really comes together in the chorus with a nice rolling distorted bassline, and the noisy guitar solo would soon become a staple of the band’s more rockin’ hits. Even after becoming the hugest band in the gol’dern world, Muse still throws this one out at nearly every concert, as I understand.

Muscle Museum” is just about as impressive, even if the bassline is basically 2 notes. The guitar makes up for it with a super minory riff that makes for a great hook. This is the kind of song that should have been in the soundtrack to a Guy Ritchie film or something, you know, back when he made good films.

Filip” is a very good example of what doesn’t work with Muse. They can be really awkward with major keys, and aside from that, the entire thing kind of sounds like something hastily thrown together that doesn’t work, like a pancake salad. The bridge is “all right” but not worth wading through the terrible verses to get to. Ok, ok, I’ll stop with this one.

Seriously though, skip often. OK we’re moving on.

Falling Down” is much more like it. It’s a very slow, bluesy number where Bellamy demonstrates just how much tremolo he can put behind that voice of his. I really like this song, and it’s too bad they never really repeated this style. It doesn’t really suit them nowadays, I guess. I am too lazy to check whether this song is a cover or an original, but the lyrics are unusually good!

We then move on to “Cave“, which is a good song but honestly they have done better songs like this. It’s supposed to be a total rock-out song but is kind of hindered by its plodding beat and repressed instrumentation. I enjoy the song (particularly singing along to the chorus) but I can’t help but feel like they already did way better than this just a few songs earlier.

I feel the opposite about the album’s title track, however, as “Showbiz” is slow but not “plodding”, and there is a lot of creativity in the song’s 5 minutes as it builds up and builds up to the first of many excellent vocal exercises on the part of Matt Bellamy. The final note the song ends on is meant to sound like a real strain (he almost sounds like he passes out at the end), and it possibly is, but he performs this song just as well in concert so who knows.  The bass is another interesting thing about this song, despite the lack of a great variety of notes, it sounds like he’s going from an upright double bass to a distorted electric bass, or possibly both. The tone is interesting, is all I’m saying.

Now that we’ve built the song up to a really rockin’ middle of the album, apparently it’s time to tone it all the way down with something that has become quite a rarity with Muse: the slow love-lorn serenade. Yep, even the rockinest rock trio in the world has one. “Unintended” is a beautiful song, too. I really have no complaints about it, except that they never tried to emulate it after this album. Again, like “Falling Down”, it doesn’t really fit in the grand scheme of their work I guess. Gorgeous melody though! Incidentally, the chords used were cannibalized later to make “New Born”, no lie!

The album, at least for me, makes a serious down-turn at this point. One could even call it a nose-dive. We start with the nearly-painful guitar screeches that open up “Uno” (the band would later use EVEN SCREECHIER guitar for the song “Ashamed” from Hullabaloo Soundtrack, just try and listen to that song on headphones). The bassline comes in to rescue the song and provide us with that ever-necessary hook, but it’s like a more boring ripping-off-Carmen version of the bassline for “Muscle Museum”. Now, I make a point not to criticize Muse based on their lyrics, but I have to say that, since there’s not much else going on in this track, that the lyrics are particularly cheeseball. As the song itself says:

This is nothing to me
And you don’t know what you’ve done, but I’ll give you a clue

Then we move on to a song I swear was recycled for parts of a few songs from Black Holes And Revelations. Really, “Sober” isn’t so bad, it just suffers slightly from too-many-choruses syndrome, and this isn’t the 80’s, so marks off for that.  I’m kidding, I don’t give/take away marks, in fact I’m liking this song slightly more than usual while sitting here listening to it.

Escape” comes not to take us away from this album, but to keep us here for another ballad-turned-rock song. It starts out as a fairly nice song, not quite gorgeous like “Unintended”, and then the riff comes in and the song prepares you to rock out, but then it just goes into a heavier version of the ballad, while the bassline wanders off the path and out of the song in that kind of way that basses shouldn’t (this move is one of the main reasons I hate most alternative rock actually). The vocals also kind of do the same at points, I don’t know it’s like the album is tired of rocking at this point.

Then “Overdue” comes in and is just… a generic alternative rock song with a bit of a fast-finger bassline. I mean, this song is ok I guess, but it could be on the radio, it’s so dry. Maybe that’s what the band was experimenting with.

The sound of crickets chirping brings us to the close of the album, “Hate This & I’ll Love You“. It’s not so bad, listening to it now though, it almost sounds like Muse’s attempt to do Jeff Buckley. Given that Muse has not failed to end an album on a “Holy man that is awesome” feel on any album after this, I wouldn’t consider this a successful end to the album.

So there you have it. I absolutely adore about half of this album, and the rest is a mess that Muse made no hesitation in cleaning up for every album afterwards. Albums that, in my little heart, are made of solid gold. So perhaps it’s not that I think Showbiz is a bad album, as none of the songs besides “Filip” are particularly terrible, but their sound grew and matured exponentially after this, so it’s kind of overshadowed by what Muse is actually capable of.

(Dedicated to the dude who introduced me to Muse officially, Justin P8)

 

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John Linnell – State Songs

Is it strange that I’m writing about one of the two Johns in the band They Might Be Giants and his solo album when I’ve only covered one album by the band itself so far? The answer is “no”, not when we’re talking about John Linnell and his sole solo album, State Songs:

It's clear that John Linnell is the one responsible for the fact that there are no pictures of the Johns on any TMBG album

The album starts off humbly enough with a loud (one might say grating) organ instrumental! I can’t remember exactly what kind of organ it is, but it basically sounds like a circus/carnival organ playing inside of a dryer… it could be a player organ, one of those ones with the big rolls of paper with the holes cut in that play the tune automatically, he uses one in a later track. Anyway, I consider “Illinois” to be more of a test, to filter out listeners who might not “get” the album, so that if they hit stop on the album there, they will not have wasted their time listening to an album they’re not going to like. The transition from “Illinois” to “The Song Of The 50 States” then becomes all the more pleasing to true followers.

When people tell me that the songs I write are “clever”, like They Might Be Giants, I always want to correct them and say, if anything, I’m specifically ripping off John Linnell. I don’t think this is because I’m a thief or anything, my sense of humor was on the same weird side years before I started listening to TMBG, but hearing the lyrics from a profoundly musically accomplished person with the same sensibilities certainly inspired me to write out my own humor in songs, in a spirit of “It CAN be done!” Having said that, it is my fondest wish that I could write something as catchy and lyrically appealing as “The Song Of The 50 States”, which acts as an “introductory” song, almost a narrative, of what’s going to take place in the album proper:

I hear the melody, the harmony, the pounding rhythm
The ideas, notes and words
Every state, a different composition
Keeping me awake, late at night
Can’t get them out of my mind
State Songs, State Songs
I can’t wait for my favorite one

Just the “I can’t wait for my favorite one” is such an endearing line, as if he’s listening to this album with you and has a favorite that is coming up, makes my old heart glad to be a part of this listening experience.

After the instrumental introduction and the proper introduction, the album proper kicks off with a groovin’ 60’s-tacular rock tune (and one of the very few instances of Linnell playing guitar) called “West Virginia”, and immediately, with the opening line “West Virginia, there’s something I’d like you to see…”, you realize that these aren’t really songs about states. The only actual references to the states are fleeting and usually there just to serve the theme of the song:

Like I told you, you are concentric in your form
When it’s cold, you have got yourself to keep you warm

The next song, “South Carolina” only mentions the state as the location for a bicycle wreck that apparently landed the rider into a hospital stay and a cushy settlement.

Accident, accident
Lift that fork, eat that snail
Garcon summoned, have a new cocktail
Crashed my bicycle, Crashed my bicycle
In a big South Carolina wreck, I crashed my bicycle

This song is for sure one of my favorites. Aside from the usual lyrical cleverness, Linnell displays a trait in his singing not often heard with pop singers, he sings in characters. The voices he uses are usually goofy, but it adds a certain narrative quality to the song that I can’t help but dig. Added to the really bouncy piano-driven beat, it’s a song I think anyone can get behind.

Apparently the next song, “Idaho”, which features Linnell singing in his lowest possible register, is a story about a drug-induced dream John Lennon had about driving his house. Of course, for the purposes of the song, the singer is driving his house to Idaho. Of note in this song’s otherwise smooth and bassy arrangement, is the inclusion of a car alarm in the song’s bridge. I have no idea why.

After that bit of an interlude, we get back to the bouncy rock with “Montana”, another song that takes place in a hospital, only the subject of this song is a dying man who has a catharsis and realizes that “Montana was a leg”. It’s quite an inspiring song for lunatics.

A leg! Now I get it
I’ll tell the person next to me
And then haul off and die

Really I should have just made this write-up a reprint of all the lyrics in this album, and that would sum up all my favorite parts.

After the semi-instrumental dissonant accordion/violin piece “Pennsylvania”, which contains roughly the lyrics “La la la la la la la Pennsylvania”, we move on to “Utah”. The story in “Utah” apparently takes place at a job interview, and has a very “oppressive polka” feel to it, if such a thing exists outside of this song.

Then the “favorite song” spoken of earlier in the album (since the song’s melody is played after that line in “Songs Of The 50 States”), “Arkansas” comes in with a smooth trombone and pounding piano chords as Linnell sings a strange story indeed.

The designers of the Arkansas were inspired to choose a form
That was the exact dimensions and the shape of the state whose name she bore
Yes the ship was shaped like Arkansas, and the hull was formed without a flaw
Every detail had been reproduced on a scale of 1 to 1

The song proceeds to tell a story about how the ship began to sink and I guess replaced the actual state. I really like this song not only for the idea, but for the fact that I have this wonderful image in my head of Linnell playing a grand piano and singing this song while floating by on a raft as the events in the song unfold.

We then move on to “Iowa”, which is a fairly straightforward song about a witch named Iowa. Of note is the line:

And if that broom don’t fly
I’m gonna buy you a Dust Buster

…and then he flips on an actual Dust Buster. That’s pretty dern cool.

Then we have another instrumental, called “Mississippi” which is mostly centered around a bassoon (I think a bassoon anyway) working through some scales around a piano. The CD of this album has “state facts” in the liner notes, and I love their entry about “Mississippi”:

The Official State Bird of the Magnolia State is the Mockingbird, which is also the state bird of Arkansas, Texas, Florida, and Tennessee. The mockingbird mimics the calls of other birds, so maybe those other states don’t realize they’re all dealing with the same bird.

We then move on to “Maine”, another song that I want to consider my favorite if it weren’t for all those other tracks. It’s apparently about someone who is evil that struggles with Maine and its coniferous green. I’m just mainly really into that sort of shanty-like chorus where one can’t help but shout “MAINE!” along with the singer. Good times.

Another oppressive song is the next track, “Oregon”, which plainly states that “Oregon is bad, stop it if you can” as it climbs the major scale. I have never been to Oregon myself, but I imagine it can’t be all THAT bad.

Then “Michigan” brings it up a few notches with a good ol’ fashioned high speed polka. The song could be about zombies (“We must eat Michigan’s brain”) and it could be about expansionism, as Linnell himself has stated, but no matter what your interpretation, the line “Oh Michigan, exemplar of unchecked replication” is among my favorite on the whole album.

We then get to my other favorite song on the album, “New Hampshire”. It’s a great song about an itchy man whose “brushes with success were just an accident” and nobody likes him for a number of legitimate reasons. The instrumentation of this song is definitely that carnival organ I mentioned earlier, which, according to Linnell, he thought would sound stately and grand, but instead had this homely sound to it that is appealing in its own way. Personally I love the song, it really is grand in a way that isn’t.

The album then closes out with an extremely short marching song called “Nevada” that was recorded against the sounds of a real parade that was apparently going on outside of the studio. The album fades out as the parade goes by and the horrible marching band plays their out-of-tune song. All in all, a surprising ending to an album full of surprises.

I really do love State Songs, as a solo album by one of two members of a band that are known for their unique sound, it really stands on its own apart from the “They Might Be Giants” sound. It doesn’t demand much of your attention, but definitely rewards those looking for some really clever ideas. Personally, I’d be thrilled if John Linnell wrote about the other 33 states (“Lousiana” is on the Montana single but not the album), but I think he’s hung his hat up on that particular project.

Well, until tomorrow!

 

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Coldplay – Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends

I was discussing something with a friend the other day, and I wish I could remember what the topic was (probably music), but the idea came up that the mark of a good artist is not necessarily what they can do, but what they do, whether they can or can’t. Success within one’s own limitations, that’s what it’s all about, and that made me think of Coldplay’s new album, which I had recently purchased in the Prospekt’s March edition on the week it came out a while ago. Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends is definitely a success story by possibly one of the most limited bands in popular music, and I say that in a caring way.

Putting a Spanish title about life over a French painting containing dead bodies for your enjoyment.

Now, when I first heard this album, I didn’t want to like it, or Coldplay for that matter. Call it whatever the musician’s version of feminine intuition is, but I can see through Coldplay’s tricks. There’s no reason at all that they should be as big as they are. Chris Martin is the most egomaniacal singer I’ve ever known who can’t actually sing, the guitarist is just fine with using a maximum of 2 notes per song (often the same ones), and the previous 3 albums the quartet have put out over the years are the laziest, most effortless recordings I’ve heard in their genre, in terms of arrangement and lyrics.

Don’t get me wrong, I am quite fond of at least 2 of those albums, for about half the albums anyway (seriously worst cases of late-album slowdown ever, which is a shame because the final track Amsterdam is the best track on A Rush Of Blood To The Head, but that’s another album for another day). Again, I see through the tricks, I’ve always seen Coldplay as trying to be the next U2 without the effort, riding in the coattails of bands who sound similar but are much better (particularly Travis, who have been caught speaking fairly enviously of Coldplay’s success in America). Their ex-sister band Travis makes a good point, however, that Colplay worked hard to promote and market themselves, and that’s pretty much all that is needed.

So what is different about their new album that I would not only purchase it and listen to it (I never gave the previous album, X&Y, such a chance), but actually really dig it? Well, the answer is that Coldplay seem to have learned, more than ever, how to work within their limitations, and how to apply the same energy they used whoring themselves around to market their product into actually improving the product itself. The result is an album that I can say, from atop my tiny box of judgment about the band, is really pretty damn good.

Is Chris Martin any better of a singer? Of course not, but I understand he was actually discouraged from singing in falsetto for this album. This makes his singing about 100% better, the fact that it doesn’t sound like he’s struggling with high notes that are meant for better singers. Is the guitarist still a 2-note wonder? Absolutely, but he makes up for it on many of the tracks by at least mixing up those notes or, in the case of “Strawberry Swing”, uses some interesting effect to make it sound like it’s looping backwards (if I were still current on guitar technology I’d reveal the secret behind this effect, but I’ve forgotten).

As far as arrangements go, I have to say that my first thought, upon hearing the opening tracks, “Life In Technicolor” and “Cemeteries Of London”, was “that’s more like it!” It could be producer Brian Eno’s hand in all of this, but honestly if you require Brian Eno to make your work more exciting, you’ve got some problems dude. Nah, I think it’s just a real effort on the part of everyone involved that made this album sound the way it does.

Of course, once the introductory tracks are out of the way (which, by the way, are linked with a musical segue that I highly approve of), the real meat of the album is presented in an organ-grinding song called “Lost!”, which contains fairly clever lyrics and a wonderful chorus. It’s a good song, and worthy of its “hit single” status, but really the song that impressed me the most is “42” (ironically, I’d call this an “old-style” Coldplay song, but to do so outside of these parentheses would mean deflating almost the entirety of this writeup so far). What I love about “42”, besides the obvious allusion to Douglas Adams, is that it’s a song about ghosts and death, and there’s something about the way English people sing about such dreary things that meets with my approval almost every time. I think it’s in the English blood, growing up around so much bad weather.

“Lovers In Japan/Reign Of Love” isn’t a favorite of mine for the “Lovers” part, but after 4 minutes, when (presumably) the “Reign Of Love” part starts up, it’s well worth the piano-pounding pop magic of the earlier part of the track. If they would have seperated these tracks, that would have maybe been nicer, but hey you can’t have everything.

The next song, a 7 minute 2-part epic called “Yes” is a much grander example of combining 2 songs into one track. Why did the band do this to us twice? You’ll have to climb to the highest mountain and ask their egos that, I’m afraid. This track is bumpin’ in both parts, though, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

“Yes” introduces an element that the next song, “Viva La Vida”, hits out of the park. What’s the best way to hide the limitations of a pop band? Hide behind an orchestra! Not only is a quite-well-arranged orchestra (which includes timpani, I LOVE those) the leader of most of the song, but the lyrics are actually really inspiring. I… don’t really know how to take that, even now with all my backhanded praise to this album, I am actually gol’dern impressed by how cool this song is. The only thing I’d take away from it is the less-than-stellar acappella ending. Still, that’s only 15 seconds of fade-out, so hey.

The next song, “Violet Hill”, marks the point that I never get past in other Coldplay albums… that’s right, the Late Album Slowdown. I have to say, despite a bit of plodding with the beat, this song accomplishes a first for the band: it doesn’t slow the album all the way down! So surely “Strawberry Swing” is going to do the job, right? Nope, thanks to that backwards-looping thing I mentioned earlier, the song starts interesting and stays that way.

So we’ve made it all the way to the end, where “Death And All His Friends” awaits. By this time, I don’t mind saying that the song is a bit boring and has a dull, meandering melody/instrumental hook, because by this time I am so happy with the rest of the album, it just fits along with everything and makes for a pretty good ending. Well, actually, the REAL ending is a reprise of “Life In Technicolor”, which is a slightly pretentious but all-around acceptable way to end an album.

I do feel kind of bad being such a fan of this album, as that just means I’m one of the millions of Coldplay detractors who have turned around after listening to this album. It’s really a matter of course, however, as the album reeks of effort on everyone’s part and I’m just fine with it being a success, even if Coldplay’s attitude about it is much loftier than I would like. Still, just in case you think they were done being marketing whores, listen to the companion EP, Prospekt’s March. Amidst some songs that are pretty good, one of the features is “Lost+”, which is the same as “Lost!” only features a retarded rap segment from Jay-Z. Coldplay, you’ve got a foot on the hill but you’ve still a ways to climb.

Or, I guess as the band themselves say in “42”:
You didn’t get to Heaven but you made it close

 

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The Mars Volta – Frances The Mute

I was kind of wanting to write The Mars Volta’s albums up backwards from the band’s latest album, The Bedlam In Goliath, since that’s the order I listened to them in, but I decided to go with Frances The Mute because it’s the one I’ve been listening to lately, since I found it brand new in a local CD store for $4.99. So there you go:

Hey buddy, your steering wheel is on the wrong side! Oh also you have a bag over your head I guess. That can't be good for seeing where you are going

Thom Yorke of Radiohead described In Rainbows as Radiohead’s version of a  love-making album (he must have forgotten he said the same thing about Hail To The Thief). If it is indeed the case that listening to Radiohead is like making love, then The Mars Volta are the kind of lover that kicks the door down and charges with an electric egg-beater in one hand and what can only legally be called “The Obliterator” in the other, wearing nothing but the pelt of a Wolverine he killed with his bare hands. A night with The Mars Volta may mean extensive hospital rest, but you’ll never be quite the same afterward and will probably find yourself wanting more.

In particular, Frances The Mute brings the stunning chaos of The Mars Volta’s sound in excess, starting right after the acoustic intro to “Cygnus… Vismund Cygnus”. The whole thing is just a chaotic mess of busy drumming, dynamic bass to match, and crazy guitar riffs that really demand repeat listening in order to take it all in. The lyrics… well we’re not going to talk about the lyrics, as a good portion of them are in Spanish and the English ones make no sense anyway. Such is the way of these things.

It’s quite all right, since vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala (that is an awesome name) suscribes to the “voice as an instrument” theory of singing, where high notes and loosely-strung-together ideas (also high) are just fine. It’s interesting, because the guy can sing any note that Matthew Bellamy can, but it’s not the feature of the song, it just goes right in with the mix of craziness. Only the song “L’via L’Viaquez” do his intense high-notes really stand out, that is, unless you’re listening for them, and for the 4 minutes of aggregate rocking, there’s about 7 minutes of meandering whispers of music.

That is, perhaps, the reason people seem to prefer the band’s other albums to Frances The Mute (though one fan I know considers Frances his favorite). The album rocks, all right, but may be better for beginners who want to ease into the band’s insanity, as there are frequent slow-down portions where the album nearly crawls (such as the entire 13 minutes of “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore (A) Vade Mecum”), but if you make it through these portions (or, you know, just skip ’em), some amazing rock awaits (like the next track, “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore (B) Pour Another Icepick”). I guess it’s all a matter of asking yourself: just how much time do you have in your day for rockin’? If your answer is “All day man I’m stoned out of my mind!” then Frances The Mute is the album for you. If you only have a few minutes to spare between dropping the kids off at soccer practice to rock out to The Mars Volta, might I recommend Bedlam In Goliath as a more “all rock all the time” kind of experience.

Mind you, I am fairly new to the Volta sound myself. I really enjoy the albums, but like with most progressive rock, repeat listenings and intense concentration are required to make any sense of it all. I knew from the moment a friend played me a portion of a Mars Volta album in the car that I would need a lot more time to devote to listening to these guys to get a clear idea of what’s really going on. That seems like crazy-talk coming from a Gentle Giant fan who likes Prog in general, but these two dudes from El Paso, Tx. really have something going for them here.

If you didn’t notice, I’ve avoided going for a track-by-track analysis of the music, and the reason for that is because the whole album is a song, practically. “Cygnus… Vismund Cygnus”, “The Widow”, and “L’Via L’Viaquez” stand alone as their own tracks, but two of those tracks are over 10 minutes long, and then the next two… uhm… Suites, maybe? The two multi-song songs are “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore” which is 4 tracks in one, and “Cassandra Geminni” is a 5-parter, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to tell you where one ends and the other begins.

Incidentally, I noticed that “L’Via L’Viaquez” is one of the tracks on the new Guitar Hero game, and I initially wondered how they got an 11 minute long song (well that isn’t “Freebird”) onto Guitar Hero, particularly given that more than half of the album meanders into improvised-sounding horn solos, but then I heard the song and found that there’s a “single” version that’s only 5 minutes long. It kind of makes me wonder why they didn’t just do that with the entire album?

I think the answer is “Genius”. Mr. Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez seem to fancy themselves as such, which is really how progressive rock gets started – when artists think they’re too smart for standard rock. They are probably correct, after all The Mars Volta enjoys an audience of people much smarter (or at least more pretentious) than myself, except for the Tool fans. For this reason, I try not to mention them too often in public, except to say they’re great and I enjoy their music when I have time to listen to an entire album.

Frances The Mute is really growing on me, as well. Despite its ridiculously long slow segments, there is more than enough jammin’ tunage to fill out a lengthy bike ride. In particular, the “Cassandra Geminni” segments are a lot of fun, despite the singing occasionally lapsing into slurping. I also think “Cygnus… Vismund Cygnus” is a great way to start an album, 13 minute length notwithstanding. Indeed I would say the night of passion is worth the weeks of pain, and I’m going to stop using that dreadful analogy immediately.

 

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Deep Purple – In Rock

Ok, I know I JUST did a writeup on Muse, so throwing Deep Purple MK II music in right after that is in danger of being too much rock, but I am willing to risk that for you. I have been a fan of Deep Purple for a couple of years now (though a fan of Highway Star the song ever since its inclusion in the Super Nintendo racing masterpiece Rock N’ Roll Racing) , especially the “Mk II” lineup, which included Ian Gillan on vocals, Ritchie Blackmoore on guitar, Roger Glover on bass, Jon Lord on keys, and last but most certainly first, the ever-present Ian Paice on drums. Of the few albums (4, I think?) that this lineup put out, I have a lot of trouble deciding between the band’s Magnum Opus, Machine Head, and the album which directly precedes it, In Rock, which has what I consider one of the undisputed best album covers in history:

My friend Greg calls this picture Mt. Blackmoore which is SO FITTING

Albums like this are a little harder to write-up, I feel, because the fair, objective reviewer in me would simply repeat the word “YES!” about 1000 times to convey his true feelings about In Rock. I feel that that’s cheating, so I’ll do my best to describe what’s really going on here.

The first song, “Speed King” is a bit of a spiritual predecessor to “Highway Star”, in that it’s a song about partying and having a good time wrapped loosely around a central idea of moving really fast, presumably in a car. The first stanza refers to about 3 different rock songs, at least that I can tell:

Good golly, said little miss molly
When she was rockin in the house of blue light
Tutti frutti was oh so rooty
When she was rockin to the east and west
Lucille was oh so real
When she didnt do her daddies will
Come on baby, drive me crazy–do it, do it

The band, at this point, covered some old rock songs like “Lucille” so it’s a matter of course that they would pay omage to their forefathers. The song does what I love for a rock album to do: just drops you into the middle of the rock with no warning (I found out, however, that this is simply due to the American release cutting out the minute-long intro to the song, bastards) and doesn’t let up for quite a while, even when the song slows down to a jazzy drum beat with a light organ solo, you still know that the rock is coming right back. One of the main features of this song and perhaps most of Deep Purple’s early album is the “searing vocals” of Ian Gillan, one of the best screamers of rock when screaming was at its high-point (no pun intended). However, the vocals do not take the center stage, there’s still a smoking rhythm section (my favorite of the period aside from The Jimi Hendrix Experience) and the combination of distorted keyboards and distorted guitars to compete with. At least in the case of In Rock, those elements all come together perfectly, and give no indication of the ego-battles that would drive the band apart so many times that it’s a wonder they’re still around today. Still, that’s a story for another album.

The next song, “Bloodsucker”, again features very prominent, screamy vocals (especially the song’s hook, the “AHHH NO NO NO”, man I love that), but the bluesy guitar riffs that give way to a wicked cool solo halfway through bring it right up to the same level. The vocals just might win this one, over all, since towards the end they’re filtered through some really cool sweeping effects. It’s all right though, the guitar gets its turn in the next song.

“Child In Time” is a 10-minute long jam that starts off slow because that’s the only way to introduce the incredible instrumental jam halfway through. The vocals play an important, yet brief, part though as Ian hits some of his highest notes right before the song goes crazy/nuts. This song is so incredible I can’t hardly believe it’s real, but the live performance is even better. Seriously best 20 minutes you can spend watching a single song. I think this must be why some people label Deep Purple as “progressive” sometimes. Just in case the instrumental break wasn’t completely awesome enough for you, the song explodes at the end, which is the only way to really end a proper rock song, in my opinion.

This song may leave you feeling like this album may be far too intense for normal listening, which is why the “feel good” major keys prevail over the next portion of the listening experience. “Flight Of The Rat” is great in its own right, namely for the rotation of punchy solos from the keyboards and guitars, all kept together by a great upbeat rhythm delivered by Roger Glover and quite possibly my favorite drummer still alive today: Ian Paice, who gets his own little funk thing going right at the 5 minute mark and again at the 6 minute mark and AGAIN at the 7 minute mark of the song. It’s hard to call them proper “solos” however, since the average Ian Paice solo is about 6 minutes long on its own (if you’re wondering where his shirt is in that video, he rocked it off around the 3rd song).

The next song, “Into The Fire”, is a chunky, plodding straight-up rock number. If “metal” had been invented by this album’s time, one might consider it an early metal song. It’s not a particular favorite of mine, it’s at least mercifully short at about 3 1/2 minutes. Also, it serves as a great segue into the radical change of style between “Flight Of The Rat” and the super-funky “Living Wreck”, which contains one my absolute favorite bassline on the album and perhaps in Deep Purple’s entire catalogue. Man, what a song, the right combination of blues, funk, and some crazy-ass organ blats.

The final song (what, only 7 songs?) is a bit of a psychedelic track featuring lots of noise against a driving beat, with Ian Gillan once again bringing out the big screamy notes that had been a little more low-key in the songs between “Child In Time” and this one. Since apparently Jon Lord’s favorite keyboard solos have to do with crashy sounds and lots of chaos, this is probably his favorite track on the album, especially since he gets the most solo time. Honestly, since the song doesn’t change much and is about 8 minutes long, it’s kind of easy to pass this one up unless you are a really big fan of noisy solos.

This album in general is great though, and certainly cheap enough if you pick up the CD version released in ’95. I may have to check out the 25th Anniversary edition, however, since it has “Black Night” on it, which is a pretty great track. Well, until tomorrow!