Leonard Cohen – Songs From A Room

Whew, finally re-located, and I am about to crash hard after pulling an all-nighter, but I don’t want to have to wake up to write this here thing today, so what we have today is a good album by one of my favorite artists, and I’m both drowsy and obligated as I write, so I hope you will enjoy today’s entry: Leonard Cohen’s Songs From A Room:

...Also this guyThe biggest mystery about this album to me is Wikipedia’s claim that it’s the more “accessible” of it and Songs Of Leonard Cohen. Sure, it’s got a couple of hits and some of my personal favorites, but overall I feel like the instrumentation is very hit-or-miss.

Then again, I think they mean that the feel of the album is less morose than the previous, which also might be true, at least for one song. I don’t know, it’s strange to me to think that a folk album that is less depressing is somehow “better”. This could be due to the fact that my main introduction to folk in this period was Nick Drake, and he is what we doctors call a “bit of a downer”.

Either way, accessibility does not a “great” album make, it can be either as long as it’s good, and this album is that. A bit long in parts but we’ll get through it nonetheless!

We start with one of Cohen’s biggest hits, and it’s one of the best versions that I’ve heard, “Bird On A Wire”. This song is what Leonard himself described as his own version of  a Country song, and indeed it’s much like that. In fact, its Country-ness would further be defined by Johnny Cash doing a particularly great cover of it for his American Recordings, once even with a full orchestra! I digress, however, since we’re on the subject of Leonard Cohen, and at least his version has strings and lots o’ Jew’s Harp.

(One substantial nap later)

Right! The second song is “Story Of Isaac”, which is an excellent song, not only for its melody, which I’m really rather fond of, but the actual point it presents. It starts as a first person account of the Biblical story of Isaac, son of Abraham, when God had told Abraham to offer up his only son as a sacrifice, only to stop him at the very last second, showing that the whole thing was a test of faith. Cohen makes the point that we’re sacrificing our children for what we think is a holy reason, but nobody is stopping us at the last second, so Isaac would have us think otherwise.  It’s a truly billiant song, if you can get past the near constant buzz of the Jew’s Harp. I’m just not sure what’s up with that instrument and this album.

Worse than that, however, is the otherwise brilliant “A Bunch Of Lonesome Heroes” which may remind you (if you’ve been listening to the albums out of order) of “Joan Of Arc”, at least until the chorus. The chorus, however, has this electric guitar in it, and I don’t know what they’re doing to that poor thing, but it’s a dreadful, mewing noise, and the tone is practically non-existent. Why would you do that? I would have used this whole paragraph to talk about what a cool song about the army this is, but I just can’t look past that guitar. Thankfully, it never shows up again, and in fact the next song features a familiar and much, much better style of guitar picking.

Yes, “The Partisan”, a dour song about World War II from a French soldier’s perspective, is the first song on the album to feature Cohen’s early trademark: the rather fast classical finger-picking. It utilizes three notes in a chord being played by the thumb and two fingers in a rotary fashion, so every beat has three notes. It’s a very pleasant-sounding but notoriously hand-crampy way of playing, and I envy the man for pulling it off so successfully, even unto today. The song itself is kind of a rarity, as it’s actually a poem that someone else wrote that Leonard put to music, which is something he did for “Take This Waltz” years later on I’m Your Man. The song features a rather lengthy section sung in French, thus I can’t speak of it too much, as my French isn’t that good and neither is my inclination towards looking it up.

“Seems So Long Ago, Nancy” is a quite depressing song that has conflicting stories about who it was written for. It reminds of “Famous Blue Raincoat” though not nearly as breath-taking. It’s followed up by yet another war-time song called “The Old Revolution” which is a rather meaty 8 minutes in length, and that’s a long time to run a Jew’s Harp.

We then get “The Butcher”, which has a rather interesting little chord structure and timing to it, unique at least among Cohen’s songs. I had forgotten up to this point, but I think he played this one when I saw him play live.

The next song is “You Know Who I Am”, which is an excessively awe-inspiring song. It’s likely about God, but it’s never truly revealed to be so. The minory-ness of it all as well as the vocal melody make it a memorable number, and in fact I wish it was way earlier in the album, because it deserves more spotlight than it gets. In a seemingly boot-legged concert I’ve heard from the 70’s, he starts with this song, and I like that.

We then get “Lady Midnight” with its very prominent (even more prominent than the Jew’s Harp) electric bass. Like the electric guitar, the bass sounds rather flat and toneless in the mix, but it’s not as offensive this time. The song itself is, of course, about a lady, and is rather upbeat in rhythm compared to the rest of the album. That’s not so bad, except that it’s a bit strange for the end of an album. Even stranger is the fact that the final song, “Tonight Will Be Fine”, is not only the fastest and most upbeat in melody out of the whole album, but I’d say probably the entire 1970’s Cohen discography. It even features that triplet finger-picking I mentioned earlier, only this time it’s impossibly fast. Which is not to say it’s not a great song, it is, it’s just kind of an interesting anomaly.

Overall, Songs From A Room is quite an album, though perhaps my least favorite of the earliest three, but that’s not saying much to its detriment, as the other two are just completely amazing to me. I guess the amazement of this particular album is broken up by some numbers with an awkward length, or an awkward chord structure, and especially an awkward over-use of toneless instruments like the Jew’s Harp or electric guitar. Really that’s just a production complaint, and Leonard must have known what he was doing when he changed producers between the first album and this.

Either way, it’s definitely worth a listen, as it does contain some of the best songs of that era. Now I’m going back to bed, good night!

Soul Coughing – El Oso

Well, today is the last day I shall be updating this blog while living in Austin. The time to move has come, and I’ve somehow got to turn all these boxes around me into containers of my material possessions, and then I’ll be rolling! Hey… rolling, I like that, that reminds me of an album, actually:

That disturbing cartoon bear pretty much has the same smile I had when I left my retail job yesterday

This is the third and final album from jazzy super-hipster group Soul Coughing. When I use the word “hipster” with these guys, however, I say it in a much more caring and affectionate way than all the other hipsters, because I actually really like Soul Coughing, and if they weren’t so “hip” that would probably detract from their sound somewhat. You know how Beatnik poetry of old has that odd rhythm and silly all-black attire and funny hats? Trust me, that’s the only way to present that poetry and have it make any sense, and that’s kind of my idea of Soul Coughing.

Mind you, this album is good enough to not have to be “hip”.

We start with “Rolling”, which is a lot of repeition of the line “I’m rollin'” with an excellent driving beat and organ part that is eventually joined by what I can only assume is a distorted double bass. It’s one of the most fantastic sounds in music, to me, is the bass-line to this particular song. It only joins in between lines in the verse and when it’s needed for hook purposes. The array of other noises are all nice too, but yeah the bass is the thing to write home about with “Rolling”.

That’s more than I can say about the drum in the next song, however. Sure, it’s a great beat, but the actual tone of the snare is so brassy that it kind of kills my sensitive ears. There are days when I consider the ringing of that drum to be pleasurable, but most of the time I kind of wince until the rest of the instruments come in to join the drum. Mind you, it’s only the snare that is disturbing, the rest of the drums are pleasingly rumbly, even on my non-rumbly headphones. Speaking of which, have you listened to music through any of these new super-rumbly headphones? I’m not impressed, it just feels like wearing an earthquake.

“Circles” is the “hit” of this album, with its pretty cool video and all. I do like this song, even if it’s got a creepy acoustic part. There’s no denying that chorus, which is exactly:

I don’t need to walk around in circles
Walk around in circles
Walk around in circles
Walk around in…
I don’t need to walk around in circles
Walk around in circles
Walk around in circles
Walk around in…

Do you see now why I never speak much about Soul Coughing’s lyrics? That’s kind of unfair though, because the verse lyrics are usually interesting, at the very least. This song also proves once again that Soul Coughing were right to use upright bass for their sound, as I really doubt any other bass would have been quite sufficient.

Speaking of bass, that’s the melody instrument in “Blame”, and I love when the bass gets to drive the melody, especially when it’s this catchy. Lyrically, this is probably the simplest song of the bunch, minus the final song. Nevertheless, “Blame” could possibly be my favorite song on the album, not just for the bassline, but it kind of has me by the kneecaps with that quick-stepping beat.

Speaking of beats, as we often do with Soul Coughing, another low frequency fun number is “St. Louise Is Listening”, which contains a line that, while possibly a non sequitor, is among my favorite in the Coughing text:

You rang the eskimo to meet you at the station
Oh he’s like milk to you, half-swedish and half-asian

Why do I like that line? I have no idea. Maybe I just love it when eskimos appear in pop music.

“Maybe I’ll Come Down” is a song that starts with the bass again, and again I’m not complaining. I will say that, as the first “slow” song of the album, it does quite chug, at least until the chorus. It’s really not a bad chorus!

We then pick it up with some more high frequency nonsense with “Houston”, which contains I suppose something on the keyboard that is quite high-pitched, and if my ears weren’t so dulled to it after so many years, I might call it a deal-killer as far as my enjoyment of this song is concerned. Fortunately, my permanent hearing loss makes this song a squishy jam indeed. CAUTION: unless you are Samuel L. Jackson, you may find the language at the end of this song offensive.

The next song, “$300” seems to start abruptly, like the first part was cut out or something. That’s weird, but this is a weird album. This chanty song is quite a delight all around, particularly the lyrics (despite containing drug references) and the strange slowed-down sample that keep repeating the line containing the titular amount of money. Either way, it’s hard to find a better way to spend 3 minutes than by listening to this song, especially if you’re already listening to the album.

“Fully Retractable” is what I would consider an “all right” song, but its similarity to songs from Irresistible Bliss is palpable. It is catchy enough, but doesn’t really add anything to the eclectic mix of sounds this album has already introduced, and runs a bit of a risk of Late Album Slowdown with it.

Thankfully, “Monster Man” is the next song and saves the late part of this album from being boring, as it’s one of the best songs on the album. Again, a low-frequency wonder, and it even brings back the distorted double bass! It’s not quite as intense and forward in the mix as in “Rolling”, but I still appreciate it, it’s kind of like a fog horn on a ship in the chorus. The beat is actually better than most of the other songs on this album, and that’s saying a lot. The singing is also really on top of things, particularly the repeated line “That’s why I’ve got my mind in my own”, which is given its own unique melody amidst the mix. A fine song all around!

“Pensacola” is an ultra-slow song where I’m pretty sure you can hear the singer smoking up before singing. Besides the crescendo of singing towards the end, there’s not a whole lot to hear here. Thankfully, again staving off the curse of Late Album Slowdown, the song “I Miss The Girl” brings the mood back up from quick-beat driving Soul Coughing brand jammin’, and “So Far I Have Not Found The Science” puts things in a major key and is a very light and airy track compared to the rest of the album. This is good, because the final track is one of the darker ones in the band’s repetoire.

“The Incumbent” starts with creepy noises, and then settles into a smoky minor key jazz mood before the diminished scale bass-line and drum beat come in, complete with some kind of almost percussive sound that almost sounds like Christmas bells. Finally, the vocals come in, and the entirety of the vocals during the verses are only a few lines, repeated almost endlessly:

New York, New York, I won’t go back
Indelible reminder of the steel I lack
I gave her 7 years, what did you give me back?
A jaw-grind, disposition to a panic attack

Repeat for 6 1/2 minutes and you got it!

So yes, that is the final album in the all-too brief career of one of the more interesting bands to come out of the 90’s. Fortunately, we have Mike Doughty’s solo albums to get that same poetic slackering, just with far less of the interesting instrumentation that make up these albums. Still, what can you do? I’ve gotta get out of here. Until tomorrow!

Willie Nelson – Stardust

It might seem a bit weird and possibly unfair that the only Willie Nelson album I actually have is Stardust. I mean, Willie Nelson is one of the more intelligent and articulate songwriters in a genre that does not typically prize intelligence and articulation (with apologies to Toby Keith, etc.), and the only album I have heard from him in full is one containing no original songs, just American standards, hardly any of which actually qualify as “Country” music. So, as a matter of course, I just have to talk about it:

Simple, yet elegant and indescribably beautiful, but enough about Norah Jones

Besides the overall idea of covering American standards instead of providing original songs, there’s definitely a “concept” going on with this album. Though lyrically the songs cover all kinds of bases, the performances of said songs is utterly relaxed, serene, calm, and simultaneously dark and light. What Willie, in all his wisdom, had accomplished here is nearly the perfect “night-time” album. Of course I, being an insomniac and one who likes to venture out at night, rather enjoy this album for a serene, isolated stroll or bicycle ride through the darkness, so the album has a special significance for me in that sense.

It really is kind of strange, too, to have this album considered a “Country” album, though Willie himself fits that bill, the songs are mainly too complex for Country, and besides an ever-present harmonica, uses almost no instruments commonly associated with that genre. Then again, this album came out after a string of albums following Willie’s “Outlaw Country” image that he shared with other fine Country acts like Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and later Kris Kristofferson (who, of course, wound up making up an unweildly super-group called The Highwaymen). “Outlaw Country” may seem like Country songs that deal with shooting and pilfering, but what it actually means is that the artists involved all made “Country” music, but in a way either half or totally against the “Laws” of Nashville. I would argue that Johnny Cash is the one who unofficially started the movement, but then again I’d argue for the case that he invented music in general, so pay me no heed.

So, it’s best to not so much think of this as an unusual Country album, as the worried press considered it and predicted it a career-suicide attempt, but as a really good album of standards sung by an unusual Country singer. It goes down way easier that way, I assure you.

There are 3 versions of this album out, and I got the biggest one (the “Legacy Edition”). It would be inconsiderate of me to talk about all 26 tracks contained on the Legacy Edition, so I’ll just take the normal album’s tracks and that will probably give you a clue as to what is contained within.

“Stardust” is the title track, and undoubtedly the inspiration for the name of the album, don’t you think? This particular version is inescapably mellow and contains jazzy classical guitar in Willie’s classic style, which is the style the album sticks around in.

“Georgia On My Mind”, another jazz standard written by the same guy who wrote “Stardust”, is about as American as you can get; it’s the state song of the actual state of Georgia. This song is pretty great, though the only version I have heard aside from this one was a musical theater group, so I’m used to an irritating choir of teenagers singing it, so that kind of sours me on it a bit.

“Blue Skies” is what won me over to this album instantly. I am not sure if this melody from the ’20’s was the first of its kind, but it’s one of my favorite melodies. A minor chord running down a very lovely scale, and the chorus trips it up even further. I really do want to hear an even older version of this song, just to see what Willie might have added, if anything, but I’m pretty sure no other version could top this. Well done!

“All Of Me” starts with the first truly “peppy” bits of the album, a harmonica and guitar playing the melody in tandem. The song smooths out to its mellow jazziness soon enough, and the night continues.

“Unchained Melody” is among the most covered songs of all time, and this version, while perhaps not the best (I do enjoy the Elvis version), is probably the most low-key and subtle that I’ve heard. It contains very little more than a whisper-quiet organ and beat, with the guitar playing some counter-melodies between the singing. I’m so very used to over-the-top tenor when it comes to this song, but the mellowocity of Willie’s version kind of sheds a whole new light on it, so well done there.

“September Song” is a respectable number that has actually been covered by more rock artists than anything, which seems odd to me. I like it because it’s about an old guy trying to get with a way young chick, which I can dig, yo.

“On The Sunny Side Of The Street” is a great tune, so great, in fact, that most people don’t bother to use the actual lyrics. Those that do, however, sing some very lovely lyrics indeed. You know this song is old, as it contains a cultural reference to Rockefeller that was probably relevant at the time. This song is a bit faster than the others, but not so much that it trips up the album, so stop worrying.

Ok, I will admit that everything I know about “Moonlight In Vermont” was taken directly from Wikipedia, but one fact I read confirms a lingering suspicion I had about the song, and it’s brilliant: the song is in haiku! None of it rhymes or has much to do with anything except the actual state, but I don’t think I know of any other songs that were written in haiku, and now I’ve got to write one of my own some day. Stay tuned for that!

“Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” is a Duke Ellington number that is Jazz with a capital “z”, the first one, not the second one. I don’t know where I was going with that, but this is a tune that, even if you’ve never heard it before, you will recognize instantly. Which is not to say it’s my favorite on the album, I kind of consider it a bit cheesy, and if it were performed any other way than in the ultra-laid-back way this album presents it, I might take issue. Thankfully, this version is at the very least pleasant.

“Someone To Watch Over Me” is a Gershwin tune, and to say something the Gershwins wrote is rubbish would be the highest form of musical heresy, so I really really wish I could say that about this song. But no, it’s a really good song, I don’t get to be controversial today.

You know, if I had all freakin’ day I would go ahead and talk about the other 16 tracks on the special edition of this album, but that might disturb some of my RSS subscribers, as I already stubbornly refuse to shorten my entries anyway. It’s my plan, when this whole thing is over, to go back and edit some of these entries to make them more substantial, so perhaps I’ll keep going when I come back to edit this thing. Until then, hope you’ve enjoyed this article about Stardust, and we’ll revisit Willie Nelson in a later album I have planned. Until then!

ZZ Top – Tres Hombres

Yep, today we go to the very end of the alphabet to explore one of the greatest blues-rock trios ever, as well as unquestionably the most recognized stylistic duo in rock, in an album that was made before they were either thing. Time for ZZ Top and their third album, conveniently called Tres Hombres:

Greatest blues-rock trio yes, but they had a lot to learn about album covers at this point

ZZ Top have never been slackers as far as touring and playing and recording goes, so by the time their third album came out, they were still a small-time group playing around bars in Texas and hanging out with my dad and uncle (!!!), the former of which would drive one of their tour trucks when they did hit it big and required a fleet of vans to carry their show around.

In fact, my uncle related a story to me lately about being at one of their early shows, which was at a moderate-sized venue in North Texas somewhere, and a girlfriend of one of his friends (I think, anyway a girl in close proximity) was all into the show at first, and then guitar/vocalist Billy Gibbons did this thing that he’s well-known for, where he plays a “solo” that is basically comprised of the same small amount of notes played over and over while Dusty Hill moves the bass-line around to change the mode, and the overall context for this constantly repeated riff. It’s a cool trick, but I guess back then the group had no qualms about doing this for several minutes at a time, and the girl got pretty fed up with what was basically the guitarist playing a couple of notes endlessly, and she left in a huff or something. Indeed, the band has a very original and interesting approach to making music, unlike my method of telling second-hand stories, and that is conveyed with all authority throughout this album.

The album starts with “Waitin’ For The Bus” and its catchy (and yes, repetitive) riff with the cries of “have mercy” from Gibbons and Hill. The song also features some really hot harmonica and the song bleeds right into the next song, “Jesus Just Left Chicago”, which has quite a guitar solo, in fact the guitar solo is so good, they just fade the song out with it because, to let it go the full length, would probably prove too much for the ladies listening to this album in its entirety. ZZ Top is nothing if not considerate to the ladies.

“Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers” is kind of a self-descriptive song. It’s rock at its finest, and features trade-off vocals between Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill. Interestingly enough, if you listen to the band nowadays, after 40 years of singing these songs (the longest-running band in show business that still retains its original members, for those of you keeping track), they still sound exactly like this. The only real difference is their drum-kit is bigger.

We then get “Master Of Sparks”, a story about an unfortunate soul running into a bunch of antagonistic rednecks. The song has a really cool slide guitar (?) part that accentuates the minor key and the effectively creepy lyrics. This is followed closely by the first slow song, bringing the A-side to a close (if you are listening to this on the special edition cassette tape, that is), which is called “Hot, Blue And Righteous”. It’s a good song, but I’m not a big enough fan I guess to really cotton to ZZ Top’s slower numbers.

“Move Me On Down The Line” isn’t that incredible either, I guess because it just reminds me of all the other early 70’s rock bands. Then again, I really shouldn’t complain because that’s kind of my favorite era/genre of music. Maybe it’s because “Precious And Grace” is a much better song, in fact this is the other song (besides “La Grange”) that makes the band Clutch remind me of ZZ Top. This is the first of two schedules songs about prostitutes, by the way. Also, try to be prepared for a really kickin’ slide/not slide guitar solo portion in double-time, though you will fail.

It always surprises me when a band puts their best songs on the B-side of an album, but that is surely the place where “La Grange” is located, and it’s arguably my favorite ZZ Top song. It’s blues at its finest, and it’s rock at its finest, and it’s possibly the only thing ZZ Top has that is as recognizable as their signature beards. It’s a swingin’ John Lee Hooker beat (complete with a tribute to Hooker’s own “Ah haw haw haw haw”) with a very simple guitar riff and lyrics about The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, the Chicken Ranch. I really doubt any band has done quite as much with just one chord as these guys, but that’s what the blues is all about man.

We then get a cleaner-toned rock song called “Sheik”, which has a really cool riff of its own that occurs after the “chorus”. It’s basically a note sliding back and forth, but if you couldn’t tell by now, ZZ Top are masters of subtlety. In fact, the guitar solo in this song sounds like it’s only about half there.

Finally, we have a song that follows roughly the same beat as “Jesus Just Left Chicago”, called “Have You Heard?” As far as album cohesion goes, it’s a great way to round up the album, since it started with this kind of beat. Yep, that really wraps it up good and tight. Even the religious lyrics work really well in this context, even if it follows an album about beer, whores, hillbillies, and uhhh Arabic authority figures.

So yes, Tres Hombres is an easy album to love, even if you might not be crazy about the rough vocals or the band’s habit of long, repetitive guitar solos. Actually I don’t know, maybe you just don’t have a soul or the correct appreciation for rock n’ roll, in which case I guess it would be kind of tough to love ZZ Top. Then again, it’s probably hard to live like that, so I pity you, my friend.

They Might Be Giants – Factory Showroom

I mentioned in my Mono Puff article a while back that 1996 was a good year for They Might Be Giants. On top of both Johns (Flansburgh and Linnell, the core of the band) releasing their solo projects, the band was able to release what is perhaps their best album and enough extra songs from the same sessions to create a whole other album that would prove to be quite successful in its own right. Historically, it was a positive point for the Johns, as they were right at their melting point with the only big major label they’d ever been signed to, and were just starting to work with Pat Dillett, who produced all their albums (every one a winner) from here on out. So let’s check out the beginning of a new era for the Might Be Giants entitled Factory Showroom:

Ok so maybe the cover isn't much of a winner

For a long time, this album was my favorite in the mighty catalog of one of my favorite bands, of course, this was before Mink Car and all the albums after it, all of which have been my favorite at one time or another. Really, though, I feel like this album is the best of both worlds in terms of what the Johns could do. Those two worlds being their ability to make eccentric and thought-provoking tunes bursting with originality, and their ability to create well-produced, arranged, thought-out melodies and instrumentation. One usually wins out over the other in most of their albums, but this one seems to strike just the right notes at just the right times, and is a solid, cohesive album to boot!

This is perhaps because it’s technically the shortest album in the Giants’ repetoire, containing a mere thirteen songs (fourteen if you count the secret “Token Back To Brooklyn”, which I don’t because it’s well-represented in other albums), whereas the usual number is closer to twenty. Of course, the songs are longer, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the Johns, so I’m not letting that be an excuse. Songs are songs, fellas. Of course, I’m not actually complaining about this, as I said, it makes for a much more solid album to have medium-length songs and a medium number of them.

If I would have been writing seriously, I might have said in my John Henry writeup that the only thing that keeps that album from absolute greatness (at least in a more objective sense than I hold it to) is the sheer number of songs, most of which are 3-5 minutes long. By the time you get to the end, which has some of the best songs on the album, you might have experienced Middle Album Slowdown from some of the interesting yet not quite as gripping tracks. In fact, I didn’t say any of that, but I will say that Factory Showroom makes up for that nonsense with its definite flow.

That flow begins with the first song, “S-E-X-X-Y”, (break with tradition: both Johns sing on this track instead of just Linnell) a funky, funky song about hermaphrodite love (at least, that’s the suspected object of affection) in the most carnal sense. It contains, on top of some mighty fine bass work and cool horns, the presence of real honest-to-Murgatroyd lead guitar goodness. In fact, many of the tracks contain actual lead guitar rather than Flansburgh’s trademark messy thrashing (meant with all due respect, he’s just not much of a modal player) thanks to Eric Schermerhorn, one of my favorite “rest of the band” members, despite his quite short run with the band.

The rockin’ continues with the ultra-catchy “‘Till My Head Falls Off”, a properly Linnell-driven song about academic life, or perhaps about drugs, it’s kind of hard to say. It’s quite a punk-rock number, and it’s not the only one!

Things slow down ever-so-slightly with the heart-felt laments of John Flansburgh in the apparently true-story of “How Can I Sing Like A Girl?”, a classic pop number with a bit of a slow surf-guitar flavor about the oppression and heartache that comes with singing in a higher register. Then stuff gets weird with “Exquisite Dead Guy”, a cello-based number featuring a rather abstract idea and some of Linnell’s deepest vocals.

Things are brought back up slightly with “Metal Detector”, a character piece about that guy at ever beach roaming around with a metal detector. It tends ot over-glorify the position, but that’s the point.

Then we get a punk rock cover featuring church bells (something I love to hear in rock songs, if you didn’t know) called “New York City”. The fact that the band is from that city makes this song perfectly appropriate, and in fact it’s played, though with less punk-rock, even unto this day in concert.

One move I appreciate about this album is its very loungey intermission song (an unofficial epithet, though this song is nearly square in the middle of the album) called “Your Own Worst Enemy”, which has some very interesting keyboard sounds and lyrics from Linnell.

Then we bring back the rock in a very kind-of-hard way with “XTC vs. Adam Ant”, a ballad of a fictional battle between two disparate bands who have possibly never even met. The real thrill of They Might Be Giants is how mysterious their pop culture references can be. The other thrill is the killer guitar solo at the front of the song and the killer bass solo in the back. Classy!

(Wikipedia is trying to tell me “We’re The Replacements” is part of this album at this point but this is simply not the case!)

We then get an interesting anti-drug song in the form of “Spiraling Shape”, a kind of pop/jazz number featuring some vibraphone, which is lovely but of course it’s no Gentle Giant. This is followed closely by a straight-forward, entirely factual Presidential number about the “austere, severe” 11th President of the United States, James K. Polk, entitled “James K. Polk”, featuring a singing saw solo, if there is such a thing.

We then take a trip to the south for a very bluesy number called “Pet Name”, which is one of those psuedo-love-songs that isn’t really. This song used to be quite a favorite, but somehow lost its flavor after hundreds of listens over the years.

Then we get quite the oddity, a song recorded entirely without electricity, the ironically-titled “I Can Hear You”, which was recorded as best as it could be on an Edison Wax Cylinder recorder using all acoustic instruments being played as loud as they could. The theme of the song, of course, is various verses being taken from situations where one typically can’t hear the other person clearly like in a drive-thru, an apartment buzzer, and a car alarm. It’s quite a feat of modern engineering to go back in time like that!

Finally, we have my favorite on the album, the very “bong”-y “The Bells Are Ringing”. I love this song because it’s such an exposé on some kind of mass mind control and how trained people are to follow things like bells and whistles. Of course, the bells are seen as being something of a sinister thing (one of the lines has a little girl who had her ears plugged being subjugated by the crowd), but not entirely evil, as told in the following line:

The bells are peeling, and they’re revealing a simple key to happiness
It isn’t evil, it isn’t good, it’s only what the people missed
The bells explain what they’ve been lacking all along
They were disorganized, and that was what was wrong
But now they know the way to go
The bells are ringing, they hear the sound

Not only are the lyrics brilliant, but the melody is extraordinarily catchy, utilizing simple runs up and down major scales, almost like a nursery rhyme to which a real message has been added.

So that’s the album, and what’s better than that are the songs that didn’t make it onto the album, a few of which are personal favorites of mine out of TMBG’s entire discography, but they all appeared on an internet-only album which I shall be discussing at a later time. Until then, or at least ’till my head falls off, see ya!

Ben Folds Five – Whatever And Ever Amen

If one were to look over the various periods of my life and the albums that helped shape the soundtrack to those periods, you may well expect that the Ben Folds Five would be a big part of that sort of high school/college time when I enjoyed mostly clever music and, with the exception of all the Christian stuff I listened to, music that was largely in the limelight. In fact, for people my age, Ben Folds Five were gigantic amongst people who wanted to stand out and listen to clever things but without digging too far into obscure bands. This is the album that put that motley trio on the map:

You may recognize this album cover from every cool kid in the late 90's's CD collectionIt might just be me, but it seems that any of the counter-cultural kids that I grew up around were enthralled by this album. I picked it up myself and have listened to it off and on ever since. The album is an interesting blend of Ben Folds’ joke songs that contain his trademark flaccid rage (the opening track and “Song For The Dumped” are the two best examples of this), which he largely takes out on his poor piano. The other two guys in the band throw in really good jazzy beats and distorted bass, two elements I always approve of in music.

In fact, it’s interesting to note that one of the most well-respected rock bands of the late 90’s never recorded a single guitar track in their top album. Sure there’s an autoharp at one point, but there’s also a Melodica (it sounds like an accordion but looks like a toy piano attached to a flute). Every song contains the masterful piano work of Mr. Folds as well as his high-pitched vocals that vary ever-so-slightly for the more serious songs, of which about half the album is composed. The distorted bass by a guy who is awesomely named Robert Sledge comes and goes with the mood of the songs, but the drumming by Darren Jessee is always a great blend of delicate and rocking.

The songs are crafted in a consistent way, which is basically Ben Folds telling some kind of plain-clothes story about life that has some vague meaning hiding around the corner, broken up by choruses that are inserted seemingly to make the songs appealing. The biggest proponent to this rule, of course, is the album’s runaway hit, “Brick”, the chorus of which was written by the drummer because Ben was apparently having some trouble with that. The rest of the song is about abortion, and the funny part of that is that nobody seemed to figure it out until Ben Folds came out and told everybody. Unfortunately, it’s a true story, but it’s quite the song so I guess something good came into the world after all.

That song is followed immediately by the goofy and interminably catchy “Song For The Dumped”, which is one of about 3 joke songs Ben Folds has written that are not only musically solid, but hold up quite well to the march of time. I’m sure anyone who has been dumped by someone else can relate to impotently demanding material possessions or money back as some kind of last-ditch entitlement play. It’s not rational or pretty, but then break-ups never are. Bass solos are very pretty, and this one has a particularly noice one.

Unless you count the non-chorus bits of “Fair”, the song “Selfless, Cold And Composed” starts the 2/3rds of the album that alternately deals with serious topics in a mid-tempo and very lengthy way, and then the other upbeat numbers (“Kate”, “Steven’s Last Night In Town”) which kind of joke around but not enough to recapture the momentum the first part of the album builds up.

Actually, I might as well come out and say it, this album suffers from one of the absolute worst cases of Late Album Slowdown I’ve ever seen, because that portion of the album, usually reserved for the downhill slope of the final 4 or 5 songs, actually starts 4 songs in. That’s 8 songs, half of them quite slow and much longer than the upbeat numbers, that drag the album down until it finally dies at the end of “Evaporated”. Sure there was a part of me in a happier time that enjoyed songs like “Steven’s Last Night In Town” with its use of the most depressing jazz instrument I can think of, the clarinet, but that part of me didn’t last very long outside of high school.

In fact, the humor and upbeat tempo of merely 2 songs on the album, “One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces” and “Song For The Dumped”, really let down the more serious songs contained in the album’s later part, thus making those songs terribly boring, and those songs really let down the humorous upbeat songs because they’re so boring that you kind of have time to realize that the jokes aren’t even that funny. He curses, sure, and that’s usually enough in a major-key for people to be amused (just look at how well Pop Punk music has done), and yes the songs contain that afore-mentioned limp anger that less bold people seem to experience, and yeah the jokes still hold up after so many years, but if that’s all you’re looking for in this album, you’re going to have to deal with the 10 irritatingly slower songs that take up the rest of the space on the album. If you are of the camp that enjoys those 10 songs, you might even find the other 2 songs irritating, which is a shame because they really are good songs.

Of course, if you are the type who enjoys the entire album and are a big fan of Ben Folds Five, well I’m sorry to have disturbed you in your home, but really I’ve been listening to this album for almost 10 years now and I still can’t make it all the way through. Also shame on you and all your friends for criticizing “Brick”, it’s a wonderful song.

So no, despite what I told you to expect, this album was never any part of my life other than being an album I really wish I liked more. At least this album is better than The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messiner, though, as the latter only has 1 really good joke song instead of 2.

Johnny Cash – Silver

Will he ever run out of Johnny Cash albums?

It’s true though, I am very much a connessieur of Cash’s music, stopping just short of actually collecting his records on vinyl, and that’s only because I don’t own a turntable (I know, what kind of music fan am I?)

Still, I will be the first to admit that nobody’s perfect, not even Johnny Cash, and the strongest evidence to this otherwise heretical statement is his late 70’s-80’s albums. In his second autobiography, he admits with no amount of regret that he disappeared from the public eye at this time, and no record label was really prepared to take him seriously anymore. Why that is, I have no idea. I know music in general was growing darker and more electronic to herald in the 80’s (the Dark Age of popular music), so I guess there wasn’t much room for a true blue country singer, and the gap left in Country music would soon be filled with the likes of Garth Brooks as he got bigger and bigger (and also more popular).

Personally, I would much rather Johnny Cash create albums where his winning “less-is-more” sound is ONCE AGAIN tossed aside in favor of the production techniques du jour than for him to have a stage show that involves flying around over the audience. Oh yes, I’ll take albums like Silver any old day:

I have never seen so little effort made to promote Johnny Cash's music than this cover,  at least not since Sun Records put out an album called 'Now Here's Johnny Cash'Jeeze, that cover…

Anyway, Silver is one of the stranger albums of Cash’s music to come out, though it’s certainly not uniquely strange. As soon as the album starts you’re going to wonder exactly what kind of music this is supposed to be. Twin trumpets herald in a very electronified Country sound that would much later become on of Cash’s more respectable numbers, “The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore”, and the mind boggles. In particular, my mind can’t get over the fact that, despite the presence of what sounds like a drum machine and synthesized horns (though the album credits assure me that they are real instruments), it’s actually really catchy, and as soon as Johnny Cash starts singing, well, there’s just no denying that it’s a Johnny Cash song.

This feeling continues on throughout the entire album, not once does it let up on electronic drums, pristine, almost mechanical production, and phase shifters on the guitars. Of course, if you’re at all familiar with Cash’s stage show of the 80’s on through the 90’s, one of his staples is “(Ghost) Riders In The Sky”, which makes its inaugural appearance in this album. Indeed, phase shifters mix with lap steels and dulcimers to create this admittedly brilliant classic.

There are some Cash originals on this album as well, and they’re not bad at all, despite the presence of instruments that just shouldn’t be present in a world that makes sense. The interestingly-worded “Lonesome To The Bone” is one, and the stumbley-beat “I’ll Say It’s True” is another. The latter contains some rather plain-spoken true-story lyrics, like “My favorite singer cooks my breakfast, I like her fancy, I like her plain”, and an interesting line:

I’d be happy in a mansion, or in an old run-down shotgun shack
I like the feel of silk and satin, so I don’t know why I wear black

The inflection on “why I wear black” is like he’s shrugging, which is a weird contrast to the politically-charged “The Man In Black” from ’71. Either way, a good song, and one of the three featuring George Jones. The other two featuring Mr. Jones are bonus tracks on the CD; a reworking of “I Still Miss Someone”, and a reworking of one of my favorite originals, “I Got Stripes”. Both songs feature some really squishy sounding guitars.

There are some other highlights on the album, like a Country rock reworking of “Cocaine Blues”, featuring an honest-to-God drum machine, and once again, self-censorship on the final lines (instead of “bad bitch” he once again replaces it with “my woman”). There’s also an interesting off-beat Celtic-tinged waltz called “West Canterbury Subdivision Blues”, written by Jack Clement, a frequent Cash collaborator.

There’s also a really good original to finish out the album, called “I’m Gonna Sit On The Porch And Pick On My Old Guitar”, which features some quite clever verbiage for something Johnny Cash wrote (he’s not the first artist I would expect to use “trans-celestial” in song). This song also contains all acoustic or clean electric instruments, with only a bass drum (real or fake, I can’t tell) keeping the beat, so you can’t accuse the entire album of being electronicky and fake like I just did a few paragraphs ago. No, don’t let me catch you doing that.

Two of the strangest songs on the album are the deep, deep squishy phased guitar-driven “Lately I’ve Been Leanin’ Toward The Blues”, which is a song by one of my other favorite Country artists, good ol’ Billy Joe Shaver. The song itself is great, and characteristically clever, but that muddy, squishy guitar is just crazy.

The squishy guitar also makes an appearance on the second strange song, which is called “Bull Rider”. That’s right, Johnny Cash sings a song about bull-riding, and not only that, but it’s the most obviously drum-machine-driven of the lot, and it’s got an almost They Might Be Giants feel to the guitar melody. For my money, one of the strangest Johnny Cash songs ever, even on this, one of his strangest albums.

Still, despite the critical panning this album has received in this, the Age of the Internet, I think the album holds up not only as a testament to just how messed up music got toward the 80’s, but how a great artist can rise above such an unlikely situation and still succeed. This is, in fact, the only album in a number of years to chart, and one of the last in Cash’s otherwise successful run with Columbia records to make it onto the charts. “(Ghost) Riders In The Sky” would be the last “big” single (reaching #2 at one point) for the rest of his life. So there are a few good things to say about Silver, it’s just not gold is all.