Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream

Hooo boy, here we go. First off, I want to dedicate this blawg entry to my good friend BBH (that’s BB FREAKI’N H to somayous), without whom I would possibly never have given the Smashing Pumpkins a well-deserved second shot at winning my heart over with thier unique brand of rockin’. See, I used to hate the band merely for the reason that they were one of many bands that my cousin (the same cousin who introduced me to rock music in general) listened to in the early/mid-90’s, and aside from the Presidents, I really wasn’t a fan of the “Alternative Rock” scene. The Smashing Pumpkins were certainly part of that alternative thing, but unlike many of the more insufferable radio-rock bands of the time, these guys (this guy?) were the real deal. Today I want to talk about the album that single-handedly (albumly?) forced me to re-prioritize my musical tastes and finally accept the band as one of the best (or just the best) in an era of dour guitar rock:

Tee hee, we digest food with the same stomach!

I realize now that I was unfair on the boys (boy?), because this album really rocks my socks. The fact that Smashing Pumpkins are nothing more than Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlain these days, and the many admissions that Billy Corgan, manic control-freak that he is, played most of the non-drum parts of all the band’s albums by himself is something that kind of makes sense with this album. The whole thing, front to back, has about as much technical perfection as you could ask for. Nowadays, perfection is achieved through computerized tweaking, pitch correction, splicing, and lots of expensive software. Anyone who enjoys recordings made this way (see: Fall Out Boy) should really listen to this album to hear what it sounds like when perfection is achieved through back-breaking hard work. This is, of course, because Billy Corgan was (and presumably continues to be) an obsessive perfectionist, and the entire album sounds like him playing an impossible amount of guitars against the satisfactory drumming of Chamberlain.

The first track is really all it took for me to take a shine to the album in general, which is the way all rock albums should be, but you know. It’s called “Cherub Rock” and it blends an interesting, recognizable beat with at least 234 guitars playing an infectious riff against a simple chord progression. Corgan’s whiny vocal delivery remains a mystery to most, I think, including me. There’s probably every reason in the world that his voice should be grating and unlistenable, but I couldn’t imagine these songs being sung by a conventionally “good” singer, and I guess complaints of tone can always be dropped as long as every note is perfect, and that’s definitely something going on with this track.

We then move on to “Quiet“, an ironically-titled near-metal rocker which features one of my earliest objections to Smashing Pumpkins: the oppressive distortion sound. As I understand, Corgan has a real ear for distortion and in fact has been known to plug his guitar into 2 of the same distortion pedals so he can distort his already-distorted sound. I used to think the whole thing was unbearable until I became the proud owner of superb headphones, and realized that the way to hear these guitar sounds and appreciate them is to crank the volume. Such a simple solution! Now I love the sound, and that really helps one to overcome any further objections about the rest of the tunes.

One reason I hate the radio (and I do hate it, believe me) is the fact that they have been playing the exact same songs every single day since before I was even a teenager. It’s like a maddening hell on earth, but one silver lining around this dark cloud is the fact that “Today” is one of those songs. Whether you can understand the lyrics or not, it’s hard to deny that this is a song about depression, given that the lyrics start out “Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known”, with the trademark sardonic delivery of someone suffering from clinical depression. The video for this song is just as fun, featuring wacky guitarist James Iha in a dress.

Hummer” is another great song, and brings to mind a recent admission by Billy Corgan on his blog that he considers, after 20 years of thinking about it, the Smashing Pumpkins to be “American Gothic” music. I am no expert on genres, but I will say that this album, particularly with this song and the next song, “Rocket“, actually sound like American rock songs. I suppose the reason is that an element of American rock music is to take major keys and very big chords and mould them into just about anything you want, in this case, into a simutaneously stimulating and depressing style of music (hence the “gothic” part I guess).

American, Gothic, either, neither, or not, there is no better way to win my affection with your music than to add cellos and church bells. The album’s centerpiece, “Disarm“, does exactly that, and with style. I can’t figure out the meaning behind the lyrics for anything, but holy crap this is a good song.

Another good song, though it marks the end of the 6-song line of “hits”, is “Soma“. It might be so-named because most of it will put you the hell to sleep, but in a nice way, and the song starts really rockin’ out after about the 3 minute mark, so as to prevent some Late-Album Slowdown.

If you really want to get a scope of just how many guitars are going on at the same time on any given Pumpkins song, just give the next song, “Geek U.S.A.” a spin, and listen for the army of feedback notes at the end, I am fairly sure, without thinking too hard, that you can count about 49 guitars in there.

Speaking of guitars, there are some fairly fascinating ones going on in “Mayonaise”, a misspelled 6 minute sludgy rocker (I know that the name is supposed to be random, but I really think the song was called “Mayonaise” because it has the consistency of such). The beginning of the song features some interesting plucky lead and a particularly tricky use of harmonics. I’d explain further but I’m no music teacher.

Acoustic guitars (gasp!) open the track “Spaceboy“, which is another song that is a tad bit slower-tempo’d, so there is only one course of action you can take when you’ve dragged your album down in tempo with 2 relatively long songs. That’s right, with a 9 minute epic rockfest!

One of the best tracks on the album, “Silverfuck” opens up with some sample way, way in the background, talking about masturbation. Delightful! This song marks something of a tradition among Pumpkins albums, they almost always have a long jam towards the end of the album, and in fact the fast tom-driven drums in the “quieter” portions of the album were re-issued for the recording of “United States” off the band’s newest release Zeitgeist. Also present on this track is an army of guitars feeding back at almost any point (probably prompting Billy at the end to say “All right, this take? ‘Don’tgiveafuck'”).

Those perhaps fatigued by the crazy amount of album you get for your money at this point would be relieved to know that there are only 2 tracks remaining, and one of them is particularly short. In fact, as the runt of the pack, “Sweet Sweet” can be easily overlooked, but watch out! It’s a pretty good song!

Finally, the album is put to bed by “Luna“, another fairly short slow “love” song. There’s not much to say about this one, besides that it’s a fitting end to quite an epic album.

So yes, say what you will about the Pumpkins, about Corgan’s insanity and persnickitude, about the fact that half the band were junkies and the other half were crazy, about the massive egos and pretention, but this album stands as a testament to one of my core philosophies about music. Pretention is nullified the instant it’s justified. This is a great album, no matter who made it. Sure I may not be able to stand quite so proud for the other Pumpkins albums, but we’ll come to those when we get to them. Until then, adios!

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Poor Old Lu – Sin

After yesterday’s abysmal entry about an album I actually kinda dig (except, well, you probably know), I decided it’s time to write about an album I really like. In fact, it’s one of those albums from my past that I can remember owning on cassette for years before even starting a compact disc collection.

I’m-a-talkin’ about my once-favorite band: Poor Old Lu (still favorite in many categories, but ousted from all-time-favorite-of-all-genres by Gentle Giant some time ago). Before I explain much further, Poor Old Lu is most definitely a Christian band, so possibly won’t appeal to all palettes, but I say to true music fans that appreciation for music should not be hindered by religious belief or lack thereof. I can say in all honesty that there are atheist, agnostic, and even Buddhist music acts I consider in my favorites, and anyway what kind of person would dislike someone like Johnny Cash for instance simply because he’s Christian? Such thinking is very narrow indeed, and I don’t need you losers reading my blog (but do tell your friends to stop by).

Right, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about Sin:

That peep is judging you with its cold, recessed eye-bits

One of the reasons Poor Old Lu has retained its spot in my heart with much larger acts is that they are quite a unique sonic outfit. Not just unique for a Christian band, I mean there really is no band I have heard that sounds like them (not saying much on my part, I have a very limited experience with American alternative rock bands). Their sound is a blend of chunky, full guitar chords (none of this power chord nonsense), kind of thinned-out and melodic bass that doesn’t sludge up the mix, and perhaps the most unique, the fantastically busy drumming and raspy vocals that don’t seem to realize they’d be much better suited for something MUCH heavier. The team of Aaron Sprinkle, Nick Barber, Jesse Sprinkle, and Scott Hunter (respective to the instruments above) are no strangers to variety either, particularly in this, their sophomore album on the Alarma Records label.

The other curiosity to this album is, if taken by its vinyl (or cassette!) A side and B side, is almost entirely dire and angry on the A side and the “hits” (at least the ones that warranted music videos) are all tucked away towards the end of the album. This kind of works since there’s certainly no Late Album Slowdown to deal with, but the two sides contrast rather sharply so it could be that the most “accessible” tracks being right at the end might have driven away a few new customers, but oh well their loss.

The album actually does start out on a high note with “Complain“, which is one of their stronger opening songs, I feel (my favorite would be on an album to come that I will certainly write about). It’s strong, fast, and the angry people’s key of G, so all is well.

The next song, “Bones Are Breaking” kind of starts into a melancholy feel that speeds up for the chorus and is a really smooth track all around (despite the false-start). The one thing that can be noted about Poor Old Lu’s songwriting, and really a lot of “good” Christian rock, is that the lyrics can be as earth-shattering and dour as you can imagine, but there’s almost always a redemption verse right at the end, or during the bridge. Often it’s subtle, but the chorus and bridge lines of “Bones Are Breaking” are an excellent example of how Poor Old Lu redeem themselves in their lyrics:

Well I can’t hold this weight
upon my shoulders anymore
My bones are breaking
Hands are shaking
With everything

So I
Give all
To You
My God

And really, if it weren’t for the bridge, this would practically be a suicide song on par with Rezso Seress. Fortunately the album picks right up after that!

Actually… no, it doesn’t. It goes into a fast-paced and rather aggressive tune called “My World Falls Down“, which is an anti-sanctimonious song that is quite the concert favorite (most likely due to the heavy guitars and straight-up screaming rock finish). Then comes “Slow”, which takes it down a notch back to grief-stricken depression set to an interesting rhyming scheme dealing with colors and elements to correspond to emotional turmoil, and ultimately redemption. It’s a good track though not very popular, I get the feeling that the band isn’t even that fond of it.

Lyrically, the next song, “I Am No Good” is one of my favorites. It’s a song that completely tears apart the idea of Christianity equating to unfettered self-confidence and positive thinking. These types of songs in the so-called Christian genre are very few and far between, and often fly under the radar until they offend someone (I remember a Southern Baptist friend being very negative on this song). The music is wonderful in this track, but really the boldness of suggesting a very fundamental yet feared aspect of belief in any Higher Power (that, indeed, the presence of a Higher Power makes us a much Lower Power) instantly wins me over. There are only a couple of other Christian singers that I have seen do this with a lot of success, and one of them is Johnny Cash.

The next song, “Thoughtless”, is a follow-up (though written apparently at a later time) to “I Am No Good”, and follows the same idea that I just spoke of. It’s a really powerful song, and uses the idea of quantifying all of your worldly good with pocket change:

In my money, I was at home
To the beggar, I was so cold
In my pockets, all that I could hold
As I left here, this was all I was told

Well I get a dime for all of my good
A nickel for all that I could
And a quarter for all I said I would
And I was left poor, poor, poor
Oh my how poor

Again, if it wasn’t for the spiritual side of this album, one would well imagine this being simply a self-loathing mess. A little while after this intense song chimes its last chord on a cliffhanger, a single acoustic guitar comes in and plays a very nice bit of instrumental melancholy, which indicates the switch from Side A to Side B.

Side B starts with a very upbeat (almost a “punk western” song if I were to call it anything) track called “Hope For Always“, which is entirely about the Hope that defeats the loathsome feelings contained in the previous side. This theme is continued in the phase-shiftastic “Where Were All Of You”, which is more pop-sounding and is the first straight up evangelical number (in that it mentions Jesus Christ being “crucified for you and I”).

The next track is the amazingly funky “Bliss Is”, which is incredibly fun though the lyrics deal with being raised in a dysfunctional family and even contains direct suicidal elements, but is redeemed by a very unusual but honest line:

Savior, save me from what I know
Save me from what I know

The video is just plain goofy. I love it. This is one of my absolute favorite Poor Old Lu tracks, in fact, but that’s not to take away from anything else on the album.

The next song is “Cannon-Fire Orange”, which is a song the band has recorded many times and has its own story attached. It’s a good track, perhaps incongruous with the first part of the album, but an excellent fit for the second, and certainly a good segue into Aaron Sprinkle’s (of whom I will be making many entries seeing as how he’s a prolific solo artist and has another band now) singing debut, “Ring True”. I’m not super-crazy about this song, to be honest, except when I can sing along and harmonize, that’s really fun.

If you thought the A-side to Sin was dark and depressing, have the guys got a surprise for you. The next-to-final song on Sin, “Sickly“, is not only a band favorite, but very nearly the guys’ best song. Incredible, seeing as how it was written apparently without the writer’s knowledge (he consistently states he doesn’t remember writing it, only that it was there when they recorded it). It deals with a very tricky subject, and that is contrasting elements such as “Is it sunny, or is it raining out today?” that seem akin to Bipolar disorder, and in fact the whole thing seems to spell out hopeless depression (“I don’t know, but I think I’m going crazy”) against which prayer (in the very final line, “I think I’ve gotta pray”) seems to be the only answer. The “seems to be” part of this song is really what gives it a haunted feeling, because the other “redemption” songs rather bluntly put it to you that there IS an answer to the problems stated in the song, but “Sickly” takes it to the level of real fundamental problems, whether emotional or mental, and leaves the answer open. It really stirs up some emotions if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing.

The very last track is a Jesse Sprinkle original instrumental played solely on 12-string acoustic guitar. He would later re-record “Come To Me” on his own solo stuff, so I don’t consider this a significant track other than the attempt to NOT end the album on “Sickly”. It’s still pretty, though.

There’s also a secret track (as there is on 2 other Poor Old Lu albums) which is an answering machine message from emo pioneer Jeremy Enigk as a child to Lu bassist Nick Barber about a missing necklace. Did I mention I love Poor Old Lu?

Anyway, if I were to recommend Poor Old Lu to someone, I might recommend a later album since they are far more polished, but I would be remiss not to recommend listening to Sin at some point, as it is a gritty and very raw album that deals more maturely with the spiritual and religious life than a whole stack of Michael W. Smith’s.

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John Linnell – State Songs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, until tomorrow!

 

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Chevelle – Point #1

I am not a Chevelle fan. If you have a list of Chevelle fans and my name popped up there among the frat boys and guys who like metal but are too chicken for metal bands, and especially if being a fan means I like any album produced after their debut, you may cross my name right off.

However, that debut is such a wonder of nature that I just have to talk about it:

Ladies And Gentlemen, the faux-palindrome, a HUGE device in the design of rock album logos.

Now, I bear no ill-feelings towards Chevelle. They just play a particular style of rock that is decidedly not for me. I could probably listen to one or two songs from Vena Sera or Wonder What’s Next without much squirming. But hey, did you know Chevelle started out as a Christian Rock band?

Yep, that’s what Point #1 is. The guys were signed to Squint entertainment, a short-lived Christian label started by Newsboys songwriter Steve Taylor. I had read rumors before that the band intentionally used their album deal as a springboard to get into the mainstream quicker than through conventional means (acting on the assumption that Christian Rock labels are more gullible than secular ones) which is brilliant, but I found out much later that one of the reasons the band was signed to Epic was that Squint fell apart. It’s too bad, given that the youngest member of the band was 17 when this album came out, that the band wasn’t as brilliant as I had hoped.

Still, the album they released through Squint is something else. People familiar with Chevelle’s newer stuff might make the criticism that the band is a touch repetitive and far too in love with the 3/4 time signature. While all that is true, you really gotta hear the debut to get down on some TRUE repetitiveness.

The album starts out with a drawn out palm-muted chunky guitar sound that is interspersed with chunky guitar strumming. It’s supposed to be an introduction, and indeed you could stop the album right there, having achieved all the variety the album has. That may have sounded overly critical, which isn’t what I’m all about, but bear with me here…

The entire album, from start to finish, uses the exact same tones. It makes sense since the band didn’t really have a variety of gear or guitars or amps, and they recorded the thing across 17 days. In those 17 days, the band did not touch a knob on any controls. It really sounds like you’re hearing the band play all the songs in a row, and that actually has an effect that I’m very fond of. It’s like you’re listening to a really good practice in the band’s garage, a very humble setting and one that lets some pretty interesting ideas through, when there are any. Also, the fact that they use the same tones through the album is all right because it’s actually quite a good tone.

After the palm-muted introduction, the album’s title song comes on. It’s actually not bad at all, except for the psuedo-Christian lyrics. Not that I have a problem with Christian music (I will be talking more about it in future), but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do religious lyrics. One of the wrong ways is to be totally vague all the time. However, I have never actually read Chevelle’s lyrics for this song or the others, mainly because the guy’s instrument is much more suited as another instrument than something that is actually saying something. It’s a bit like a much duller version of Refused in that way. This guy does know how to scream though, and demonstrates it towards the end of the song. Quite nice.

We then plod through “Prove To You” which is a very ploddy song indeed, straight to “MIA”, which is a bit faster and introduces some interesting rhythmic challenges that the band handles quite well. It’s nice in a way to hear the product of a band who has played shows for 3 years before even releasing a debut, there’s an undeniable “everyone knows the songs really well” kind of vibe to it.

Then, if you can get past the mostly-dead-air introduction to “Skeptic”, you hear a song that’s just like the previous 3 songs, only a bit more metal. Then “Anticipation” comes in and is the first of MANY Chevelle songs in the afore-mentioned 3/4 time signature. It’s interesting to note that the bassist, the youngest of the 3 Chevelle Brothers, was brought into the band not because he’s a relative, but because they liked his bassing more than the guy they had, which begs the question, just how boring of a bassist was their previous guy? The bass up to this point and for all but 1 of the rest of the songs is simply plodding along with the guitar, never daring to venture into the tasty realms of adventure that tempt the mind of bassists with imagination, but I digress.

After screaming “face” a lot, we get my favorite song on the album: “DOS” (diminutive song titles seem to be the fashion for this release). I like this album not because it’s a little more chilled out or because it’s long or in 3/4 time, but because of the story behind the song, which I can’t find sources for but believe me I have known this story for a while. Basically, the band wrote the song when they played a gig for 2 people, and some of what become the song came from an improvised song they did when asked to play a request. The song becomes fairly endearing after that. Also, while looking that story in print somewhere, I ran across an article that compares Chevelle to Tool… what? I guess people really don’t know anything about music… tragic shame, that.

After “DOS”, we plod on through many more songs like “Long”, “Blank Earth”, and “SMA”, which was apparently “good” enough to be included in some of the band’s newer shows (and also sounds like it’s being played out of tune on the recording). Finally, we come the final song, “Peer”, a song that, for a minute, is a welcome change from the formula, mostly because it has a real bassline. It’s traded off for the usual sound right after that.

With that, we have a dull but endearing album by a Christian garage band that sold their souls to the Devil of Ozzfest. I dig that, however, I guess because I am totally fine with a separation of Church and Music, except when both elements are hit with full force. As for Chevelle, I will forever puzzle over how I could dislike a band so much yet still enjoy the one release they did, totally bare-bones, that nobody else likes. It could be nostalgia, but who can ever tell.

Well, until tomorrow!

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The Presidents Of The United States Of America – The Presidents Of The United States Of America

And the winner for longest blog post title goes to…

Ah this brings back so many memories

I figure, on our first day of having a new President of the United States of America, we should celebrate with probably the best album having to do with that particular office ever. Also we’re apparently in a time of great change what with our first-ever black President, and indeed the album we’re talking about is the very first rock album I ever liked, so we’re touching on all kinds of newness here.

I noticed that almost everyone I know has heard or owned this album at some point, so perhaps I will be saying nothing new about it. It dates back to the time when I was young and impressionable and largely unconcerned with any particular type of music (I had Classical cassette tapes and enjoyed the Blues on television occasionally and of course my Mom’s occupation bringing a constant influx of Christian music which I will get to in later entries). I wasn’t really provided with any rock music, due to my Dad largely giving up on listening to anything he hadn’t already heard a hundred times (he had a 10 year lapse in listening to any kind of music with the advent of The Dark Age of music, the 80’s), and that I didn’t like anything Mom listened to for the most part. Hence, it was up to my evil twin (my cousin who was much more fun than me and only 7 hours younger) to introduce me to an album that, probably more than other, changed my gol’dern life.

We weren’t “allowed” to listen to the first track, “Kitty“, very loudly, since it contains that most terrifying of words, the dreaded F-word. It’s really too bad that it would take me until I owned the album for myself before I could really get to listen to that song worry-free, because it’s a fucking great track.

“Kitty” and the next song, “Feather Pluckn“, introduce a lyrical element to The Presidents’ sound I have always enjoyed, the fact that they sing a LOT about animals. “Feather Pluckn” in particular really throws in a lot of critters in their song that is about who-knows-what. I will say that I recently discovered the breakdown where they are saying “Everybody’s super-nova” started out as a tribute/ripoff to the Beatles’ song “I’ve Got A Feeling” where they break it down toward the end. I didn’t know this before because Youtube hadn’t introduced me to a live version of the song where they sing the exact lines, and also I only listened to the Beatles for the first time about a year ago.

The next song is probably the best one on the album, or at least the most popular given the Weird Al parody, “Lump” is a pretty incredible song. It really has an impressive tonal quality, probably given that The Presidents didn’t even have a full guitar’s worth of strings between them. The lead singer plays a 2-string bass, and the guitarist plays a guitar with only 3 strings, yet somehow they wind up sounding as full as bands containing several guitars.

The album slows down a bit for the song “Stranger”, so it’s probably no surprise that I was unimpressed by it as a 12 year old. I have only now, in my half-way-to-old age come to realize that it’s necessary to slow these albums down a bit for Grandpa. Indeed “Stranger” is a good song about Carla the Stripper, but I am still not terribly impressed with it.

The next song, however, stands as the anthem to my childhood. Many a trampoline-jumping session was spent singing “Boll Weevil” at the top of my lungs. I really wonder what would have happened if I listened to a lot of straight-up funk in my youth, I would have probably found it incredible, because the awesome bass-line intro (you may remember that I LOVE those) introduces a funk element that one wouldn’t think could be accomplished with a 2-string bass. Even now, I am impressed by how well The Presidents did with the variety of fun sounds on this album. It’s rare for a power trio to really do much with their sound other than reproduce it endlessly (see: Green Day), but I didn’t know that at the time, I just knew this song was one of the best things to ever happen to me.

I may have been wrong about “Lump”, I think the song most associated with PUSA is “Peaches“, a song that gets away from the topic of animals and strippers to talk about a delicious fruit. Now that I think about it, I wonder how many people you could sing “Movin’ to the country, gonna eat a lot of peaches” to that wouldn’t jump in with you immediately in a moment of comradery. This could very well be the solution that our new President is looking for! Let’s just bring the entire nation, nay, the world together in a chorus of “Peaches”, then maybe all our problems will be instantly rectified, even the really tricky economical ones. Don’t ask me how, that’s not how these dreams work.

Then we go back to animals with another excellent track, “Dune Buggy“. I really hate spiders, but for this song I always make an exception. There’s an undeniable quality to the Presidents’ lyrics where the syllables work well together to create a poetic flow:

I got a rubber band motor, hummin’ on the beach, ready for fun
Quit spinnin’ that web and come out and play in the sun
Eight thimble-size cylinders, to be as smooth as you please
Spider’s badass fat old abdomen stuck in the buggy seat

These guys aren’t messing around. Particularly with their lost-cause anthem, “We’re Not Going To Make It”, where their humor is suddenly brought down to self-deprecation level, which is fine, since that’s one of my favorite kinds of humor. Plus the song is rocking, and only builds up from there.

Next is a psuedo-cover song, “Kick Out The Jams”, which was originally played by MC5. The Presidents’ version contains almost entirely different lyrics save for the song’s title, and is only 1 minute and 20 seconds long.

Then another song about animals, this time a slowed-down song about finding dead animals, which convinces me, probably more than the other songs, that this band are all quite obviously kids on the inside just letting it all out. It might be that they are talking about dead animals to subvert the “I can’t get your body out of my mind” line of the chorus to not be about what you think it’s about. I don’t much care for this song, however, it causes late-album fatigue like nothing else man, and you don’t want that fatigue to cause you to stop listening before you get to two really great songs, “Back Porch” and “Candy”.

“Back Porch” is a great lyrical counterpart to “Body”, since it’s less like a curious child and more like a really old man sitting on the back porch. This song is also a great throwback to the rest of the album, since a lot of the earlier songs are subtly referenced. I enjoy the song quite a lot, particularly about his friends bringing “2-string, 1-string, and no-string guitars”.

We’re then treated to an excellent love song entitled “Candy”, which starts off kind of slow but has one of the best breakdowns I’ve ever heard towards the end, since it contains heavy fast drums and either a woodblock or a cowbell, I can’t quite tell. I can not but approve of it, though.

Then, finally, “Naked And Famous”, which is a nice slow-ish note to end on (Well, until the sped-up portion towards the end). I can’t tell you what it’s about, mostly because I can’t figure that one out. The Presidents liked to use interesting ideas to piece together to make songs that are nearly indecipherable, but that’s a pretty cool move, if you ask me.

All in all, this album looped twice while I was writing about it, which means it’s fairly short, but that’s the perfect length for an album if you want to make a really good impression on a 12 year old. I owe most of my capacity for writing and appreciating clever music to these guys, even though people typically assume I’m most influenced by They Might Be Giants. Funnily enough, when I heard TMBG for the first time on Tiny Toons Adventures, I had already heard The Presidents and it was the similarities I drew between the two that made me even interested in TMBG. Also, since I had no idea what TMBG looked like until some time in the late 90’s, I pictured them as two Mr. Clean-looking bald giants. Oh to be 12 again, eh?

 

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Jeff Buckley – Grace

In what I can only assume is yet another grand example of my total ignorance of popular music from a time I should have been listening to it, I totally missed the Jeff Buckley boat. About 8 years ago, I heard a friend play a song called “Hallelujah”, and since this was a particularly good musician, I wondered aloud if he had written it, and of course he didn’t, but I didn’t bother to ask who did. A year after that, I saw the film Shrek and heard the John Cale version of the same song, and again loved the song but didn’t think to pursue the author or even the performer’s identity. Then, years and years after that, I was at my local Starbucks and the Rufus Wainwright version played, and I listened and was again amazed (only I didn’t remember it being so whiny), and THIS time I was curious. I looked up the song and all its cover versions and I discovered 2 musicians whose discovery were years past due for me: Leonard Cohen, the actual author of the song, and Jeff Buckley, the dude who made the song famous. Though I’ve been slowly but surely collecting items from Cohen’s rather large discography and falling in love with each one, there was only one album to show for my interest in Jeff Buckley, which is the one I’m now writing about, in case you don’t read blog titles:

Seriously how could you not think this was going to be some kind of moody synth-pop from the 80's? I avoided listening to this album initially for that reason.

If you’re like I was a couple of months ago and never heard Jeff Buckley, may I offer one piece of advice going in: you must lose ALL concept of manliness and machismo, listening to this album unprepared for its lilting vocals and silky smooth instrumentation may actually cause you to grow a uterus. If you are already in possession of one, congratulations, you’re already a Jeff Buckley fan.

Buckley’s voice is something that sails straight in from Heaven on wings of eastern-influenced vocal scales and lungs that just don’t quit, all hidden behind a set of teeth that frighten ALL the children. If you could imagine Thom York (singer for Radiohead) and Matthew Bellamy (singer for Muse) combined their voices and were also women, that’s about close to what it sounds like. Hence my advice, if you are not prepared to have your balls drop off from listening to this stuff, you’re going to miss the point entirely and probably wind up making fun of it (like my roommates did when I was watching one of his concert videos on the livingroom TV).

Jeff Buckley knows this about his voice, so the opening of the first song, “Mojo Pin“, is an extended organ chord and Jeff’s voice (also an organ in the anatomical sense) playing on forever as some fancy guitar is brought in. From the near-whisper of the first few verses to the still-melodic screaming in the song’s rockin’ breakdowns, it’s quite apparent that the entire album is based around that magical singing.

However, that doesn’t stop the rest of the band, particularly with the next track, “Grace“, Jeff’s guitar work is precise and the dude knows some really awesome chords, and the rest of his band is a top-shelf bunch of young musicians. “Grace” also introduces a certain singing crescendo that Muse fans will be very accustomed to, and that is one that ends with the Very, Very High Note. It’s quite the thing, I assure you.

After another awesome original, entitled “The Last Goodbye”, we’re introduced to the first of 2 excellent covers in the album, the Nina Simone version of James Shelton’s “Lilac Wine“, which is a beautiful song (one of my friends, a long-time Buckley fan, cites it as her favorite song) featuring some impressive jazz guitar chords. I consider it a feat worth noting when a guitarist can actually make a solo clean electric guitar work extremely well as the only accompaniment to singing, so please note that I am noting that here.

The next song is actually my favorite of the original songs on the album, “So Real“, which is really reminiscent of “Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong” by Radiohead on their My Iron Lung EP, unless I’m just going crazy. “So Real” contains a really awesome breakdown with distorted bass guitar as well, and I am all about distorted bass.

Then comes the song I was waiting for, the “ultimate cover” of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah“. Jeff’s version certainly does deserve the praise heaped upon it. It’s just Jeff and the electric guitar, and it’s quite excellent. The only thing I would dare take away from that cover is that it doesn’t contain my favorite stanza, the last one, but considering the original has something like 15 or 17 stanzas that Cohen changes up himself from time to time, I can surely forgive. I found out, a little bit after obtaining Grace, that Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah” became the number 1 most downloaded song on iTunes, following a cover of that cover by a kid with dreadlocks on that awful American singing program. I can only surmise that, after seeing the stoner’s version of the song, people were clamoring to find a version that’s actually good.

We’re then treated to a lovely break-up song called “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over“, which features a gospel choir made entirely up of Jeff Buckley being multi-tracked to bring the song home. I think this is my favorite song of the originals as far as lyrics go.

Then the third of the covers on this album is “Corpus Christi Carol“, which is a really good song, no doubt, but definitely my least favorite on the album. It might be that we’ve already been treated to 2 slow songs that are mostly just Jeff and a guitar, so to have a 3rd one waiting at the end of an album of only 10 songs kind of kills the effect. It could also be that the singing is actually too feminine, but I am not stating that as a fact because I heeded my own warning about what this album does to people.

It could also be that the next song, “Eternal Life“, is so rockin’ that I can’t wait to skip to it. So why put a lite-metal song not only right after a really feminine soliloquy, but also at the tail-end of an album that sounds nothing like it? I dunno, but it works! I guess the song may have been a bit incongruous if it were placed earlier in the album, but I’m glad it’s there anyway. Once again present is distorted bass, I just wanted to throw that out there (so cool).

Finally, “Dream Brother” takes the album out in a very distinctly Eastern-influenced flavor. Really, one could hardly ask for a better song to end an album with, as it is a strong track indeed, and it meanders just enough to where one doesn’t just wonder where the rest of the album went (10-tracks-or-less albums should always heed the risk of sounding incomplete with an incorrect end song). Interestingly enough, “Dream Brother” is the song Buckley used to open his shows on his “Mystery White Boy” tour.

It’s always an unfortunate thing for an artist to die before reaching their full potential, or at the very least, a sizable discography. Jeff Buckley is quite possibly the worst case of died-too-soon that I have ever seen. For one, he only has Grace as far as full albums go, and for two, his death was a complete and total accident. No drugs, no alcohol-induced-vomit-choking-upon, no guns, knives, depression, or anything. The guy drowned in a lake. That is an injustice that really makes you think… about how much it sucks to drown in a lake. Still, if one were given only one shot at creating an album that would touch the lives of others and earn the love and reverence of the masses and one particularly sleepy blogger, it would be hard to do any better with your life than this album.

So, gentle readers, do yourself a favor and get in touch with your girly, emasculated side with a copy of Grace. If you’re crazy like me, you should pick up the Legacy Edition, as it features a second disc of some interesting B-sides, including a cover of… of all things… a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins song called “Alligator Wine”. It’s worth the price of admission just to hear him try to emulate the screamiest voodoo man in all of music.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s entry, which just might be written after a proper night’s sleep this time!

 

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Supergrass – Supergrass

I couldn’t help but notice I’m doing two eponymous albums in a row, which should be unusual, but come on there are SO MANY OF THEM. Leave me alone! Jeeze.

Usually self-titled (or EPONYMOUS for people who like to be smart) albums are debuts. I don’t know why that is, because you’d think a group or artist would put as much effort as humanly possible into their first album, and that would include a great title for the album that will really hook people in. Supergrass did the right thing in this regard, as they expended all their cleverness into their debut album’s title, which is I Should Coco. Indeed, Supergrass is the band’s third effort, and probably their best work to date. I say this because I have only heard their 2008 release Diamond Hoo Ha (absolutely the best title for an album I have heard if memory serves).

I know what you're up to, I can see right through... ahh forget itI never thought about it before, since I’ve been listening to this album since the 90’s, but a friend pointed out when I told her that I had just picked up I Should Coco that Supergrass is “such a stuck-in-the-90’s band”. Well, for one, that’s a pretty pretentious thing to say for a Flaming Lips fan, and for two, it’s actually kind of true. I certainly didn’t even think to check out the band’s releases after this one until just last year. I guess it’s just strange since I don’t feel like the 90’s are THAT far in the past, but it is true that Supergrass saw a lot of air-time at that time.

It really sucked for me to learn just how old the band is… the lead singer Gaz was a mere 23 years of age when Supergrass came out, which would have made him 19 when I Should Coco came out. I’m 26 and barely even qualify as famous! Still, he certainly got there on talent. From the opening notes of the first song of Supergrass, “Moving“, you can tell the guy has a remarkably clean voice and can hit some high notes ala early Radiohead. The difference is that Supergrass, on the whole, are remarkably fun. Even though most of the early tracks (including the next two songs, “Your Love” with its directly-ripped-off-from-the-Kinks harpsichord, and “What Went Wrong (In Your Head)“) seem quite serious amidst the funky basslines and cymbal-crazy drumming, there are a few surprises in store later on.

When the fourth track, “Beautiful People” starts up with its staccato guitar and minory piano, the album seems much more like a pop album than something really “alternative”, but there’s definitely something English about it all. The really unusual thing is that the status quo songs and the slower jams are all at the beginning of the album, a first-time listener might be confused when “Shotover Hill” appears in the middle, because it almost sounds like a song to end an album on. However, the real fun is coming…

The album’s 6th track, called “Eon“, starts off with harmonious guitar feedback and keyboard lines that crescendo with the bass and drums throughout nearly half the song, and then the singing takes place in a very calm area of the song, as if one has just been rocketed out of the mundane English Rock of the rest of the album, and off into orbit we go, sailing into the metaphorical B-side to the thing, to untold adventures of what Supergrass really has to offer.

First off is “Mary“, with its guitar feedback and E-piano bluesy riffs, to give us the first departure from the status quo.

I got a girl and her name is Mary
I like to shock her on a basis daily
I like to push her over into my stream
I like to point out that her teeth are green

Ahh, that’s much better! The song is so immensely cool, and features that wonderful mischief this young band is known for. Indeed, as the song’s last line dictates, “The back of every head holds something obscene”.

An awesome drumline opens up the next track, “Jesus Came From Outta Space” (some of those video images are hilarious), which is the first real “rock n’ roll” song on the album, and it is indeed rockin’. From the killer chorus about love and the verse lines about how we’ve lost our way (at least, that’s my best guess) to the percussive breakdown in the middle, the song harkens to a style older than the 90’s at least. I’d always considered the “fun” side of Supergrass to be something the Rolling Stones would write if they weren’t ancient.

Just in case you thought perhaps the band was only going to completely rock out for one track, then comes the best song on the whole album, “Pumping On Your Stereo” (seriously check out that video it is SO GOOD) which a friend swears they sing “Humping On Your Stereo” and I dunno that sounds unlikely. Everything about this song is amazing, particularly the way the bassline and guitar/keyboard work together to basically sound like a piano, so of course the piano should get its own moment in the spotlight before the final chorus. Of course, once all this rockin’ is over with, the best way to end the song, I feel, is to have a lot of studio-applause, so it’s good that Supergrass caught on to that.

Do you like cellos? In that case, you may be interested in the next song, “Born Again“, which starts off with a whole mess of them playing nothing in particular. The rest of the instruments come in to throw down a spacey ultra-cool minor-key jam with a thundering upright bass line as the cellos play away far in the background. The lyrics almost seem like we’re back on Earth, but not before the next-to-final song, which sounds a bit like it comes from the David Bowie part of space.

Faraway” is probably one of the best choruses on the album, particularly when played live. There’s also that move I mentioned a long time ago that I really like, where the song changes a bit in the vocal melody, and is then layered over the chorus for the final moments of the song. The instruments then crescendo into a crazy wall of sound, as if we are finally making our entrance back to Earth for one more song.

Indeed, the rockin’ really took it out of us, so the last song is a relaxing lullaby-like number, “Mama & Papa” about the singer missing his mommy & daddy. Quite unusual but very pretty, and that’s what I’ve come to expect from one of my favorite stuck-in-the-90’s bands. Honestly, I really should get cracking on hearing their newer stuff.

 

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