Audio Adrenaline – Some Kind Of Zombie

Well, I kind of didn’t mean for this to happen. I guess “zombies” would be a good thing to write the Album Du Jour entry for the 31st of October about, but in fact I was just thinking about this album and how I would like to write about it. So let’s talk once again about Audio Adrenaline and their fourth album, Some Kind Of Zombie:

Some kind of out of focus cover artNow, really, I shouldn’t be writing about this album without talking about how they got to this album (my favorite of theirs) from their first two albums, which if you remember, were almost entirely made out of cheese. Well, there are two reasons for this anomalous album.

For one, the album that precedes it was something of a big artistic step forward for Audio A. Their album Bloom was a huge seller, mainly based off the merits of its stand out single, “Never Gonna Be As Big As Jesus”. Though that album may get its own writeup someday, for now I will just say that it moved Audio Adrenaline from being a hip-hop derived rock band that were hot on the heels of such acts as “I Luv Rap Music” artists DC Talk to an actual rock band. It was full of riffs, actual drums, and basically actually fit the band like a glove.

For this, their follow-up, that rock sound is explored more, and certainly there are riffs (including one of my favorite guitar riffs, if you can believe it), but the band decided to take things in an entirely different direction. In fact, for Some Kind Of Zombie, they took it in all kinds of directions. The album doesn’t suffer from its exploration, however, in fact the whole is cohesive enough that its explorations into many different facets of “alternative” rock are easy enough to follow.

Still, the apple didn’t fall too far from the same tree that brought us songs like “P.D.A.“, so some of the songs, though great, might be a little hard to take as seriously as they should be for this album to be greatly appreciated. It doesn’t help either that the band would go right back to goofy pop music right after this album. Still, while we’re here, let’s talk about some highlights.

For one, the album starts off with a song that I am quite fond of. It’s called “Chevette”, and if you’re not familiar, the Chevette is a type of car that, well, it’s a car. It’s kind of a popularly terrible car, but that’s the point of the song. Basically, it’s the singer recalling his poor (but rich inside) father buying a Chevette and how it was awesome for what it represented rather than what it was. It’s a solid enough metaphor, and the song itself has a great tune built on a drumming cadence and a kickin’ guitar solo-tastic bridge at some point. The guitarist, by the way, is different in this album than the previous albums, I felt that worth nothing.

“New Body” is an interesting song as well, mainly for its electronic feel (which kind of evokes more Skillet than Audio Adrenaline, but you know the two were label-mates, maybe they accidentally swapped songs at some point). Either way, the song is about being pretty much physically worthless as a human being (I think we’ve all been there), and how we’ll be rebuilt in the afterlife, taking a rather literal scriptural stance, which is always interesting in song, as it takes literally something that may be metaphorical and then turns it back into a metaphor. Either way, the chorus is catchy, what more do you want?

The main feature of the album, and really one of my favorite songs in this crazy Christian Rock genre, is the title track. “Some Kind Of Zombie” is a masterfully built rock song as far as its ultra-catchy riff and that exemplary drumming goes. The song, like the previous two songs, is a rock song, but has this pretension of high art in there somewhere (just check the video to see what I mean). While I appreciate this dynamic contrast from their previously goofy selves, it’s still a little hard to take all that seriously (maybe it’s the highschoolers dressed like goth kids). The song itself is kind of an item of interest as well, because it’s the one and only example I’ve ever heard of Christian music mixing two concepts that would typically cancel each other out, that of re-animation, or Zombies (which usually has dark conontations and/or some metaphor about the evils of humanity), and the supposed re-birth that Christians are supposed to go through. The best part is that, unapologetically, the song makes it cool that Christians, when re-birthed, are just mindless slaves to whatever is commanded of them.

It’s really a crazy concept to consider, but it’s written right there:

I hear you speak and I obey
(Some kind of zombie)
I walk away from the grave
(Some kind of zombie)
I will never be afraid
(Some kind of zombie)
I gave my life away

Really, I just wanted to draw attention to that and see if anybody else considers that a little weird? The worst part is how well the concept fits into both overall ideas.

Of course, after blowing our minds with such (possibly unintentional) interesting ideas about humanity, the band goes and does an anti-evolution song. Ok, so this one isn’t as bad as This Train’s “The Missing Link”, but it has the same overall concept of God literally creating Man out of sand, and to back this up, the chorus starts with the lines “I’m an original species,
more enlightened than Nietzshe”, ’nuff said!

The band then kind of goes into a “fun” part of the album, and really it still kind of fits in with everything. In particular, the popular (I’d say second most popular) Christian ska band The O.C. Supertones make an appearance for a song called “Blitz”. Now, if there’s one thing Audio Adrenaline knows, it’s how to, well, make audio that is adrenaline-based in some way. In this instance, it’s about a church (?) football band travellin’ down to Mexico (?) to play some football, and that winds up being this high energy motivational kind of song that doesn’t really say a whole lot outside of “Fourteen kids in an old church van”. The best part about this song is how you can’t tell whether the Supertones guy is singing it, or Audio A’s own Mark Stuart, or at least I can’t, and I’ve have this album for a very long time.

The album goes into yet another direction with an admittedly catchy acoustic ballad called “Lighthouse”, and then an e-piano bluesy English sounding thing called “Flicker”, which contains a lead guitar part that plays in a different key than the rest of the song, which is hugely irritating to me, so I skip this song often.

After one more electronics-infused acoustic ballad called “God-Shaped Hole”, the band pulls out a one-off rocker unlike anything they’ve ever done. The song is called “Superfriend”, which may evoke visions of Wonder Woman and Aquaman, but is actually about, well, guess who (who is always the “friend” in Christian music?) The instrumentation is more what I’m getting at with this album. It’s all based around a minor key riff, which is already unusual for this group, but the beat is also hard rock via Motörhead or something. The other interesting bit is the guitar solo, which has this crazy filter that makes it sound entirely hollow and kind of great. Basically, this album ends with a crazy good rocker of a song.

Really though, all of the songs on this album are good in a way, some of them are even really great, and are songs that I enjoy fairly regularly. If I were to recommend any Audio A album to listen to (unless it’s for a laugh, in which case my recommendation goes to the first two albums, bar none), it would be this one. Of course, this should be no surprise to people who read Album Du Jour regularly. Remember when I said there are two reasons that this album is their best? Well, the one reason is because of the growth of the band that’s made apparent in their eclectic mix of interesting ideas and good alternative rock, and the other reason is because this album was recorded in 1997, which, as we should very well have figured out by now, was a very good year for Christian Rock.

Alice Cooper – Along Came A Spider

Well looks like it’s Halloween time (well, this is the entry for the 30th but you are probably reading it on the 31st), and by pure coincidence, I had selected an album that is about a serial killer and was done by one of rock’s greatest rock n’ roll trick-or-treaters:

Oh no someone broke his mouth

This Halloween has actually been pretty horrifying to me, for my Zune has suddenly died for good. Apparently it’s a hard-drive failure, though we can never be sure. This coincides with a trip to Austin that I had to make for a show, and in driving there and back, I had to do the old-fashioned thing and actually listen to CD’s. This album was the only one I happened to grab that I haven’t written up yet (about 80% of the others were Johnny Cash albums, and yes I had already written about all of them), so in knowing I would be late-ish for today’s entry, I figured I might as well write about this album, since I have it and really like it and all.

If you didn’t know that Alice Cooper is still around and doing stuff, well, this album is conclusive proof of that. It’s his newest album, released just last year, and though I haven’t heard anything he’s recorded after the 90’s, apparently this album is better than all of them. In it, Alice tells the story of the Spider, a psycho serial killer who victimizes women by wrapping them up in silk, cutting off one of their legs, in an effort to construct a spider out of the legs or something. It’s not a very good plan, but plans that involve serial killering rarely are (see also: Dexter).

Musically, this album is pretty great. Now, I don’t know a whole lot about Alice Cooper after his hey-day in the 70’s and 80’s, but I do know that he apparently hasn’t been working with Bob Ezrin lately, and that means that he’s probably not “at his best” on this album. Despite that, this album is still full of fist-pumping hard rock beats, chunky electric guitars that only occasionally go into that paper-tearing cheesiness inherent in new-ish Metal. There are some pretty nice little tricks all over the place though, really you can tell that there is a lot of care that went into the production, in the opening track “I Know Where You Live”, the distortion is mainly carried by the bass as the guitar kind of takes a bluesier approach, and the riffs are all rock solid, and I do mean rock.

Unfortunately, in the production being really clean and gimmicky and given that Alice Cooper somehow obtained a kind of Weird Al timbre to his voice over the years, the whole thing, when viewed from the outside, may sound like a parody of itself. To listen to the second track, “Vengeance Is Mine”, you might just as probably be listening to Spinal Tap. Still, Alice Cooper isn’t out to genuinely scare, he never was, he’s out to entertain and uses a macabre, horror-themed cleverness to do it. It’s all burlesque, so to look at Alice Cooper through the eyes of someone who actually takes Metal seriously is probably not the best idea. Oh, and a note about “Vengeance Is Mine”: when I listened to it earlier today, I couldn’t help but notice that the guitar solo seemed extra busy and wanky, which was kind of odd. I figured there must have been a guest guitarist on this track, and sure enough, when I got home and researched it, I found out that it’s Slash.

As a theatrical piece, I really have to give this album some praise for its cohesion. The entirety of the thing, with the afore-mentioned tracks, and especially with later tracks such a “Wrapped In Silk”, “Catch Me If You Can”, and “The One That Got Away”, you can piece together what happened to the serial killer all throughout the story, yet the songs are all different and distinct enough to work out on their own, as the allusions to the story are just hints in the actual songs. No matter your opinions on the sound of the album or Alice Cooper in general, you have to give it to him that he can construct a theme.

Possibly the most interesting piece on this album is “Salvation”. Now, if you had no idea, Alice Cooper, well, the guy behind Alice Cooper, Vincent Damian Furnier, is a devout Christian. In quite possibly one of the greatest juxtapositions in rock n’ roll culture, one of the earliest “shock” artists who makes every effort to make darkness and death an entertaining romp, is not only a church-goer, but also an expert golfer.

Anyway, with the song “Salvation”, it’s more or less written like a standard song of redemption from someone who regrets their wicked ways, but the same hidden-meanings can be found between the lines of the song. Lines like “have I wasted a life just for fun?” and “someone died for me” are lines you may hear in any Christian song, but the great thing about this being an Alice Cooper song, particularly on this album, give both of those lines a wonderful new meaning. Anyway, I would personally say that the dude pulls of this song without it seeming too strange, but then again what do I know.

Anyways, the story comes to a conclusion after a really awesome song called “I Am The Spider”, wherein a few things are revealed about the killer, and it’s actually pretty cool if you’re familiar with some of Alice Cooper’s earlier characters. When adding in elements from the other stories, particularly “The One That Got Away” (which itself contains a dialogue between Alice Cooper and an almost-victim that is kind of hilarious to me), then the whole thing kind of makes sense.

I really love this album, it’s got a lot of dynamic production that makes it fun to listen to just about any time, and who doesn’t love hearing about serial killers on Halloween? Anyway, hope you have a good one, don’t eat too much candy.

Björk – Debut

Knocking artists always leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth, so we’d better get back on a positive track quick. I know! Let’s talk about Björk, we haven’t really done that have we?

This lady's so effervescent and pixie-like, she can't even stop giggling during her mug shotLike every other person ever, I quite like Björk. Who doesn’t like Björk? She’s beautiful, has a captivating weirdness that one will either appreciate or just kind of wistfully sigh “Oh, that Björk, what with her video about lesbian robot sex” before waggling your finger at her. Yeah, it’s sometimes surprising how weird she is, given how popular she is, but you know, one can forgive, and I cherish weirdness, expecially since it seems to stem from genuine insanity rather than something just manufactured for the counter-culture crowd.

Either way you look at the woman, her legendary singing is not to be denied. Anyone who has heard Björk sing will know that sound forever, both because it’s unique, and because she hits the exact same bullseye in every song she does. It’s not that every note is perfect, but every note is felt, and that’s character that is hard to deny. You could put this girl against a cheeseball dance club beat or a harp or an orchestra and it won’t really matter, which incidentally is exactly what they tried to do with Debut.

Of course, Debut is actually a misnomer, Björk had recorded an album previous to this. Of course, that album predated even her work with The Sugarcubes and I’m pretty sure nobody has ever heard it, so in that sense, Debut is indeed Björk’s introduction to a world that would learn to love her.

The musical style is all over the place, but it tends to segue and flow from point to point, giving the whole thing a cohesion that prevents things from getting too chaotic. Indeed, songs like “Big Time Sensuality” and “There’s More To Life Than This”, with any other vocalist, would sound terrible and would be doomed to obscurity. If nothing else, they prove that Björk is kind of unkillable; you can’t really make her suck as long as she has that voice. What is she even singing about? Well, in “There’s More To Life Than This”, she’s wanting to leave a boring club with its boring club music to escape to the harp-accompanied “Like Someone In Love”. You read me right, the instrumentation to “There’s More To Life Than This” is so bad, its egregiousness is self-referential.

Still, things are not bad too often. Right after the Right Said Fred-tastic “Big Time Sensuality”, we are ushered into a superior song called “Aeroplane” by a crazy brass section, followed by and later accompanying super-deep bass and vibraphone as Björk explodes the song with her amazing voice, singing about how much she likes a dude.

There are also a few tracks that perfectly blend the electronic nonsense with real instrumentation, or at least the sensibility of such, and have become timeless classics in the Björk catalog. One of these is the album’s beginning  track, “Human Behaviour”, which is definitely, definitely, definitely one of my favorite songs by her.

My absolute favorite Björk song, at least on this album, is “Come To Me”. The song is barely anything more than a shift from note to semi-tone above, at least until the chorus. Though the live version with an actual string octet is much better, this version still shines with one of the most amazing melodies I’ve heard. It’s a love song containing some of the warmest, most inviting lyrics I’ve heard:

Come to me
I’ll take care of you
Protect you
Calm, calm down
You’re exhausted
Come lie down
You don’t have to explain
I understand

You know
That I adore you
You know
That I love you
So don’t make me say it
It would burst the bubble
Break the charm

A love song where the protagonist coyly doesn’t want to mouth the words, but instead prefers to display her love through her actions. I quite dig it. It’s strange to me why this song is buried near the back of the album, it belongs much closer to the front, if you ask me.

That song is followed closely by “Violently Happy”, which, even with Björk’s golden voice, has this repetitive beat that’s a little hard to take after a couple of minutes, much less the song’s total length of 5 minutes.

Still, the album knows this, and eschews beats entirely for “The Anchor Song”, replacing them with brass kind of pounding away like a sea shanty. God help us, by that song’s end, you’ll be welcoming another of the album’s strongest tracks, “Play Dead”, with open arms.

“Play Dead” is really great for its vocal treatment, which is actually miles better than everything preceding it on the album, but since this is the album’s final track, apparently the decision was made to give it a kind of “Kitchen Sink” feel in the arrangement. Horns, strings, beats, all of it is here, with an added bonus of a stand-out bass-line in the song’s chorus. Oh yes, when Björk’s fantastic high-note pierces through to end the chorus, the strings hit this big swell that really moves the soul. As the song fades out near its 4 minute mark, you’ll be trying to drag it back by the coattails, which is a good way to end an album, if you ask me.

Indeed, I am very happy about Debut, even if it’s not the “best” Björk album, even by her own admission (she considers it weak and has even called it a “rehearsal” before). Still, as I said before, Björk really can do no wrong when it comes to music, as she has proven time and time again with strange arrangements, bizarre fashion choices, and even appearing topless in a music video once (quite a thrill for this then-17 year old music fan, let me assure you). It’s really quite a mark of accomplishment for an artist if they can get away with murder based entirely on the merits of their performance where it counts. It’s like the opposite of the starlets of today, who use their looks to get away with sub-standard performances (a key reason I hate most female vocalists). Don’t get me wrong, Björk is entirely beautiful on the outside, but the insides that really shine, especially ever since she replaced her skeleton with glow sticks.

Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes

Today we’re going to talk about one of the hottest, hippest, most critically acclaimed folk bands to appear out of Seattle in the past year or so, Fleet Foxes, and why I hate them:

Over-population is a problem even in paintingsOk, ok, calm down kids, I don’t actually hate them. Far from it, I enjoy them on some level, which is why they’re on this blog. Bands I truly hate don’t usually wind up here because talking about them means that I have to actually listen to them. I don’t mind listening to Fleet Foxes, but if you are searching through the Rock/Pop section of your local corporate retail music chain, provided any of them are still carrying CD’s and not “Download Cards” so that you can get a terrible “digital” version of the album, then you might forget what point you were trying to make when you started this sentence. Oh yeah! When browsing a “rock” section, you might see these guys, because they’re hip right now, and the “folk” section of any given store either doesn’t exist or is woefully understocked.

There’s a simple reason for this. “Folk” music is popular nowadays when performed by beardy hipsters, possibly because mellow acoustic music with strange lyrics is really appealing while high? Either way, name even 1 real folk artist that died before Elliot Smith was even popular, and you’ll find a lot of head-scratching from the hip crowd, possibly because you confused them with your knowledge of archaic music, or because those greasy hipster bangs attract a lot of lice. Certainly, there is a beardy crowd out there that claims to enjoy folk music, but ever since all the real hippies either died or became too old to like music any more, so too has real folk music all but disappeared like the long hair on the middle of a hippy’s head. Instead, we get faux-folk by beardy people playing instruments older than Granddad (or designed to look that old), and Fleet Foxes are such a group:


Just look at those beards!

Of course, I’ve tread this ground before when talking about artists (see: Iron & Wine), and once again I must explain that, while the authenticity of this folk band is highly dubious, none of it matters when you’re listening to the album. Indeed, their beards didn’t scrape up against the microphones while recording, so appearance and intention kind of goes to the way-side as we analyze whether the group is actually any good.

To be honest, I can’t tell if the group is any good or not. There are some highlights to the album, like the song “Sun It Rises”, when it goes from acapella harmonies to booming strums of acoustic guitar and admittedly weak guitar melodies. The boomy bits are pretty appealing, though the harmonies are pretty shaky, and the band’s second attempt at wowing us with harmonies, “White Winter Hymnal” (as heard on Best Buy’s in-store radio for several months) is a bit better. The only problem with “White Winter Hymnal” is that it’s just a layered, polyphonic version of “Frère Jacques”, the children’s song. Again, the song builds to an instrumental swell, and that’s quite swell, but I can’t shake the stolen melody out of my head, thankfully the song isn’t so long.

“Ragged Wood” starts being the most promising song in the set, with a nice light shuffling beat, and a lovely melody, even if it sounds like it was recorded in a toilet, or in Phil Spector’s jail cell. Either way, near the song’s 2 minute mark, the beat drops out (well ok it hangs out in the right ear and is reduced to a single banana shaker), and then the song slows down to a ponderous single-chord bridge as the guitar chimes around a melody, and then the bass comes in (marking the first and last time anyone will notice there is a bassist in this band) and sort of ushers in this other beat that’s kind of complex, and I’m sure the vocals that come back in at this point are saying something profound, but the key to folk music is thus: when you want people to actually hear and connect to what you’re saying, turn down the damned echo.

Really, I’m not even talking about the lyrics in this album, because it’s clear that the band doesn’t want to draw any attention to them.

So yes, the first tracks don’t impress me much, but tracks like “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song”, which is just two acoustic guitars and a voice recorded from the top of a mountain, quite stand out to me as being snooz-tastic folk songs from the old school. “Meadowlarks” and the two songs that come after it are other examples, and those songs make up the last part of the album. I kind of wish the whole album were made up of those types of songs, but there’s a lot of Spector-ish stuff to wade through in order to get to them.

Honestly, it’s not that I don’t like echoey music, or music that utilizes harmonies on every note, even if it’s the same structure of harmony for every single song, but when it’s all combined in a kind of ho-hum chord structure with a predictable set of melodies and layered, reverbed vocals that sound more like someone trying to pronounce vowels than someone singing words, then my interest wanes quickly. That’s my whole problem with these “indie” guys, no matter how talented or how basically good the musicians are (and I am telling you Fleet Foxes are very good musicians, maybe), if the songs lack character, they’re going to lack appeal. I just can’t see myself humming a Fleet Foxes song, unable to get it out of my head (and seriously, I will hum anything), because they never stick there to begin with. Since starting this blog and deciding that I should write this band up, since I have friends that really dig them, I tried 4 or 5 different times to listen to the whole album and come up with something complimentary, and here it is:

Neil Young likes them.

So, there you have it, indie music fans. Another band that fails to impress me, either because they’re not trying hard enough or I’m too old to care. It doesn’t really matter, these guys are getting better reviews than The Beatles and they’re destined to perpetuate the beardy type of music that is favored by would-be neo-hippies. More power to them, at least it’s not irritating, and like I said, enough of the music is relaxing and melodious for me to not quite hate them.

Johnny Q. Public – Welcome To Earth

Oh wow, 300th album! I thought for a little bit about whether I should write a “special” album for today, but you know I wrote about Johnny Cash for my 100th album, and didn’t do anything that special for the  200th album, so let’s just talk about the only OTHER album from a band I quite like, Johnny Q. Public:

Is it because, alphabetically, Johnny Q. Public is really close to Johnny Cash? Actually, I was considering John Lee Hooker, but decided to save it for a little later. Yeah I don't actually think about this blog much, friends, sorry. If you can remember as far back as the previous entry about Johnny Q. Public, you may remember my fondness for the group. They were young, talented, charismatic (?), and rockin’. Indeed, despite 5 years and a lot of craziness occuring between the other album and this one, the rockingness and overall sound is still there… kind of.

See, one of the main things I praised the previous album for was its variety of sound reaching from punk rock to a Bob Dylan cover to a song about bald women. While this album certainly has that punk rock element about it, pretty much all the other elements are kind of trimmed off in favor of a more direct rock sound. I’m not complaining or anything, though I will say that it’s a shame they left behind such an eclectic grouping of music in their second attempt at world domination.

Indeed, a lot of what Welcome To Earth feels like is a “second attempt”, possibly even trying to forget the first album. Nothing provides stronger evidence for this than the fact that 2 of the 12 songs are simply re-mastered tracks that already appeared on Extra-Ordinary. In fact, it’s the first two songs, “Preacher’s Kid” and “Body Be”, the latter of which was the previous album’s “hit”. I haven’t found any reasoning behind the inclusion of these songs, as Welcome To Earth already has 10 really good songs, and the 2 tracks from the previous album, while totally cohesive within the congregation of songs in the previous album, don’t really fit in here.

I mean, the album starts off nicely enough with a straight-up, fast-driving hard rock tune called “Sliver”, then suddenly goes to the more experimental and dirty, rough-sounding “Body Be”, then right back to smooth production and a more straightforward song with “Already Gone”. It kind of doesn’t make sense, unless something happened to where the first album wasn’t in print after only 5 years or something. I don’t really know, it’s one of music’s greatest mysteries to me.

Then again, another Johnny (of the Cash variety) saw many label-influenced re-releases, re-recordings, and even just straight up vocal re-dubs of a lot of his hits in order to keep the tracks current. One particular instance is in the compilation album Destination Victoria Station wherein he re-dubbed the vocals to “Orange Blossom Special”, and the best part is they didn’t even fully take out the previous vocal track, all just to make a buck, I suppose.

Either way, the inclusion of “Preacher’s Kid” (here shortened to “P.K.”) is a lot more sensible within the mix, as it breaks up a kind of modern power ballad called “Violin Song” and the creepy, rhythmic “Hey Johnny”, and seems to really fit between the two. Really, it’s cool to hear these songs again, it just seems weird since they’re derived from the band’s only other album.

Either way, let’s talk about a few of the highlights of this album that didn’t come from another album. For one, the band has expanded their range of instruments in the song “What Am I”, which contains a nice string section and piano on top of this chugging rock tune. Really though, the beat is kind of the highlight, especially during the chorus, where it has this certain shuffle to it that I really quite like. This is not to take anything away from the group of cellos and violins and all those guys, but the drummer’s more impressive, sorry fellas.

“Move” is another favorite of mine, as it features a guitar riff that moves around the monotone rhythm guitar in this kind of chromatic way that just doesn’t give a care about what the tune is supposed to be. Again, the beat really shines in the chorus with some nice double snare hits, but everything comes together in this song really well, especially the tight harmonies. The lyrics, like in most the songs in this set, are characteristically Christian while not being too direct. I’d quote them, but they’re not available online, and I kind of hate transcribing lyrics by ear, just trust me, you’ll be able to tell quick that this is a Christian band.

The afore-mentioned “Violin Song” is kind of interesting, because you would think there would be violin in the thing. In fact, there is a lot of distorted bass, which I really appreciate, but the violins don’t show up until the pre-chorus, and then they promptly disappear behind the vocal melody where you can barely make them out. It’d be more accurate to call it “Violins Are In This Song Somewhat”, especially since the violins have more of a presence in “What Am I”… oh well, what do I know?

“Hey Johnny” is perhaps my favorite song of the album, just for it being a unique number, also for being really bassy and rad. The song kind of characterizes the “Johnny Q. Public” name as an actual guy being oppressed by some 10 foot high, 6 foot wide monster who taunt in the chorus, “Hey, Johnny, Johnny, we’re gonna get you, Johnny Public”. Given that, and the song’s “creepy” tune set to chunky distorted guitars and really fun low frequency drumming, just really makes for a cool listening experience, especially if you’re listening through something that can project some bass.

The last real “highlight” of the album is this great song called “Beautiful Face” that has a sweet acoustic guitar/slide guitar intro, and then launches into this bawdy delivery of some really classic lines:

I wanna say
You have a beautiful face
I wanna say
You have a beautiful face

I made tonight and this wonderful place
I want you to know that’s why I just can’t say it

Its not that I don’t think you’re everything to me
But words can’t say just what it is that
I’m trying to say
But I’ll be ok

Seriously, that’s the entirety of the song, mainly screamed and whispered just within that “huh?” sort of level of coherence. Sure, better songs have been written, but I just can’t get over that “I just wanna say you have a beautiful face” line. It’s almost as great as the start to the next song, the ultra-catchy “Today”, which starts with “I don’t like you”.

Either way, mystery of needless track repetition aside, Welcome To Earth is a worthy successor to whatever success the band garnered with Extra-Ordinary, but things ultimately didn’t seem to work out, since the band wound up breaking up anyway, rather unceremoniously. I wouldn’t mind finding out what some of these guys are doing nowadays, though really I guess I don’t want to find out enough to actually research it or anything.

Well, this is the last “100” increment for the year! Only 65 more days and we’ll be done with this crazy blog. I’m excited, I can tell you. See you all tomorrow!

Radiohead – The Bends

Today was rather intense for me, which I typically don’t like out of days off. There’s not a lot about it that I want to divulge too far into; the merciful killing of one dream and the onset of another, much more beautiful dream, the future painted into an unclear picture, but at least in color this time, and the revelation of being not all there yet still knowing which in which way you’re headed, and on top of all that, I’m having to reformat my Zune.

So while I spend hours and hours moving 120 gigabytes of data around from player to computer, and making both items unavailable for music listening, let’s wax nostalgic about Radiohead’s breakthrough album, The Bends:

Oh yeah, picture of a dead guy, way to sell the album, guys. When I look back at the albums I wrote about that Radiohead had recorded after this one (since, you know, I went backwards in talking about them), I can’t help but notice a pattern in how they go about their business:

1. Record a ground-breaking, stunning album of absolute genius that changes the way music is made.

2. Tour in support of said album, play hundreds of shows to millions of people.

3. Get completely sick of the attention, regret ever having recorded an album.

4. Go off on vacation somewhere grand in order to “prepare” for next album or career suicide or real suicide.

5. Repeat

The interesting thing about this business model is that it was implemented right after the first album, Pablo Honey. The best part is that, as I’m sure we’ll get into when I write the thing up, it wasn’t even the album Pablo Honey that sickened the band this time, it was just the one song that caused people to tag them “one-hit wonders” and “Nirvana ripoffs” (yes the band that everyone has been saying everyone has been ripping off for the past 10 years used to be accused of ripping off Nirvana). Yeah, “Creep” almost killed the band before they would have a chance to become the legit band they are today. Indeed, something had to change, and The Bends would be the band’s chance at artistic salvation.

Of course, such change would come slowly, as Radiohead were not quite used to this whole “changing the rules to the game” every time they played. They recorded a bunch of songs that wound up sounding a lot like the mature versions of songs off the previous album, and ultimately they arrived at the sound that they were ok with, and instead of scrapping said songs, they turned them into the My Iron Lung EP, which I may write up at some point too because it’s pretty interesting.

The final product is really a sight to behold (except that it’s music so you should be hearing it). The Bends was and remains some people’s favorite album by Radiohead, and I can’t really fault them for that. The album was my favorite for quite a while, even if I came late to the Radiohead party, hot on the heels of OK Computer. Still, certain publications rank it just behind The Beatles’ Revolver as the 2nd best album of all time, and that’s not too shabby for an album wrought with uncertainty and chaos.

Indeed, even the opening track, “Planet Telex”, with its thunderous drums and amazing multi-layered guitars and keyboards that would put Phil Spector to (somehow) even more shame, seems a really together song, but it was entirely written in the studio and performed after a “night on the town”. Thom Yorke’s voice on this particular one is really powerful and disturbed at the same time, pushed to the background but piercing through the mix with those amazing high notes; not too bad for the fact that he was completely wasted and singing the words while laying on the floor. I haven’t been able to sing that well in 10 years of trying, which is why I kind of hate Thom Yorke in that way that only musicians can.

Though “Planet Telex” is a great opening number, really the album kind of starts with the title track. Less ambient and more to the point, “The Bends” is tonally the perfect subversion to the previous album’s overly clean and chugging sound. It seems rare, nowadays, to hear all 3 of Radiohead’s guitarists on guitar, but that first chord reminds us all of just how powerful the band can sound when not tinkering with laptops or the Ondes Martenot. The song is performed with this certain edginess, as if the whole song could fall apart were it not for the rhythm section’s perfect timing. You can even tell (with good headphones) that Thom sings part of it while entirely too close to the microphone, and the lyrics gloriously make no sense:

Just lyin’ in a bar with the drip-feed on
Talkin’ to my girlfriend, waiting for something to happen
I wish it was the 60’s, I wish we could be happy
I wish, I wish, I wish that something would happen

Where do we go from here?
The planet is a gunboat in a sea of fear, and where are you?
They brought in the CIA, the tanks and the whole marines
To blow me away, to blow me sky high
My baby’s got the bends, we don’t have any real friends

Of course, these lyrics are par for the course nowadays for Radiohead, but back when they were known for “Creep”, which has really straightforward lyrics, it was probably confusing to hear and read these words.

Mind you, the vagueness of the lyrics have never brought Radiohead down before, and you may find yourself relating all too well to the next couple of songs if you’re having a down moment. The first is “High & Dry”, and it has this wonderful acoustic guitar riff that opens it, as Thom sings lyrics about some kind of motorcyle rider who is leaving him high and dry, I suppose. The point is, this song is the formal introduction to the Thom Yorke yodel. Some musical types may call it a “perfect fifth” when the singer goes from a note to a high fifth note by switching his voice to falsetto mid-note, but guess what: that’s how yodelling works. So yes, the chorus to “High & Dry” introduces an element to Thom’s voice (also seen in singers like Jeff Buckley and early Coldplay) that would define singing for a lot of other British and American acts.

Still, no greater example of this element to Thom’s singing exists than in the legendary “Fake Plastic Trees”. Starting with a simple chord progression, Thom sings those words that would be heard in every open mic night for the next 15 years:

A green plastic watering can
For a fake Chinese rubber plant
And fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself
It wears her out, it wears her out

Again, no true sense is made, but by the time the song gets to some ideas that Earthlings recognize (“She looks like the real thing, she tastes like the real thing, my fake plastic love”), any heart that’s ever been rended asunder by a sadness will suddenly find itself weeping in some capacity over lost love, only to be carried joyfully into the Heavens by the crescendo of instruments and Thom’s majestic voice (coincidentally stating “I could blow through the ceiling”), until the whole thing comes back down into a slow fade as Thom sings “If I could be who you wanted, all the time, all the time”. Yeah, there aren’t a lot of songs quite as powerful as “Fake Plastic Trees”, but please, budding musicians, learn how to do the Thom Yorke Yodel properly before attempting this at any open mic or party that you attend, lest you get the eye-roll from your unwilling audience.

The album kind of lulls for a bit with a bit of a forgettable track called “Bones”. Honestly, I don’t dislike the song, it demonstrates Thom’s ability to sing in low register, but you know they can’t all be zingers, is all I’m saying.

“(Nice Dream)” is one of the best implied songs I’ve ever heard. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to actually say the title out loud or just nod with the look on your face that you’re referring to this song, but then the mysteries of life abound. This song is mostly noteworthy for its use of strings, and for the minor key change rockout toward the end.

One of the stand-out rock tracks of the album and, well, Radiohead’s entire career is “Just”. It’s hard to use words to describe just how great this song is, so I’ll just tell you the true story of how the band wrote the song. Basically, “Just” is a competition between Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke to see who could fit the most chords into the song, and that’s just awesome. The lyrics convey a very simplified angst in a vague story line (the chorus is simply “You do it to yourself, just you, and that’s why it really hurts, you do it to yourself, just you, you and no-one else, you do it to yourself”), but the lyrics are not what you should be listening to. There’s so much going on in this song musically that it still blows my mind to hear this song. For goodness’ sakes, toward the end of the song Jonny Greenwood plays a solo entirely by scratching his pick across the strings and applying effects. What a song.

Radiohead doesn’t lash out at popular music very often, typically their approach is to ignore it and instead write music that helps change it, whether directly or vicariously through changing the “counter cultural” music scene (and if you don’t think the two are inextricably tied, well, you’re obviously not as paranoid as I am). One of the few examples of writing out some real issues with the mainstream media in song is “My Iron Lung”, which was one of the first songs reportedly written for this album. The song, of course, doesn’t actually make any sense, but you can tell with imagery like “Suck your teenage thumb, toilet-trained and dumb” that they’re attacking someone. The song has a guitar riff that will either annoy you by it being annoying to listen to or to learn how to play on the guitar yourself. I’ve had a little of both in my overall Radiohead experience (I used to hate this song, you see).

After a few more attempts at writing singles (I believe all 3 of the next tracks were considered for “lead single”), we finally arrive at the end of the album with “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, which is one of the only examples I can think of where a single, definite guitar arpeggio is the core of the entire song. At least, I’m sure songs like this exist, but the extent to which the song is built upon that guitar line is rather unique amongst anything that can be said to sound like it. Either way, the song is brilliant and is a wonderful way to end the album as it started: with an ambient, crazy sounding song, and Thom Yorke lying on the floor drunk.

So, there you have it. Radiohead’s best album, at least according to people who are either old or don’t follow Radiohead much. Still, even looking at album in totally different genres of the time, I constantly see The Bends as a source of inspiration for music at large, which is not bad for the band whose claim to fame thus far was writing “Creep”. Way to dodge the one-hit-wonder bullet, Radiohead.

Emmylou Harris – All I Intended To Be

As it has probably been stated before around here, I’m a little weird when it comes to female musicians. For whatever reason, there are very few of them I like, even fewer that I respect, and almost none that I admire. In particular, other than pop and all the other genres, I tend to despise Country female vocalists.

So let’s talk today about a female vocalist I not only really like, but also respect and quite admire:

Where DID I put that gol'dern houseMind you, at first I’m sure my admiration for Emmylou Harris, the 62 year old rightful queen of Country, reaches back to when my Dad used to listen to the cassette tapes of hers that he had while learning her songs.

“I’ve always had a crush on Emmylou” my dad admits, “in fact your mother and I have an agreement that I can date her if I get the chance.”

Sure enough, looking at her from back in the day, I can agree, heck even now she’s a gorgeous lady. Still, what struck me about her wasn’t so much her looks or my dad’s pre-nuptual agreements, but her actual music. Emmylou’s the quintessential female vocalist when it comes to Folk/Country, she’s got this voice that’s just crystal clear, and her sense of melody is never to be denied, she can glide across these majestic tunes with an effortless grace; also, and this is most important, she has no Country twang.

Yeah, it’s in fact the non-Country-ness of her voice that makes her appeal so much to me. Female vocalists in Country music tend to go for this overly brash, tequila-soaked dirty cowgirl twang (I’d blame Reba McEntire for this but there are so many others), and it’s disgusting. I mean, Southern accents are bad enough, but having to effect them, and not even that well? Go to Hell, Sugarland, and please stay there this time.

No, Emmylou’s voice is that of an angel, if indeed I’m right in believing that angels are created by God specifically to sing His praises. That voice is featured quite heavily on All I Intended To Be, if you can believe that.

The album is Emmylou’s newest, and easily the best Country album of last year (ok, so more like the only Country album I heard last year, so what). It follows hot on the trail of about a million other things she’s been doing lately; apparently the girl is in high demand as a vocalist (surprise) and seems to spend more time helping her friends than herself, which I can support. The album is rather long, with 13 full-sized tracks, each one either slow or mid-tempo and extremely relaxing. Most of the tracks feature acoustic instruments, but ‘lectric guitars find their ways in there sometimes, but like Emmylou’s voice, the instrumentation is absolutely void of any kind of twang or other cheeseball antics that appeared in every other Country album of late.

The actual songs are a mix of Emmylou’s masterful songwriting and some… unusual covers. Well, not all of the covers are unusual, in fact a particular favorite of mine is “Moon Song” by Austin, Texas’ own Patti Griffin (not sure if she’s really from there, but they love claiming her). The song tells it from the perspective of a poor girl who has been left alone by her love, and the song never states why (my theory is that the person has died and this is more of a “denial” kind of song), and the moon keeps showing up to follow her home:

Waited for you till the snow fell down
Over my skin like a thin nightgown
Waited for you but you never came around at all
Waited for you till they pulled the plug
Bartender emptied out his big tip jug
They swept all the floors
Vacuumed the rugs and went home
Drank all I could swallow
Now the moon’s gonna follow me home

There is a lot of drinking in this song, which figures, if indeed it was written by someone from Austin. Either way, that is a nice cover, and another nice cover is a tune you can usually hear at Starbucks (at least I’ve caught a note of it from time to time), called “Hold On”. The song was written by a songwriter gal called Jude Johnstone, and in my constant need to tie every artist back to The Man In Black, I will mention that she also wrote “Unchained” which he popularized. Anyway, “Hold On” is a decent song, lyrically (it does rhyme “desire” and “fire” which is a cardinal sin of songwriting unless you’re, well, you know who), but the melody is probably the catchiest thing on the album. The way Emmylou commands that chorus of only two words is mesmerizing, and unlike most other Country songs, you actually want this one to repeat the requisite 240 times before the song’s end.

The unusual cover in this album is something called “Broken Man’s Lament”, which is a tune written by Mark Geronimo, who is a rather obscure poet/singer-songwriter/trucker from North Carolina. That’s right, a trucker poet wrote this song, and it kind of shows:

I was once a broken man
I was once a broken fool
Lost my wife and children
To one basic broken rule
Now I live my life in silence
Though I’m not quite in a shell
I drink and listen to that song
A whiter shade of pale
Oh, a whiter shade of pale

See then the song traces his journey, in ballad form, through getting married, being a shade tree mechanic, having his wife leave him a “Dear John” letter, and all that…. wait a minute! Yeah, Emmylou’s singing a ballad from the viewpoint of a man. I… kind of can’t figure this out. I mean, at first I thought that she wrote it, because she’s pretty dang good at writing songs (see “How She Could Sing the Wildwood Flower” for an amazing song about The Carter Family’s beginnings), but I was wrong. This is a song written by a man, about a man, sung by one of the most feminine voices in female singing. I still don’t understand it, other than that it actually is a really good song, maybe she decided to sing it just so confused folk like me could be having this discussion about it. I don’t know.

Either way, this album is excessively brilliant, though regular yee-haw Country fans, damnable creatures they are, will probably find it a bit on the “where are the jokey songs or the God Bless America songs” side of folk. Still, those of us who appreciate music made by amazing musicians and whose ears appreciate a silver-haired woman with a golden voice, this album is a must-have and comes with my highest recommendation.

Wait, that almost sounded like a review. Where’s my paycheck?