Johnny Cash – Unearthed: Disc 2: Trouble In Mind

As promised, we’re going to go into the second disc’s worth of “outtakes and alternative versions” from Johnny Cash’s “American Recordings” era, called Unearthed:

When speaking on Cash’s second American album, Unchained, I remarked that Johnny Cash with a band, with his voice still as strong as ever, was a uniquely powerful sound for the aging troubador. This album (or part of an album, I suppose) focuses mainly on that era during the recording of Unchained, but with a slightly different feel than what would become Cash’s second American album.

Whereas American Recordings, the first American album by American Johnny Cash, was a bit on the dark and conemplative side, Unchained was a lot of full-band fun, with occasional bits of introspection. The outtakes to this album reflect that, but the songs selected for Trouble In Mind are mainly light-hearted and some just seem random. Like with the previous disc, Who’s Gonna Cry, we’re treated to a much more laid-back environment, with studio banter being left in, and some interesting guest performers who stopped by the studio to record some stuff.

All in all, it kind of reminds me of my experience growing up with a great guitarist for a father. He was in a lot of bands, and I expressed an interest in hanging out at practices, since I wasn’t old enough at the time to go to the gigs. A lot of times, “practice” would just become rattling off all kinds of songs, whatever everybody knew or could make up easily.  The whole process of a bunch of knowledgable, older guys getting together and just playing a bunch of songs seems to really be all over this particular disc.

First off, however, we get something rather unique in a song called “Pocahontas”. The song was written by Neil Young and is, in fact, the first Young song ever covered by Cash, though the two have worked together before (on exactly one song, in 1994, a 10 minute version of the terrible Christmas song “The Little Drummer Boy”). “Pocahontas” may seem like a weird choice for Cash, considering the song is really surreal and seemingly out-of-character for the Man In Black, but therein lies the beauty. For one, it’s a really good song, and the instrumentation is top notch. It even has those roaring low cello notes that would become quite the feature in Cash’s final album. For two, with the song being way out of Cash’s lyrical comfort zone, already one gets the feeling that this recording simply doesn’t care if you think Cash should be singing these songs, he just is. Later in the album, Cash decided to do a second Neil Young song, this time one of his most famous: “Heart Of Gold”.

The second song is a little more like it, and is called “I’m A Drifter”. The song is a manly song of drifting from town to town, which makes it kind of odd that it was written by Dolly Parton. Sure enough, the song is only manly because it’s Cash singing it, and he almost never minds singing songs that were originally written by women, almost to a fault.

Another interesting choice in song would be a rockabilly song by Roy Orbison called “Down The Line”. The song is done up in true rockabilly fashion, with some swingin’ drums and that infamous up-and-down bass-line, and perhaps the weird thing about the song is that it’s kind of an arrogant “love her and leave her” kind of song with antiquated verbiage throughout:

Well you can’t be my lovin’ baby
You ain’t got the style
I’m gonna get some real gone love
That’ll drive a cool cat wild

Again, not the kind of song you’d expect to hear by Johnny Cash, but it’s really fun and I’m glad he recorded it.

As if the album wasn’t weird enough already, now we have something that I’m still puzzling over. The song is “As Long As The Grass Shall Grow”, which is a Peter La Farge song written for Cash for his 1964 album Bitter Tears: Ballads Of The American Indian, or so you would think. Actually, the song has been entirely re-written except for the chorus. The original song, as you know (or will know when I write this album up), is about the U.S. breaking their peace treaty with the Senecas as one of the many instances of genocide on the Indians that our nation was built on. The song is tragic and thought-provoking, but in an even more thought-provoking move, Cash re-wrote the song to be about him and June Carter and how they met and how they’d be together forever. The bitter ballad of the American Indian is now a love song, and a really good one at that. I don’t know what to make of the idea of it all, but I do enjoy the song, and it’s one of the very last times June Carter would sing on a Johnny Cash recording (though she came out with a last album in 2003 that featured Cash, so it’s not the last time they sang together or anything).

At some point, the King Of Rockabilly and one of Cash’s best friends and long-time collaborators (going all the way back to his Sun days), Carl Perkins, stopped by the studio to throw out a couple of tracks and teach Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (who were Cash’s backing band for Unchained) how to play Rockabilly. The two songs that Perkins plays with Cash are just magical, first off is “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby”, which is a Perkins near-original about having stacks of women throwing themselves at you (a problem many of us have dealt with). Second is an excellent Chuck Berry song that goes by the name of “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”.

We then get a song that’s kind of “hokey” for Cash, called “T For Texas”, by Jimmie Rodgers. The story behind this song being included is that it’s a favorite of Rick Rubens and he spent a considerable amount of time begging Cash to sing that one, whereas Cash wasn’t too fond of the song. Ruben finally got his way, however, and the version really isn’t bad at all, I am just kind of with Johnny on this one.

A song that got stuck in my head like crazy the other day had me reeling and agonizing over who sang it. I thought it might have been Warren Zevon, or someone else, but it turned out to be Johnny Cash singing Steve Earle’s “The Devil’s Right Hand” with no accompaniment but a lone, bouncy electric guitar. The song is so catchy that it was able to get in my head without me first knowing it was a song Johnny Cash sang, and that is some powerful catchiness (great lyrics, too).

The last 4 tracks are just alternate versions of songs that appeared on the first American album and another version of “I’m A Drifter”. The final song is a real treat, though, as it’s Johnny Cash with a huge orchestra playing Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On The Wire”. There is some banter before the song that is pretty hilarious too, but that’s just icing on the cake of it being a really majestic performance of a wonderful song.

So yes, Trouble In Mind contains some of the high points of the collection, and the highest point of Cash’s powers within his American recordings. Like with the period after Unchained, we’ll soon hear the declining Cash singing despite his health, and the songs are all the better for it. Until then!

King Crimson – Red

Today’s been a hectic day for me, as I am in the process of moving back to Austin after a relatively unsuccessful “break” here in my hometown. It’ll be nice to get back to business, but the whole packing and loading trucks thing has caused undue delay in today’s album writing. I will say, at least, that I knew what I was going to write about at least since yesterday. I really wanted to give King Crimson another shot, and in keeping with my seemingly chaotic treatment of their chronology, am going to talk about their “final” album before first breaking up in 1974. So here we go, here’s King Crimson’s aptly-named Red:

I have been listening to King Crimson for a while now, and I really only feel like I barely know them. I don’t know, maybe because there’s just so much to know (one could easier learn French than recall all of the personnel shifts this band went through), and also because the music is still a little bit over my head. Even though the Red album is centered around the band being a “trio” (plus 1 or 5 other musicians at various points), some of this stuff is so confusing that I have to listen to it about 5 times through just to get this far into the writeup.

Last we left the band (chronologically), they had just put out one of their best works, Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, featuring some brilliant musicianship, thanks in no small part to the fantastic lineup they had going for them in the aftermath of pretty much everyone in the band but Robert Fripp circa the Islands album being eaten by bears.

Alas, the lineup of guitarist/fearless leader Robert Fripp, bassist/vocalist John Wetton, drummer extraordinaire Bill Bruford, stay-at-home lyricist Richard Palmer-James, and red-shirt cadets Jamie Muir and David Cross (no relation to the comedian) would start to dwindle after the Larks’ Tongues experience. First, Jamie Muir would have some kind of mental problem and wind up leaving the band unexpectedly to a nearby bear-filled forest, and after an album weirdly called Starless And Bible Black, violinist David Cross apparently got voted off the team for reasons Wikipedia seem hesitant to go into. I’d say it was probably to save the young man’s life from all these wild animals running rampant.

When the time came to make a new album, the remaining three members weren’t exactly in the best shape. Fripp had gone all spiritual and was under the impression that the world was about to end (what he might have been actually seeing was the decline of Prog Rock around 1978), and was at odds with Bruford and Wetton, who were rocking out too hard on stage, a cardinal sin in the Prog world, seemingly.

Now, while this may sound slightly similar to a story reported on yesterday, the decline of King Crimson was actually not necessarily a bad thing, because Red is a fantastic album. Instead of two albums’ worth of half-nonsense, the entire album is contained within 5 tracks, all of which contain some of the best elements of the Crimson sound up to that point, without so much of that pesky avant-garde filler that would sometimes take up entire albums (see: Lizard). This could be said to be influenced somewhat by Fripp’s lack of asserting control over the whole thing, leaving a lot of the production work to Bruford and Wetton, who just shrugged and proceeded made the thing rock.

It starts out with an aptly-named instrumental called “Red”, which uses a “whole-tone scale”, a scale so secret that I dare not try and describe it to you. Basically, it sounds a little bit like a standard song, if that song was right around the corner waiting to kill you. Yeah, the song has this crazy dissonance to it that kind of gives it a creepy effect, but various changes in the structure put things back in the proper “rock” category, and then of course there’s a section for cellos, possibly included to signal the approach of wild bears.

“Fallen Angel” brings up the end of the album’s first half, and is the first song on the album to feature lyrics. These lyrics are pretty dire, about the death of the singer’s little brother who tried to follow in the singer’s footsteps (or motorcycle tracks, as apparently the “Angel” is meant to mean the “Hell’s Angels”). Moreso than the death of an idiot, what might bring a tear to your eye about this song is that it’s the final one to include the poor acoustic guitar, as Fripp would eventually burn all of his acoustic guitars and only use electric ones from there on out. What’s next, burning all the mellotrons too?

The album’s centerpiece is another song that sounds like it wants to murder you, this one going by the name of “One More Red Nightmare”. Still, this song is immensly fun, with a very strong vocal performance from Wetton, and some of the catchier drum sounds to come out of Bruford in this period, at least in my ears.

The next song is “Providence”, named after the Rhode Island town in which the song was performed (mostly via improvisation) live. This song features David Cross’ violin opening the thing before it starts to go off into this “little bits of instruments coming in and playing random noise” series of tangents that could sound like a brilliant piece of musical art, but most days of the week winds up sounding a bit like a “shreds video“. Really though, I do like the song, especially when the beat comes in and the whole thing sort of comes together.

Then finally, we get a song “Starless”, which might confuse some people since it contains the lyric “Starless and Bible black”, which is the name of the previous album, which has a song with the same title. I’m still not quite clear on this one myself, apparently they wrote the song for the previous album, but scrapped it in favor of a 9 minute instrumental that’s still pretty good, and then decided to put the song on their next album in its full form? Either way, this song is my favorite vocal melody of all 3 songs on this album that contain vocals, and the inclusion of some of the Islands players give this song a very “original King Crimson” sound, which is always a good sound to have.

Of course, this extremely strong set of songs wasn’t enough to hold the band together. If anything, this album’s greatness was just a coincidence. Fripp wound up disbanding the King Crimson before this album was even released, and famously remarked that the band was “completely over for ever and ever.” It turns out that “for ever and ever” is more like a few years, as the band would bounce back with an all new sound and cast in the 80’s, but we’ll have to get into that another day. Until then!

The Beatles – The Beatles

Well since we’re nearing the end of the year and all these silly album writeups, it’s about time we finished the latter half of The Beatles’ discography with one of their most famous albums, which is self-titled but for reasons that should be fairly understandable, is also called “The White Album”:

Ok that’s really confusing since I’m typing this against a white backround…

The Beatles was an album that arrived after the puzzlingly “best album of all time” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the clearly better (well to me anyway) Magical Mystery Tour. While those two albums were born out of an era of The Beatles’ career where they had ceased touring and were only making “studio albums”, the difficult sessions they started after leaving for a trip to India, during which their manager died, was the beginning of the end of the group in general. In fact, drummer Ringo quit the group for a couple of weeks, and some reports state that the other members quit at various points too.

Still, the band carried on, and eventually recorded and released their only double album, which after 15 months of waiting from the fans (about 13 months more than usual given the speed at which most artists were coming out with albums in those days), sailed straight to #1 and remained there even after they released another album. I guess it’s not so bad to have an album at #1 and #2, if anyone would be familiar with having the gold AND silver medals, it would be The Beatles, owning 4 of the top 10 spots on Rolling Stones’ 500 Best Examples Of How Bad We Are At Making Lists.

This album, in fact, is supposedly the 10th best album ever made. I strongly contest that on the grounds that it would only be a good album in my book if half the songs were thrown away or, I don’t know, slapped onto Yellow Submarine to make that album somehow worse.

See, I love about half of this album with all my music-loving heart. It’s got some legendary songs on it, and some really interesting experiments at work, but for every “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, there’s a “The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill”.

Unlike when I attempted to deflate Sgt. Peppers some time back (which I still stand by, I still love the album but still don’t consider it anywhere near “best”), I actually took the time to read extensively about this particularly white album, and I tried to look at it based on its place in The Beatles’ career, in the world of pop music at large (which might as well had been called Variations On Beatles Music at large), and how I felt about it simply based on what I hear with my ears versus what I read with my eyes. My conclusion about this album is very genuine: about half of it would have made it the 10th best Beatles album.

The album just goes off into so many random directions. The weird thing is, each member, despite not really being that interested in working with each other (though quite interested in complaining about “not being included” as they frequently weren’t), has their own part to play in this album’s irritating bits. Even George Harrison, who is usually the most sensible guy of the group (or at least the least-prone-to-make-silly-clarinet-songs-like-McCartney of the group) wrote an especially irritating number called “Piggies” which is about as subtle as car crash. Still, on this very album, ol’ George composed “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, and “Long, Long, Long”, and “Savoy Truffle”, the last of which, perhaps, is a bit iffy but is actually a favorite of mine (not just because They Might Be Giants covered it, either).

Another oddity is a bit of a flip on the usual formula: McCartney wrote a song I really like, and Lennon wrote one I kind of slap my head about. Beatle Paul actually has a few good hits on this one, but his general style (“Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da”, “Birthday”) doesn’t sit well with me, and those are here too. The good ones are “Helter Skelter”, which despite being used as the soundtrack to some mass murders, is a really interesting and invigorating tune, considering the time period and the dude writing the thing. Sure, it’s noisy and wrong, but it feels so right.

Still, in the same album he also wrote and recorded “Rocky Raccoon”, and the less said about that, the better.

Let’s not forget that the “White Album” introduced a young fella named Yoko Ono to the mix. On top of having a vocal presence on the album for a line or two, her bat-shit insanity and total lack of musical responsibility caused something like “Revolution 9” to happen. Based on a previous song on the album, “Revolution 1” by Lennon, which is actually really good, “Revolution 9” is a lot of noise and repetition and more noise, for 8 1/2 minutes straight. Now, this whole “avant-garde” thing is not something I’m strictly opposed to, you may have noticed me speaking highly of it in yesterday’s writeup, but “Revolution 9” is non-music. Music is tone and time, it’s really hard to mess that up. You take a tone, and repeat, and that could technically be considered a song, though a really terrible one. “Revolution 9” can’t be called a terrible song, only a terrible assortment of sounds arranged, with no real care, against the swelling sense of importance of whomever thought it would be a great idea to include this waste of time on an album that was already far too long.

The thing is, one must look hard and sternly at one’s self when it comes to deciding whether to knock an album like this that gets universally good ratings and was a huge seller for years. When I think about whether an album that sings about the U.S.S.R., then birthdays, then weird fictional characters, then doing it in the middle of the road, then making random noises at you for many minutes, and then ending with Ringo slurpingly whispering “good-night” to you against the cheesiest Wall Of Strings I’ve ever heard is a good album or bad album, I have to look at the intentions of who put this stuff together. Sure, knocking an album for being all over the place would probably make me the pretentious one here, but I am almost certain that no band of people came together and decided unanimously that this was the work they wanted to put out there for the world. I’m thoroughly convinced that the “White Album”, despite having a lot of moments I consider to be the group’s(?) strongest, is an album that was born out of compromises and conciliatory shrugging. A drugged-out band (oh yeah I forgot to mention they were on a lot of drugs. Lennon was doing heroin!) without a manager, being forced to come to a democratic consensus on what to do with their time, and this is what came of it.

“10th Best Album Ever” my eye.

Anyway, things would unfortunately get worse for The Beatles before ending in a fizzle. We already heard about Abbey Road, brilliant thing that it is, which was made when the situation was worse but everyone at least got a little wiser about it. Still, before the year’s out, we’re going to have to see what happens when The Beatles meet Phil Spector. Until then!

David Bowie – Aladdin Sane

I really wanted to represent David Bowie somewhere on this weblog at some point, because the guy is just so damn cool. Unfortunately, I’m a bit of a newcomer to his sound, and I don’t actually have (though I have heard) his Ziggy Stardust album. I do, however, have his so-called “sequel” album to that, Aladdin Sane, so I guess we’d better talk about it then:

Really, I probably should have picked a more popular Bowie album to heap praises upon, but I haven’t heard anything from the man I haven’t liked yet, and this album is no exception. It’s the direct follow-up to Ziggy Stardust, and has been treated as a “sequel” by people who like to use the word “sequel” when it comes to albums. The actual writing of the songs that weren’t already written by The Rolling Stones were written while Bowie was on tour promoting his hugely popular previous album.

Having just started reading about this album, it seems that critics can’t seem to make anything of it. Some think it’s half terrible, and others think it’s half brilliant. Personally, I don’t know enough about David Bowie to hate any of this album. I think the songs themselves are really great, and who knows maybe there’s some “derivative” work here, I’m too busy enjoying the whole thing to care. So, as opposed to being “fair” or “critical” of this album, which really isn’t my style anyway, I’ll tell you what I like about it.

The album caught my attention immediately when I blasted “Watch That Man”, because I had to check my Winamp, thinking “Oh sorry that’s The Rolling Stones”. Turns out I’m wrong! It’s a guitar and piano blues-rock fest much in the style of something the Stones would have done (indeed Bowie was something at least one of the Stones has done ooooooh that’s freaky). Indeed, the voice is unmistakably Bowie, unmistakably buried underneath the mix, and I was quite confused by this, so I checked Wikipedia and it turns out they agree with me on both counts. Well, Bowie or Stones, I love this kind of music, I don’t care who’s making it.

I will say, however, that the second track is where the album really comes alive for me. The title track  had me thinking one thing and one thing alone: “Holy crap what a piano solo!” As it turns out, this is the most cliché thing I could have possibly thought to myself about this song, as Bowie reportedly has never gone a week without being asked about the piano solo on this particular song. It has to be heard to be believed, folks. Basically, it’s the most messed up, musically complex to the point of seeming random piece of piano work I’ve ever heard, and I’m a Gentle Giant fan, kids. It sounds basically like a cat chasing a helicopter around the keyboard. The rest of the song is awesome too, but really this is one of those stand-out piano tracks. Just… try to refrain from asking Bowie himself about it, he’s probably sick of that now.

Similarly, “Time” is a track that heavily leans on piano, recalling a kind of rag-time era sound, only more bizarre and manic. As if that wasn’t enough, there are dual guitars, which is always fun. This song isn’t the only use of old-timey sounds either, “Drive-In Saturday” recalls a kind of doo-wop sound if it were done in the year 2000 (the future) with the sounds of lasers and flying cars like what we have. It’s also about people learning how to have sex from pornography, which is pretty cool I guess!

Speaking of The Rolling Stones and piano and lasers, those are about the only 3 words I can legally use to describe Bowie’s cover of “Let’s Spend The Night Together”, but at the risk of legal prosecution, I will also say that this cover is way better than the original at least by virtue of being way faster and Bowie-tastic.

One song that really resonated well with me is the final track, “Lady Grinning Soul”. When I think about what the words “avant-garde” mean to me, I often come up with the wrong definition, but the music I picture is a lot like this tune. It’s an ultra-smooth minor-key tune with echoey vocals, excellent instrumentation bringing in horns and really fancy piano (seriously this may be one of my favorite “piano” albums ever) against an acoustic guitar and delicate bass-line. The melody is to die for, and though people say things like “James Bond” when they mention the melody, I don’t really hear it, but I’m not a big Bond fan I guess.

Oh, and before I forget, there is another song that also struck quite a chord with me, the Bo-Diddley-beat-driven “Panic In Detroit” (have I ever mentioned how much I love the Diddley beat?) The song has a great vocal melody (albeit pushed way in the background again), and a great use of the legendary bomp-bomp-bomp … bomp-bomp beat, but the real star of the show is the amazing guitar solo that eats its way into the song in the last minute. It’s not that it’s a technically proficient guitar solo (it’s basically noise), but that noise is just beautiful.

Speaking of beautiful noise, the song that appears right after that, “Cracked Actor”, is kind of a mess. I do enjoy the song, but yeah guitar feedback kind of crowds the foreground at various points, and harmonica (which can easily be mistaken for more guitar feedback) fills things up as well. I like the song, all right, it’s just one that you may have to turn down for Grandma, is all I’m saying, especially since it’s all about prostitutes, and your Grandma would probably not want to be reminded of her past.

Anyway, that’s all but a couple of songs, but those songs are good too. Again, I’m finding it really hard to say anything overtly negative about this album. About the worst that anyone can come up with is that it’s not Ziggy Stardust and really, there are many worse albums by many worse artists that hold that same distinction.

So, until next time!

Weird Al Yankovic – The Food Album

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! On this fine day, Americans from all over the world gather together to celebrate the magic of food. Though we traditionally like to carve up turkey and make stuffing (finally, a food named after the verb that goes along with it), and craaaaaanberry sauce, thanks to The Food Network and the American Dream (and those terrible vegetarians like uhh, Weird Al), we can pretty much eat anything we want on Thanksgiving, provided of course we eat too much of it.

So, in the spirit of the true meaning of Thanksgiving, which is food and the promise of genocide, I might as well talk about Weird Al and his Food Album:

Of course, I originally had not planned on talking about this album, because it’s a compilation, but I evntually figured something out. Basically, hardly any Weird Al albums are actually albums, per se, because of the nature of his work. The music wasn’t written to contain any kind of cohesion or agreement, because he didn’t write the music. Thus, a collection of singles about a single topic, despite being recorded all over the 80’s and 90’s, is as close to a proper album as anything else. Heck, the word “album” is right there in the title so I have no problem.

As Weird Al’s food-based parodies tend to be some of his most famous, this album is quite good despite its ho-hum rating from Allmusic, which cites that it has too many songs about food on it (thanks, Allmusic). Also, as I mentioned in my last writeup of Weird Al, it’s the first CD I ever owned, as I only had cassettes before that (and now I feel old).

The first song is one of Weird Al’s best and most cited (thanks to its amazing video), the Michael Jackson parody “Fat”. Really, I could tell you what this parody of “Bad” is all about, but I think Wikipedia description is better than anything I could do:

“About a man’s obesity that is blown out of proportion.”

Either way, it’s certainly one of those songs that really sort of makes me unable to really appreciate the original anymore because it’s not hilarious. Such is the way with most Weird Al parodies, really.

The second song is a parody of one of the most annoying songs I’ve ever heard, “La Bamba”, which is now about a food item very close to a certain America’s Favorite Cat, “Lasagna”. The song is presumably based on the understanding that, if you visit an Italian person’s home and have dinner with them, you will wind up eating everything in their house. This is presented in “La Bamba”s typical over-the-top Flamenco-ness, which oddly translates really well into Italian, mainly thanks to Al’s extraordinary accordion chops. What Al does extraordinarily well is over-the-top Italian accents, as that is the main joke of the song. Still, I quite enjoy this one, especially for the accordion solo half way through.

“Addicted To Spuds” is based on Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love”, which was a big song in the 80’s or something. I actually quite like this song, either version, which kind of goes against my rampant 80’s-hatin’. Again, Wikipedia’s summary of the song is better than anything I could come up with:

“About a man’s fondness for potatoes prepared in an assortment of ways.”

There is a particular line that says “I used to hate them, now they’re all that I eat”, and I can relate to that, because I used to hate potatoes when I was a kid, and I think everyone goes through that phase at some point. Mind you, I’m no addict, I can quit any time!

One of my favorite songs on the collection is “I Love Rocky Road“, a parody of The Arrows’ song “I Love Rock N’ Roll” as covered by Joan Jett. As with many songs from Al’s first album (and one to come in this collection), this one features much original and less “authentic” reproduction of the original music and much more accordion and “manualism” provided by the legendary “Musical Mike” Kiefer. “Manualism” is, of course, just a fancy way of saying “making farty noises with your hands”, and this wouldn’t be the last time he would work with Al.

Another really great one is “Spam”, from the song “Stand” by R.E.M. I’ve never heard the original, so I don’t really know what’s been changed, but as far as songs about certain “ham and pork” products go, this one is tops. In particular, there are some subtle lyrical jokes that always crack me up, like the lines:

The tab is there to open the can
The can is there to hold in the Spam

Which is just kind of awesome.

The “other” Michael Jackson parody is next, this time we’ve got “Eat It“, which also features an awesome music video. The song itself is a brilliant parody, utilizing wordplay masterfully in mocking the “tough guy” attitude of “Beat It” with the words of a parent scolding a fussy eater of a child. Having heard both versions, I actually quite like the speedy guitar solo in Weird Al’s version, which is played by American Rick Derringer (who, in my mind, insists on having “American” incorporated into his name), as opposed to Jackson’s version featuring Eddie Van Halen. Not to say anything negative about Van Halen, he is in fact the only good thing about the band Van Halen. On a personal note, I have stolen the “amplifier exploding” gag for a song I wrote, as I have no shame.

The next song is one man’s obsession with the stuff in the middle of an Oreo, “The White Stuff”. A pretty cool take on “The Right Stuff” by New Kids On The Block, there is a certain line I always mixed up in this song, which cracked me up originally because I thought he was singing:

I love the filling most
I rub it on my roast
Mix it in with my coffee
And spread it on my toes

He is, in fact, saying “toast”, which is ok but I would have thought a more “Weird Al” move would have taken love of sandwich cookie filling to that kind of level. Interestingly, the song actually never saw the light of day as a single because the record companies held it back for being too outdated (the original having already been out for 4 years). It’s no wonder Weird Al has been so quick to embrace the digital age and its instant-release capabilities.

We then get the other song from Weird Al’s debut album, “My Bologna”, a play on the creepy classic “My Sharona”. Again, the instrumentation is much more accordion-centric, with more “manualism” from Musical Mike. In that sense, the song is actually tonally really enjoyable, I don’t know what it is about accordions in rock music, but this one’s great, at least until the middle eight which is puncuated by a loud belch.

The song “Taco Grande” is one of those that displays Al’s uncanny rapping ability. Of course, the “rap” is more of that sort of Latin pop style used for the original song, “Rico Suave”. The whole thing takes place in a Mexican restaurant with an actual Mexican (Cheech Marin!) providing a hilarious and probably authentic run-down of the menu.

Finally, we get Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger” played off as “Theme from Rocky XIII (The Rye or the Kaiser)”. It’s about a disgraced ex-boxer, now “fat and weak”, who runs the neighborhood deli. The song is perhaps the least “funny” out of everything on the collection, as it seems more bent on recreating the original to be about something else rather than making the song all that funny, but maybe I’m just picking on it. An interesting point about this song is that it seemed to predict the plot of the newest Rocky Balboa film, as the character is working in a deli in the beginning of the movie.

Phew! So that’s a lot of words for a 10 song album, but I do rather enjoy listening to this one from time to time. Sure, it’s more fun to watch the videos, but The Food Album showcases some really good stuff from our favorite musical parodist. Happy T-day, everyone! Enjoy the leftovers!

Puscifer – V Is For Vagina

The other day, an unexpected message came in over the wire. I was invited by a friend to attend a Puscifer show in Dallas, as Neil Hamburger was opening and this friend knew I’d want to see Neil again. So, whereas many of my friends would have loved to go to this event, I got to enjoy it on a whim for free.

Speaking of free, on the way out of the show, I was given a free copy of Puscifer’s debut CD, V Is For Vagina, so I figured what the hell:

First off, if you haven’t heard of this band before, congratulations, you somehow know less about popular music than I do. By definition, Puscifer is Maynard James Keenan’s solo project. As the lead singer of Tool, Keenan is passive-aggressively resentful of his fans. I can only imagine that he might have tried to start A Perfect Circle (his one-time “other band”) to try and get away from the crazy black-clad obsessed fans who attest that he totally gets them, man. Either way, A Perfect Circle didn’t lose him any fans (I have yet to run into someone who will love one and not also love the other), so I am thinking he figured this Puscifer thing would get him as far away from those fans as possible. Really, I would say it worked, because I saw a few empty seats at the venue I went to, most people in the center section where I sat stayed seated, and oh yeah the sound of the music was different than Tool.

I say “different”, but the old saying is true: you can take the Maynard out of the Tool, but you can never take the Tool out of the Maynard (probably why he’s so grumpy all the time). I went into the show fully expecting something stupid and gross that would at least make a passing shot at humor. Indeed, all of those elements were there, and in fact it was a really fun show for reasons I’ll get into in a minute, but the actual sound is “Tool meets hip hop”.

This summary of the sound really mostly applies to the album. As I listen to it, I am hearing these stale, programmed/processed drums, sludgy bassy instruments, and Maynard singing an octave lower than he should. At the actual show, he not only had a fine drummer who was throwing out some “sick beats”, as they call it, but Tim Alexander (the drummer for Primus for their more successful years) pounding on other, larger drums on the other side of the stage. That, and he was singing in his normal register, which worked a lot better for the songs, and had lots more instrumental assistance. That was a really great sound, and should have really gone on the album that way.

As a side note, I should mention that Maynard figured out a very clever way to get around that whole “having to face the audience” issue that he wrestles with every time he has to look out over that sea of black Tool t-shirts: he stands behind a flat-panel television that is level with his head, and then sings into a microphone with a camera behind the television facing him which is connected to said television, thus his face is being shown on the TV he’s standing behind as he sings. It was an awesome effect, actually, and his backup singing lady did the same thing. I don’t know, I liked it, and it was better than just turning your back on the audience (Johnny Cash he ain’t).

So yeah, the album that I was handed at the end of the concert was a bit of a disappointment after such a good show. Interestingly, I could not tell what Maynard was singing about at the show, and the album is even worse about that. When he’s not singing in an all-too-low register, he’s singing at an all-too-low volume, barely whispering the words out, and sometimes effects are mixed in that make things even more confusing. I would probably search for the lyrics online to make some comment on the themes therein, but really it’s mainly a lot of singing about guns and a lot of singing about sex.

Seriously, the gun thing was a huge part of the show, and I’m not knowledgeable enough about Maynard to know if he’s just being ironic about rap’s obsession with firearms or if he’s genuinely enthusiastic about them. In fact, the “Guns and sex” thing is pretty well wrapped up in the main hook line from “Dozo”: “Show you the difference between my gun and my pistol”. That line is repeated about 800 times.

Of course, since this still the Tool guy we’re talking about, themes of religion and the supernatural are visited, albeit in weirder ways than usual. The song “Indigo Children” is one of the catchiest tracks on the album, and has to do with a believe in the New Age movement about psychic kids. I’d say it’s fascinating, but actually there are about maybe 12 words in the whole song.

The song “Sour Grapes” is a bit of a puzzle. Basically, in the middle of the usual slow-going echoey minor-chord stuff that covers the entire album and the entirety of Maynard’s career, is a goofy impression of a Southern black preacher, talking about being saved and the holy mother and Jesus against a chorus of “Hallelujah” being sung in the background. Of course, one should probably dismiss this one as being intentionally ironic har har he’s really talking about penises or something, but really, the entire song is 7 minutes and roughly 18 stanzas of gospel preaching, word for word. If this wasn’t the Tool guy I would be completely convinced that, except for the stupid voice, there is actually no joke here. Of course, it could be that, like in many, many moments during the show, it is comedy but really poorly executed by a guy who isn’t that good at telling jokes. I don’t know, the song is about as catchy as a Gregorian chant so I’m not going to revisit it any time soon to give an alternative view.

So yeah, go and see Puscifer if you’ve got the means and time (or if you get invited by someone awesome to attend for free), and get this album for free, otherwise I don’t really recommend listening to this one. If you’re a Tool fan, this album seems to be engineered to make you hate it, and if you’re not a Tool fan, well what are you doing reading this blog entry anyway.

I will say that you should definitely purchase any and all Neil Hamburger material you can get your hands on. Though the crowd didn’t hate him all that much (not even when he came out and interrupted the band during a song to tell one more joke), the boos at this show were definitely fuel to his comedy fire. If you want to hear him at his crowd-controlling best, check out the album Hot February Night to hear him tell amazing(ly bad) jokes to 10,000’s of impatient and humorless Tenacious D fans. Until then!

Bloc Party – Silent Alarm

Ok, so I’ve been putting off this album for way too long, it’s time I just man up and write about Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm album:

Here’s the thing about Bloc Party: I’m conflicted. On the one hand, this band was suggested to me by someone I’m quite fond of, based on our similar tastes otherwise (English moody music, basically). Upon listening to the album, my reactions would predictably come in this order:

1. Excitement
2. Oh yeah, the singer sounds like that
3. Acceptance
4. Boredom
5. Next album

For this reason, there are few instances of me hearing the second half of this album. Still, I consider this album “Good”, or at least as good as indie music gets, because it does enough things right to belie its stamps, which include such titles as “indie rock”, “post-punk revival”, “alternative dance” (seriously?), and, last and certainly the non-trendy least, “alternative rock”.

Interestingly, despite it all, this is one of those few bands to which the phrase “alternative rock” actually hits a mark. The mid-90’s and that generation of here-sayers use to call everything “alternative”, thus removing all meaning from the word, and indeed the word “indie” has the exact same connotation nowadays. Bloc Party’s mission statement seems to be, however, to actually provide an “alternative” to rock bands (or dances?) in constantly changing their style or doing things a bit differently and thus it’s all good.

Thing is, despite being “alternative” and “different”, there’s something about Bloc Party that reminds me of something. Actually, the entire Silent Alarms album reminds me of a lot of things, so it’s not so much that one hears “original” sounds out of this band, but instead a collection of sounds that vary within the album’s parts. The first part is kind of that “alternative rock” colored of course by staples of the indie sound, but lovingly kept from being too predictable by the band’s ability to actually put melodies together without making the whole thing a jumbled mess (sometimes).

The first song displays this sound in earnest, and also introduces Bloc Party’s single best element: their drummer Matt Tong. Basically, you get one of those droning guitar notes coming in, which is followed by a high note on the bass being plucked quickly, and then suddenly, this massive quick-shot drum part comes in, and it’s surprisingly rocking! Then… the vocals come in.

One of my points of contention about Bloc Party, and it’s really hard to get around, is the vocalist/guitarist Kele Okereke. His lyrics aren’t so bad, but basically his vocals range from this kind of male cheerleader command to low kind of mumbling in the album’s middle parts. It’s kind of a shame, because he can clearly sing melodically, it’s just not something that, in the album’s strongest instrumental tracks, he feels is that necessary.

Still, nothing can take anything away from the album’s best song, “Helicopter”. Starting with two guitars pummeling away in this kind of dry-toned riffing, harmonizing with each other and being kind of awesome, despite my allergic reactions to all-down-stroke guitar playing (I call it “Green Day Fever”). The drums, again, are what really make this track, I would call them reminiscent of Mitch Mitchell, who at various points has been my favorite drummer, and indeed he even refers to (whether intentional or not) the infamous drum fill to Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” in the song’s final measure. I’m all about that!

Things go along like this for a while, as I struggle to reconcile the vocals and amazing drumming into a solid opinion about the band. The guitarist and bassist don’t really do anything for me that isn’t painfully planned out, and hell, even if I respected the guitarist’s playing, I’d still have to get over the fact that he looks like this:

Yeesh. Anyway, after the see-saw guitaring of the otherwise so-so fifth song “Banquet”, the album suddenly starts to plummet. It starts with the backwards-tracked sounding jazz chords of “Blue Lights” with the vocals suddenly a slurry mumble. Then, we’re treated to a beat that is solid, yes, but never changes. Yes, I guess we’re into the alternative dance now, and this is the point where the drums (no matter how repetitively catchy) are only augmented by hand-claps from here on out, at least until the final part of the album, which is nearly as good as the first part of the album, if you can stand that middle section.

It starts with the “dreamy” reverb-and-arpeggio-laden tune “So Here We Are”, which has no real points of interesting except that the drums are nice and trippy, with snare hits going on everywhere, and the army of shimmery guitars effectively drown out the lead singer, and if it were possible for me to high five a guitar, I would do so for that.

Then we get a straight-forward rocking beat with a lovely distorted bass line and endlessly-delayed guitars in “Luno”. The singing isn’t such a problem in this one, as the monotone verses and chanty chorus are both catchy enough. I really have no problems with this song!

We are then treated to a trend in albums that I haven’t been quite able to trace among “alternative” albums, yet I can’t help but note their appearance: the twin 4 minute album closers. It’s like the band wrote two “Wall Of Sound” style songs with layered boring bits culminating into songs so thick you want to top a bagel with them, and then couldn’t decide which one to end the album with. Then, in a brilliant realization that “more is more”, they decide to stack both songs together at the end of the album, like a tar-pit at the end of a roller coaster.

So yeah, this album isn’t bad, honestly, I think I just have personal issues with it due to my own tricky tastes. Interestingly, the band has recently (as in, 3 weeks ago) announced that they were probably breaking up, because the drummer has become frustrated with the band’s direction and tired of their sound. I like to think that this scientifically proves that I’m right about the juxtaposition of talent here. With that, I am going to retire to my bed for blissful, smug sleep.