Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sheep/Goats 3/11: Featuring Some Stuff I'm Surprised I Liked

Unless it's the evil orphan-master asking where you're hiding the orphans, or something...

"I never imagined you could
Blow my theory apart
But now you're running away with my heart."
--Wilson Phillips

I've never been real interested in Nick Drake, but this new Alexi Murdoch is a slow still ringer for the guy, and it sounds really good. Similarly, a year ago I'd've never believed I'd end up digging a Chris Tomlin CD. It's all discussed over at the Burnside Writers Collective, along with Neil Diamond, Monotonix, Steel Magnolia, Weasel Walter/Mary Halvorson/Peter Evans, and Danielson. Here's the Murdoch review:

Alexi Murdoch
Towards the Sun
(Zero Summer)
The first two times I listened to Towards the Sun, I was doing other things: first folding laundry, then reading a bunch of Nick Drake reviews. It’s a testament to Murdoch’s solemn folkie power that both times I felt guilty about my fast-paced modern lifestyle. Next to Murdoch’s contemplative stillness, puttering around the house feels like day trading or being Lady Gaga. True, his songwriting skill rewards even background listeners. The beautiful guitar chord he plays to confess his fear of dying; the pointed puns that open up the language of “Slow Revolution”; the epiphanal phrase “And all around the light” — all these things stop me. But sit still and devote 40 minutes of your life to hearing this music unfold, and it’s like watching some patient natural phenomenon — a spider building a web, maybe, or rainwater rivulets subtly altering the contours of a ditch. When you take Murdoch’s pace as your own, his slow revelations are even more arresting.

Oh! and here's the Best Thing I've Heard All Year:

Brett Dennen
“Sydney (I’ll Come Running)”
Love overwhelms Law through sheer exuberance. The facts, ma’am: Brett’s friend Sydney has been accused of a crime, evidently something pretty serious, and Brett promises to stand by Sydney no matter what. As soon as Brett makes that promise he realizes, maybe for the first time, how blessed and lucky he is to have Sydney for a friend. Eureka! Suddenly Brett finds himself driven to discourteous musical joy, a glorious groove he never dreamed he could hit, and he soars away with the song — insulting the gossipy soccer moms at the dog park, cutting through the airport customs line, patching together “allegations made in the schoolyard” from two different Paul Simon songs, offering to help shop for lawyers (“There’s a lotta good people livin’ in L.A.”), but above all testifying testifying TESTIFYING.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mary Mary's new one is Probably Worth It, I think.

Mary Mary make state-of-the-art inspirational R&B, and they have mixed feelings about losers. Here's the PopMatters review of Something Big. First two paragraphs:

“Sitting With Me”, a lovely lilting number from Mary Mary’s sixth album Something Big, portrays the R&B duo as total Christian schooldorks. Mean kids call them “holy roller”, “Jesus freak”, and “geek”; they’re picked last for the team; they’re basically Taylor Swift in the “You Belong to Me” video. Like plenty of schooldorks, Mary Mary console themselves by remembering that Jesus was also unpopular—the last week of his life, anyway—and drive the point home by singing powerfully, “I’ll sit on the sidelines as long as he’s sitting with me!” Christian rocker Steve Taylor once memorably sang “Jesus is for losers”, and Mary Mary would surely agree.

But in the album’s best stomper “Something Bigger”, they hilariously sing, “Nobody plans to be a loser!” “Something Bigger”, like the rest of the album, is all about doing “great things ‘cause of God in me”. Mary Mary are determined to survive; they’ll never raise their white flag; when they see the haters standing around, they get ready for war. The album even opens with a quasi-military call-and-response cadence. Erica and Tina, the two beautiful and non-dorky sisters who make up Mary Mary, clearly have no desire to hang around in Loserville.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Shunda K's solo album is NOT Worth It.

Shunda K deserves to be your favorite foul-mouthed Christian lesbian rapper, but this is no way to put together an album. Sad but true. Here's the review at PopMatters, and an opening paragraph:

Shunda K does identity politics like Michael Bay does film explosions: there’s nobody better, but it’s all a little exhausting.  She’s a black Christian lesbian Southern rapper with a hyper-fast flow, a potty-mouth, and a predilection for Euro-club beats.  Check check check check check check, aaaand check.  Two or three of those elements together would be enough to sustain multiple press junkets, if not an entire career. Shunda tries to cram them all into every song.  When that approach works, as it does for a song here and there on her solo debut The Most Wanted, you feel you’re listening to music that’s fantastically new.  But alas, you can see where this is going… [4/10]

Actually, I'll follow that up with pgh 2, which features praise for her last album, totally worth hearing:

The Most Wanted is ultimately a failure of production and editing.  This album boasts 14 different producers for its 20 tracks.  You know how there’s often an inverse relationship between the quality of a movie script and the number of people who wrote it?  (Michael Bay’s movies tend to have three to six writers apiece.)  The same principle applies to Wanted.  Only a couple of its songs could have made it onto Futuristically Speaking… Never Be Afraid, Shunda’s wonderful 2008 album with Yo! Majesty, the finest defunct lesbian rap group in all Christendom. [Yo! Majesty's probably an 8/10.]

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

20-Year-Old Christian Hair Metal is SO TOTALLY WORTH IT!!!

NOT in the article.

Or so sez me at the skeptical Burnside Writers' Collective. You should read this. It's long, but I THINK it reads pretty well. Of course, if you don't buy its central premise -- that Christian hair metal has on occasion equaled good music -- that may be an insurmountable obstacle. Ah well -- here I stand, I can do no other, you know?

Choice jokey excerpts:

As I see it, hair metal deniers have two big problems. First, they dismiss an entire style of music from a distance, basing their criticisms solely on flippant stereotypes. Second, they’re all a bunch of sad, lonely cretins who live in their parents’ basements and call Prayer Chain records “profound”. 

The narrator of Holy Soldier's “See No Evil” is an unborn baby who sings Verse 1 from Mom’s womb, Verse 2 from “a pail”. Over the guitar solo, a digitally-manipulated voice says, “Mom, can you hear me? Mommy, Mommy, I’m afraid.” It’s an exploitative pro-life statement, the worst possible thing you could play for a woman considering abortion. As a song, though, it wields a disturbing power. Plus, it totally rocks, which counts for plenty.

And that’s what Stryper did in 1990, with their “secular” album Against the Law: they made a whip of power chords and overturned some tables. 

Casey Kasem provided a valuable customer service. When he introduced Extreme’s “More Than Words” as The Most Popular Song in the Land, he carefully pointed out that it sounded nothing like the rest of their album. He played a clip of “Get the Funk Out”, an aggressive stomper with the gang chorus, “If you DON’T LIKE! What you SEE HERE! Get the FUNK OUT!” Casey pronounced the key word “funk” and I believed him, but I also knew there was no way I’d be able to listen to Pornograffitti in the house. Especially since it opened with a song about “decadancing” — my parents had a strict policy against portmanteau words.

Pornograffitti works as Christian rock better than Stryper’s Against the Law, maybe even better than Holy Soldier, because its Christian-ness is (wait for it…) more than words. It’s sort of like a liturgy, in that it implicates us listeners in its story. We rock out to the songs about sex and money, and then Extreme point out that we’re rocking out to songs about sex and money. Then they point out that we, and they, are worldly tools for doing so. And just as we’re wondering whether there’s any escape from the worldly toolbox, they play a beautiful love song from God, or a hole-hearted plea to God, and BAM, there’s our Answer. It’s meta-metal that remembers to rock.

Ok, that's all you're getting here. But there's lots more jokes, analysis, personal reminiscences (not just from me!), interview quotes, a weird burny smell... you get the picture.

Weasel Walter/Mary Halvorson/Peter Evans are WORTH IT!

Really, Walter? Again with the shirt?

Especially if you're a fiend for skronk, free jazz, improv, drum/guitar/trumpet, setting the radio to "SCAN" for hours at a time, and trying to eke musical sense from traffic sounds. I link you to the PopMatters review, but here's a sample paragraph, of whose closing paradox I'm fond:

Electric Fruit makes for captivating listening. Whether you’ll feel compelled to play it a bunch is another matter, but I suspect there’ll come a day in the not too distant future when you just wanna hear three music geeks at the top of their game, playing, with obvious care and delight, music that’d sound like the infernal tortures of hell to 90 percent of the yaks you have to tolerate every day. May this deeply social collaboration chase them screaming from the room. [7/10]

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

New Avril: probably not Worth It. (CUSSING CAUTION)

Losing control of her yoga posture.

And I had high hopes!  It's unfortunate, but she's gotta figure stuff out.  Or something.  Here's the PopMatters review, and a couple representative paragraphs:

More problematic is “Smile” and its bold pro-roofie stance. “You know that I’m a crazy bitch,” says Avril. All fine and good, and she helpfully explicates, “I do what I want when I feel like it.” Right! Don’t let anyone tell you what to do, crazy bitch Avril!  But then: “All I wanna do is lose control.” A paradox: I lose control when I feel like it. (Know who else says that? ADDICTS.)

This “Smile” paradox can mean one of several things. Maybe Avril is a control freak—“I do what I want when I feel like it”—who yearns to break free from her neuroses and lose control. That’s why she smiles when the guy puts something in her drink that makes her black out—she hates who she usually is. Or maybe it means she has no ambition to do anything other than lose control; she doesn’t want to eat or sleep or make music or go clubbing or brush her teeth with a bottle of Jack, she simply longs for the Void. Most likely, the Avril of song simply overlooks the contradiction in the “Smile” paradox and so commits to both impulses. And our job is simply to watch and marvel as these irreconcilable impulses tear Avril’s narrator apart and, if we’re lucky, spot them in ourselves before it’s too late.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Last Week in Jukeboxing

The Singles Jukebox has lately been worth reading for Katherine St. Asaph's blurbs alone, but the other folks are funny and interesting, and then of course there's the music links.  Who knows, you may find some of the following dance tunes less meh than I did.

Le bien:
The Strokes: "Under Cover of Darkness" 
The interlocking instrumentalists put on an absurdly cheerful show choir routine, while token sad kid Julian cobbles a melody out of whatever notes and words he’s got lying around. The wobbly “puppet on a string” melody cribs from “Last Night” and sounds like a tic, but the “so long” hook comes straight from U2’s “Angel of Harlem”, which gives the whole thing a wistfulness that’s not entirely earned by the words. It’s a rigorous and warmhearted comeback anthem that’s all about saying goodbye.

...le mal:
Pulled Apart By Horses: "I Punched a Lion in the Throat" 
To give this thing more than a one-liner may be overly generous, but that riff that shapes the second half would sound great coming from Soundgarden, and it’s certainly the best thing these yahoos came up with here. Unfortunately, singer Tom Hudson employs both my least favorite timbre of rock scream — the “Blood Brothers down the garbage disposal” sound — and my heretofore unrealized least favorite way of uttering the words “I punched a lion in the throat”. Like, he sounds SMUG about it. Or, more likely, about the fact that he wrote a song called “I Punched a Lion in the Throat”. If these guys were the Test Icicles, they’d have had the courtesy to break up by now.

Oh wait...
Tyler the Creator: "Yonkers"
Shocking! An outrage! He goes too far, debases all that we cherish! EVERYBODY KNOWS TRICERATOPS WAS MONOGAMOUS!
[1] le mot juste:
Wiz Khalifa: "Roll Up"
It’s got those “True Colors” chords, so it’d be a [9] if he didn’t fall into the love-rap trap of leaving a bunch of nothing lines hanging out to dry. Rhythmic interest is confined to that syncopated “you ain’t entertained” sequence that ends Verse 1. Lyrical interest is confined to the trickle-down bling hogwash “If I ball then we all gon’ stunt”, which Mitt Romney should adopt as a campaign slogan.
Gold Panda: "Marriage" [7]
Vivian Girls: "I Heard You Say" [6]
Clare Maguire: "The Last Dance" [5]
Bright Light Bright Light: "How To Make a Heart" [6]
Salem Al Fakir: "Split My Personality" [4]
David Banner & 9th Wonder ft. Ludacris and Marsha Ambrosius: "Be With You" [7]

Friday, March 11, 2011

This early Neil Diamond comp is TOTALLY TOTALLY WORTH IT!!!

The Bang Years 1966-1968 is my fave of the year so far, easy, and PopMatters allowed me to award it their coveted "Ten Stars Out of Ten" rating, an honor earned in the past only by the likes of, um, Kanye West I think.  Probably others.  But, you know, they try to talk you down.  I'll reprint the whole thing here because I don't think they mind, and because this review fills me with such discourteous joy.

He got the western movement!

If Neil Diamond is the Jewish Elvis, then Bang was his Sun Records. Bang was a small New York City label, distributed by Atlantic and operated by “Twist and Shout” songwriter Bert Berns. When Berns signed Diamond in 1966, Bang Records was best known for the McCoys’ “Hang on Sloopy”, another Berns composition. Like his boss, Diamond had graduated from New York’s Brill Building, a sort of Harvard for staff songwriters; unlike Berns, Diamond didn’t graduate with honors. As he puts it kindly in the liner notes of his new compilation The Bang Years 1966-1968, Diamond’s early non-hits were “silly songs about made up people”. By 1966, Diamond was frustrated and out of work, with a baby on the way. Bang was where he pulled it together and found a voice that was completely new.

As with most completely new voices, Diamond pillaged what other people had already done. Specifically, Diamond’s music combined the introspection of Greenwich Village singer-songwriter folk, the tightly wound beats and arrangements of Brill Building pop, and the brooding, leather-clad urban cowboy sensibility of a thousand solitary men toiling away in garage bands. This music was post-Beatles and post-Dylan (another compelling candidate for Jewish Elvis), but it was an utterly contemporary urban pop sound, with a scraggy rock edge in Diamond’s voice. Had Diamond undergone electroshock therapy and become friends with John Cale, he might have started the Velvet Underground.

That’s a big “if”, but listen to “Someday Baby” and see if you don’t hear more than a little Velvets in its droning, cavernous groove. “Someday” is a deep cut from Diamond’s debut album, The Feel of Neil Diamond, heretofore unavailable on CD except as part of sketchy bootlegs or a short-lived stereo compilation. Feel only reached #137 on Billboard’s album chart, but it’s terrific from top to bottom. It showcases Diamond the rhythm fiend, the backbeat scientist, the Dr. John of NYC guitar-slingers.

Feel’s songs are practically a taxonomy of different backbeats. Besides the druggy Factory vibe of “Someday”, there are the boogaloo touches of “Cherry, Cherry”, the horn stabs of “Solitary Man”, the slowed-down bubblegum of “Do It”, and the morose tambourine folk of “I’ve Got the Feeling (Oh No No)”. Diamond’s covers catalog his influences: “Red Rubber Ball”, “La Bamba”, “New Orleans”, “Monday Monday”, and “Hanky Panky”. Each is seemingly chosen for its locomotive energy, each manifests that energy with a distinct rhythm.

These rhythms are played straight, rarely swung, and they subsume all other musical elements. The trombone chorus, honking one-note bari sax, and omnipresent bottom half of the piano don’t play melodies so much as extensions of the grooves. Even Diamond’s melodies are rhythmic marvels. Go ahead, sing the stunning line that opens this album (you know you want to): “Melinda was miiiine ‘til the tiiiime that I found her.” Notice how it starts and ends with syncopated figures, and how they contrast and highlight the longer notes in the middle. Diamond’s biographer Laura Jackson describes those early recording sessions: 

“He didn’t merely sing the song. To the surprise of those in the control room, he performed it, and in such a way that the strong sense of rhythm running through him was channeled visibly in the way his body and his acoustic guitar would sway in perfect harmony with each other. [Engineer] Brooks Arthur called it ‘a kinetic thing happening’...”
—from Neil Diamond: His Life, His Music, His Passion
If Diamond wrote and performed with innate beat savvy, his arranger Artie Butler and producers Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich made those beats explicit. Barry and Greenwich had discovered Diamond, and the authors of “Hanky Panky” knew how to bring songs to life. That’s them singing backup and clapping throughout these songs; their vocal arrangement on “Cherry, Cherry” is one of humanity’s proudest achievements.

The Bang Years also includes Diamond’s second album Just For You—as poorly represented on CD as Feel—and the single “Kentucky Woman” b/w “The Time Is Now”. All this stuff is uniformly great. Just For You boasts the hits “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon”, “Thank the Lord for the Night Time”, and the eternal classic “You Got to Me”. It features songs that were bigger hits for other artists: “I’m a Believer”, “Red, Red Wine”, and the eternal classic “The Boat That I Row”. It’s got “The Long Way Home”, a majestic song that barrels like a subway train. And the whole comp ends with “Shilo”, the first big Neil Diamond power ballad—it trades Ellie Greenwich and her handclaps for strings and actual drum fills. A harbinger of adult contemporary schlock to come, but a great bittersweet song nonetheless.

Two caveats: this package omits two of Diamond’s unofficial Bang songs, “Shot Down” and “Crooked Street”, and the mono remastering sounds a little loud through headphones. No matter. Overall, it’s a steering-wheel-pounding treat. For decades it’s been hard to find all these songs in the same place, especially in the sonic glory of their hard-hitting mono recordings. Because half these songs are already widely available elsewhere, this collection has slightly less archival impact than the Gentile Elvis’s Sun Sessions or last year’s widely-circulated Never Mind the Bullets, Here’s Early Bob Seger. Musically, though, it’s in their league.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Pigeon John's latest is NOT Worth It.

The wary lothario.

That's the word from me at PopMatters, where Dragon Slayer earns my coveted "Three Stars Out Of Ten" rating.  Other albums that might merit such a rating are the Birthday Massacre's live album, Ariel Pink's album from last year, and most Christian adult contemporary records.  Which Dragon Slayer sort of is, in its way.  Select paragraphs:

John gets pretty “On” in opening song “The Bomb”, which Volkswagen had the good sense to use in a commercial, despite John’s endorsement of his phat Cadillac. It’s a catchy clip-clop about being “about to blow up”, supported by handclaps, tambourines, screaming organ, and shout-outs to Molly Ringwald and Frank Sinatra. With a trumpet part and more rapping, it could’ve been a Cake tune. Indeed, “Bomb” is the best thing on the album: a polite way of saying it’s all downhill from there. The music on Dragon Slayer is a promising mix of live instruments and programming, but for the most part, the hooks aren’t much, and the music’s too square and quirky to connect, let alone rock bodies...

In “To Do List”, for example, John’s wife goes on a trip and leaves him a to-do list, apparently consisting of three chores: take out the trash, feed the pets, and make some phone calls. John gets sidetracked by Denny’s and XBox, doesn’t do his chores, and has to eat crow. This scenario is both unrealistic—seriously, how long does it take to do those particular chores?—and hackneyed. If only he’d fallen into some sort of Adventures in Babysitting scenario or detailed how to install a garage door opener, the lyrics might have some kick. (Those are just brainstorms, but remember when Buck 65 explained the correct way to shine shoes in “Craftsmanship”?  FASCINATING.) Pigeon John seems to get a kick from his everyday dude-ness, but on Dragon Slayer, he has trouble communicating why anybody else should care.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011


Both glisten brightly, but only one is stinky.

Seriously, Not Yet is my favorite album of new music so far this year.  (What's my favorite album overall?  You'll have to wait a few days to find out!)  The Monotonix review is at PopMatters; here's the first loooong paragraph, which PopMatters, bless 'em, did not alter:

I dunno about you, but when I hear about a garage band that kills it live; that’s single-handedly reviving the pure punk spirit of a bygone era gilded in sepia and blood; whose mustachioed derelict singer lubricates the floor with a never-ending stream of bodily fluids; whose only instruments are a guitar and drum kit routinely set ablaze by said mustachioed derelict singer; AND who’ve been banned from playing most of their local clubs, I gotta wonder: “Are these guys from Israel?” Because seriously, that shit’s been done to death in America. Call me a relic or what you will, but the notion of getting drenched in someone else’s sweat while helping a shirtless 40-something rocker crowd-surf is a tad less appealing than the prospect of being stricken insensate* by the Signature Cocktails of some obnoxious casual dining chain. For one thing, those casual dining places have to clean their bathroom floors every hour, a nicety likely overlooked at the dives frequented by Monotonix, the killer Israeli garage band in question. For another thing, Monotonix’s new album Not Yet is a great, non-sticky substitute for their live shtick.

*"stricken insensate" = Cormac McCarthy phrase of the day!

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Best Thing I Heard Today: Kataklysm doing "The Awakener" (DON'T WATCH IF HALLOWEEN STORES SCARE YOU)

Fans of low-budget horror take note: "The Awakener" is worth listening to for the thick guitar tone alone, but really, YOU NEED TO WATCH THE VIDEO:

This song comes as a melodic respite in the middle of Kataklysm's WORTH IT album Temple of Knowledge, which has something to do with the convergence of all knowledge and power, whether divine or infernal, in the year 1999 (WHICH IS 6661 UPSIDE DOWN whoa) at the top of Sigourney Weaver's apartment building. 

At least I think -- one of the songs is about beckoning Xul.  Really, it's better if I don't try to parse a song with couplets like

9 distincted letters were granted into a Word of Sovereignty
Then was graphed the 1st of the 9... Gates of Kataklysmity

But the video!  The video seems to concern one of those umpteen infernal powers possessing a pretty lady who emerges from a sand dune, only she resists his demonic tendrils, causing his rubbery flesh to smoke and bake.  Hairy Sylvian carries a torch, perhaps for the pretty lady, and mutters incantations with his eyes rolled back, while guitarist Jean-Francois whips his hair in the outline of a pentagram.  I'm pretty sure listening to this stuff is like playing Bloody Mary in front of the mirror, but you can't beat their maniac energy.