The Perils of a Music Subscription: Is the Deluxe “Yearbook Edition” of the New One Direction Album Worth It?

Yes, yes it is.

Haircuts. They all need haircuts.

Why do I know this? I have an Xbox Music Pass, and this causes conversations in my head such as “Even though I’m not a 13 year old girl, that new One Direction song on the radio is pretty catchy. I should probably use the subscription to download the entire album. What? There’s a deluxe version with four extra songs? OK. I wonder if it’s worth it if I were to have to buy it.”

Why is it worth it? The slower songs on the normal album aren’t that notable. The deluxe version adds four faster paced songs (which probably should’ve replaced those slower songs on the normal album…).

 Note: I’m only partially kidding about the entirety of the above. “Live While We’re Young,” “Kiss You,” and “Rock Me” are really good songs.

*** I’m not really the target market at all, but it’s perfectly fine.

Leaking a Fake Version of Your New Album on the Internet (with actual fake songs)

Ben Folds leaked a fake version of his new album “Way to Normal” on the internet, with six songs he recorded in eight hours, and three versions of songs that are actually going to appear on the album. Four stars.

Yet another Ben Folds-related review. I’m probably not going to write anything about his new album that’s coming out this fall, and since this is much more interesting, I’d rather substitute it anyway.

I found this article on RollingStone.com that discusses how this fake album came about, with bits about each song. Basically, he and his bassist and drummer got some studio time in Dublin and wrote six fake tracks, added three songs that are going to be on the album, and gave it to some guys to leak.

Obviously the songs aren’t all going to be great, but for a free download that’s basically been sanctioned it’s not a half bad idea. There’s the free media attention that you get from the music magazine, and the rest of the internet music community (google search for “fake album leaks” and you’ll almost exclusively get pages about this specific one), which is always good for someone who could possibly be deemed irrelevant and past his prime.

It gets his fan base excited and talking, though that could be a good thing or a bad thing. Not coming out immediately and saying that it’s fake leads to discussion about the new sound (judging from the Rolling Stone samples, he’s got yet another new sound he’s going for. Kudos for changing it up, but like the last time, it’s going to take some getting used to). The risk here is that while it does drum up interest in the new album, the fanbase is most unanimously going to be buying the new album anyway, and by putting out sub-par songs you can only hurt your chances that some of these people will be willing to pay for the album when they can just download it (of course, thereby missing the meaning of releasing a fake pirated version in the first place).

This isn’t to say that this fake album is all that bad, it’s just a little bit below full-album standards. It’s about on-par with the EPs that he put out between “Rockin the Suburbs” and “Songs for Silverman”. A few of these songs (Brainwascht, Dr. Yang) actually sound like they could be on that first Ben Folds Five album from way back when, which is probably the first time in ages that you could say something like that (whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on the person I think).


“Bitch Went Nuts” will probably be a concert staple in the future.


“Cologne” is great, though it’s going to be on the album in a modified version.


“Way to Normal” is just strange, not that the bulk of it isn’t a perfectly normal song, but it’s three distinctly different sections. I especially love the “Flash Gordon”-inspired opening. The other ones besides “Hiroshima” are pretty much forgettable, but it was free so I’m not complaining.

Putting (at least similar versions of) three of the actual songs that are going to be on the album is a smart move as well, tempering the cries of “I downloaded this for nothing”, and serving as an actual preview of what’s coming. It’s basically the same as releasing a free three-song single…. with six bonus tracks.

****
Releasing a fake version of your album on the internet (with actual fake songs) gets four stars, as it can get you free media attention, the fan base, and maybe even some others, talking about the upcoming album, and serve as a preview of what the album is actually going to be like. The only negative is that since he didn’t come out right away and say it was fake, there may have been some negative early reviews. Providing full-disclosure, which he eventually did, mitigates this a bit though. In the end, I think that no matter how mediocre, fans appreciate what is basically a free EP.

Pitchfork Media’s Review of “Shine On” and “Get Born” by Jet

My review of “Step One” by Steps. Wow, that was easy. I didn’t even have to sit through the CD!

When you read a review, you expect certain things. You want to hear some insightful positives and negatives regarding the thing being reviewed. You don’t want to be talked down to. You hope to have an overall idea of whether said object is worth seeing/listening to/buying/reading/visiting/eating/doing/throwing things at. And after you’ve done any of those things, you want to come back and read that review again to determine whether you agree or think the reviewer is out of his mind. Basically, you expect reviews like this and this. Then you go to a website whose supposed specialty is reviews, and you see something like this. This “review” only manages to fit one of those criteria, that being the last one” that this reviewer is totally out of his mind.

A long time ago, when the second Franklin movie was being planned, our discussion took a long detour, with us arguing over the definition of the phrase “cop out”. There were numerous e-mails sent back and forth trying to determine if an idea that I came up with was something that constituted this. You can read highlights here. This argument was never really solved, but I stand here today telling you once and for all, that this “review” is the definition of “cop out”.

I can gather by the video clip shown here that the “reviewer” doesn’t like Shine On, but I was interested in hearing some actual insight into what makes it good or bad. Granted, the CD wasn’t that great (there were three songs on it that I thought were really good, but the rest was kinda mediocre), but it doesn’t deserve to have its review have nothing interesting or meaningful to say at all. I don’t know how a high-fallutin’ website like pitchforkmedia decided that that was representative of their organization, but recently, they even put up a similar video, claiming it was a JET music video. Obviously, the pretentious music-lovers have a thing against the Aussies rockers, but I really can’t figure out what it is.

The review of their first album, Get Born, gives us a little more understanding, but I use the word “little” literally. It’s presented in the form of a discussion between the band and the owner of a venue where they’re supposed to be putting on a concert. Things go wrong at the concert and the fans turn on the band. Sure there are opinions presented about the band, but I’m sure they’re all completely over-the-top exaggerations from someone who’s never seen them live or met them. I can’t imagine a band (aside from the Flaming Lips or Ozzy Osbourne) actually demanding [thirty f%$&in’ angry alligators with top hats on, Iggy Pop shooting out of that cannon, and midway through sending in the kid from the iPod commercial.] It may work as a review of the band, but as a review of the album it fails miserably.

It only mentions three songs from the CD (very briefly) and it only has two points that I gleaned from the whole thing. The first is that all their songs sound like other bands (citing AC/DC, Iggy Pop, Wallflowers, Oasis, Bon Jovi and the Rolling Stones). The second is that they have “insipid love songs that sound like wedding band covers” and “insipid lyrics, we say ‘Come On!’ and ‘Oh Yeah!’ every five seconds”. So basically the guy only knows one insulting adjective. You know, there’s a thesaurus feature in MS word, and I’d assume there’s also one on the trendy Mac you also probably use. Insipid: dull, bland, wishy-washy, characterless, colorless, trite, tame, unexciting, uninteresting, boring. Maybe none of those words sounded smart/insulting to readers enough, though I’m partial to the word “trite

Here’s the thing that the review is missing. The music is fun. It’s not meant to be high art. It’s not meant to be genre-pushing. It’s meant to be music with easy-to-learn lyrics and melodies that you can put in your car CD player, turn the volume way up on, roll down your windows and shout at the top of your lungs and have a good time. And it completely succeeds at that, something that this reviewer was competent enough to pick up on. There’s a good mix of fast and slow songs (so the whole CD doesn’t sound the same, a huge pet peeve of mine), and I like most of the slower songs. I understand that a lot of the faster songs sound similar, but they’re catchy enough that it doesn’t bother me (a problem that the second CD had), much like with critically lauded Franz Ferdinand. As far as the words go, I’m not expecting poetic lyrics, so why should I complain that they’re not there? Did people who went to see Pirates of the Caribbean complain that there wasn’t a deeper meaning in the dialogue, or that it wasn’t a British period piece about some queen from the 17th century? I would hope not. They should be expecting to have fun. That’s all I expect out of it. That’s not to say that I shouldn’t hold the band accountable for bad music, I just don’t think that criticizing lyrics for this kind of music is really the way to go. Do critics complain about the lyrics to “SHOUT” or “MONY MONY”? Some of the songs on that Fountains of Wayne CD, Welcome Interstate Managers had TERRIBLE lyrics, but critics dismissed them because of how fun the melodies were.

Now some of you who are familiar with Aaron Copland’s book, “What to Listen for in Music“, would say that I’m only listening to this album on a “sensuous”, or maybe an “expressive” level, and that to fully understand why music is good or bad, I have to be listening to it on a “sheerly musical” level as well, combining the three. Well, in response to that I would claim that there isn’t too much to it on a musical level, but my musical knowledge is limited. I’m learning to increase what I hear when I listen, but I want to understand what makes this a musically good or bad album. That’s why I went to a site where I knew I would find a harsh but intelligent criticism of the CD. But there was none of that there. Instead, all I got was a poorly-written, profanity-laced diatribe against the band for mimicking other bands. Personally, since there really isn’t any truly popular band playing right now that sounds like them, I don’t have too much of a problem with it, but I’m reviewing the review, and not the band or CD, so that doesn’t really matter.


Zero stars for the cop-out Shine On so-called review.

½
½ star for the creativity to write a review for Get Born as a dialogue. Minus four and a half for not having any substance to it at all, not talking about the songs, and basically complaining because Jet has songs that sound like bands that lots of people like.

Empty Bookshelf’s First 100 Reviews


Oh, those kids. Always at it. You guys really shouldn’t’ve.

So here we are at the first of what may be a few reviews of our first milestone, 100 reviews. Not only is this the first review of this milestone, but of what could be very many milestones. We here at the Bookshelf like the word “milestone“, and don’t believe in Thesauruses. So here we go, our first hundred in a nutshell.

The first actual review happened way back in October of 2005… remember that time before the Steelers won the superbowl, before “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” movie, before Dick Cheny accidentally shot his friend while hunting, and before Bristol, United Kingdom celebrated the 200th birthday of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (actually April 9) by relighting the Clifton Suspension Bridge?

Dan’s first review was aimed at complaining about post-game hype surrounding an extremely long baseball game. Of course our readers probably care about boring Astros-Braves baseball games as much as they seemed to care about my terrible review of the dictionary. Even though that picture was good, it was nowhere near the five star quality of this image. I too tried my hand at reviewing food, but it was an utter failure. On the plus side, my review of the letter to the editor is one of my favorites, and my first review actually got eight comments, including this link. The few following that grilled chese review focused mostly on music, my opinion of “Good Night, and Good Luck”, a particular episode of Trading Spouses, and Dan’s opinion of My opinion of “Good Night, and Good Luck”. Dan also said that the Colbert report wouldn’t last, which seems to have been proven false.

October seemed to be us finding our footing.
***

November saw Dan’s Cleveland Trifecta, a diatribe against horses, a road that he liked, an episode of “Coach“, and his complaints about how much he aches, now that he’s an old man. I started the month strong with the Beth review, but struggled through the rest of it, with lame reviews like Thursday, a type of tooth”paste” that doesn’t work for me, and an insightful, yet completely unnecessary complaint about my nosebleeds. My FAO Schwarz review kinda made up for them, but the highlight of the month involved Dan and I sparring about how Christmas is coming earlier every year, and something about me being a time-traveling sheep.

November didn’t see much improvement over October, but the Christmas stuff was entertaining.
***½

December got a bit better, even with a few less reviews. I busted out the old NES games, for a few reviews that I swear are not trying to copy off of XE, another personal favorite, Christmas Cards, Adam’s first review, Dan throwing the hate down on Pitchfork media, and a suprising amount of people commenting on Roger Ebert’s take on video games. The biggest advance in December was the pop-ins, that added added some clarity to our parentheses-obsessed-writing.

December was a highly engaging and entertaining month, even with only nine reviews.
****½

2006 rolled around, and January saw Dan get political, review half of a book, not like warm winters a lot. I only contributed three of ten reviews that month, but all three of them were relatively alright, mostly because “Where In Time is Carmen Sandiego“, and “The Simpsons” after season 9 is so easy to complain about.

January’s topics fell off a little.
***½

February, while being the shortest month, was also a monster for us, as far as number goes. A whopping twenty-one reviews. To be fair, 17 of them came in our envelope-pushing live superbowl reviews, the biggest stunt pulled in the history of reviewing anything and everything on a five star scale. The only other reviews of any substance were my Gauntlet Review of the Beatles albums, and Dan’s digging up of our one-issue underground high-school newspaper.

Despite the big stunt, and two good reviews, February was kinda lacking.
**½

March just plain sucked. Four reviews total. One by me. Three megareviews by Dan.

½

April was slightly better, with another of my top five of my reviews, Legacy of the Wizard. The other four I would give an average of 3 stars to, but since there were only four during the month, that’s going to cancel out the Legacy of the Wizard bonus and take it down a half star.

**½

For my money, May was our best month yet. Dan’s contribution was the lengthy three-part TV landscape review. I threw out quality stuff with my Songs for Silverman, and Degree Navigator reviews. The shorter American Dreamz and Davinci Code video game reviews were serviceable, but my immense LOST season 2 review tops everything.

*****

June fell off a bit. Four reviews total. Split two and two. Mine were based on a ridiculous news story, and anger at other people for coincidentally coming up with the same ideas as me. Dan tried to put everything into perspective by seeing how well the entire history of human ingenuity and artistry stacked up in the interstellar community, and complained a little about how the national geography of roadways isn’t designed to suit his needs.

**

July was filled with the (I gotta admit my ignorance as to the relevance of this phrase… and wikipedia does nothing to help) Navel Gazing set. I was had for a few minutes by a Jimmy Kimmel hoax, and I thought the critics were a little too harsh on Shayamalan. Despite the mediocre numbers for the month, I’d give it a 3.5

***½

This gives us a per-month average of 3 stars, which isn’t too shabby.

In my first ever review, I reviewed the concept of this website. I claimed that we wouldn’t be able to keep it fresh, that we’d run out of ideas, and that we wouldn’t be able to stay somewhat funny at least. I believe my exact quote was “It has the potential to provide hours of entertainment for readers, and shape their lives for years to come. However, the downside is that it could get old real soon, and provide us with nothing but an excuse not to get real jobs.”

Well, I think we’ve significantly proven wrong every single point that I just brought up. We have 29 categories, 19 subcategories, and even two sub-sub categories. We’re still writing about reasonably different things, and while we may have slacked on the funny in recent months, we still bring the ‘A’ game on occasion. As far as my quote goes, I’d be willing to bet that we’ve provided maybe a few hours of entertainment for a handful of people, which probably did nothing to shape their lives for even the near fututre. On the upside, it hasn’t gotten old, and we have gotten real-ish jobs.

For all of these reasons, I’m willing to up our star rating by half a star, over the average rating of 3. I’ve also realized that my method of calculating the rating might not be the best, so I’m gonna throw in another half star for a final rating of 4 stars out of five.

****

And for those of you playing along at home, yes, this technically is the 100th review and so therefore should be included. This review receives 3 stars for not having much to offer in the way of witty musings, and for having a faulty overall rating method, but for packing so many subjects and links into one review.

***

Ben Folds – “Songs For Silverman”

songsforsilverman.jpg
I should take some photography lessons from this guy. Every time I try to take a picture of myself in the mirror with a forlorn look on my face, all that shows up is a bright light.

I’ve got a bit of a dilemma. I’m a huuuge Ben Folds/Ben Folds Five fan…. as I’m sure most of you already know. If you asked me to put the albums in order of my favorites, I’d probably be able to do it.The problem is that it wouldn’t be the same orderthat I would rank the overall album quality. “Songs for Silverman“, his first solo full-length album in at least 3 years, has such a high concentration of songs that I would deem “best he’s ever recorded”, that I would put it just slightly ahead of “Whatever and Ever Amen”, on my favorites, however, there are a few songs that are weaker than anything on the earlier Ben Folds Five release, dropping the actual star rating below WAEA.

While WAEA was a collection of good songs, varying fast and slow, deep and shallow, “Songs for Silverman” is more uniform, and at the risk of sounding like a press release, more “mature”. The songs are for the most part slower, have more instrumentation and vocals, more thoughtful lyrics… and just overall, more ambition. To understand a bit better, a brief history, that will probably turn into a bit longer than I intended.

Ben Folds Five was founded as a “fun” piano-electric(usually) bass-drums trio that specialized in “punk rock for wusses” as it was put. The first album was filled with mostly fast, piano-driven songs that were pretty light and enjoyable, with mostly good melodies and a fairly sloppy production quality that had a feeling of spontaneity. The second album, WAEA, had more of a polished feel, with more strings, some slower songs, a “mouth keyboard” of sorts in some of the songs, and more complex three-part backing vocals. The band moved forward even more with the third album, “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner“, a “concept album” that used mainly slower, even more introspective songs, more experimental instrumentation, and a definite album cohesiveness, including lyrical and musical ideas that were carried over into multiple tracks.

The progress stalled though, when the band broke up, and Folds went solo. His next album, “Rocking the Suburbs” seemed to basically be a sequel to WAEA in style and substance, in fact including a sequel song to one on the first album. He played all the instruments on the album, even though some songs sounded like they had electronic drums in places. The problem though, was that he was touring without a backup band or singers, and so he was writing songs that he could play without backing vocals (actually many of the tracks on the album had overdubbed Folds vocal tracks in the background) or extensive instrumentation.

Back to the present, and he now has a more-than-capable drummer and bassist duo behind him. With this in mind, the album at times has a feeling like it might be where the original band could’ve eventually progressed to, but that’s a moot point. What’s important is that with the exception of a few weak tracks in the middle, this album is filled with jam-packed songs that range from jazz and blues riffs to pop to classical-style, sometimes in the same song. The songs are dense, and for the most part under five minutes, yet some of them I’d say are epic. I would especially say this of “Jesusland”, and the last track “Prison Food”, a song that’s moved up to my number two favorite, with an ending that is built up so much and has so much going on between the furious drumming and bass playing, pulsing piano part, the too-many-to-guess-part harmonies going on, and the mood-setting steel guitar, which brings me to my next point.

When this album came out the online Ben Folds community didn’t accept it right away… to tell you the truth it took a few listens for me to get to like it. The songs and tone of the entire album (we’ll get to individual songs in a minute), were completely different than anything that came before, even including concerts the previous summer and the 3 EPs released the year before. The biggest issue for a lot of people was the guitar. Yes, for the first time in any of the tracks that I can remember, there’s a non-bass guitar. In fact one song has a regular acoustic guitar, but another has a 12-string, and two have lap-steel guitars in them, enhancing the fullness of the sound that much more.

Many of the songs borrow short musical ideas, or tones (in the English class sense of the word, not the musical one), from previous songs… including “Jesusland” borrowing an opening from “The Ascent of Stan”, and the tempo and drum styling from “Mess”; “Landed” borrowing the main piano riff from “Philosophy” and turning it inside out; “Give Judy My Notice”, upgrading a solo-piano version from one of the EPs (adding backing vocals, steel guitar, drums, etc.); “Sentimental Guy”, borrowing the bluesiness (is that a word?) of “All U Can Eat” from another of the EPs; “Time” sounding eerily similar to, but a bit more somber than a song called “Bruised” that he recorded with Ben Lee and Ben Kweller; and “Prison Food”‘s main piano part coming from a superfan community favorite that was released on a collection of rareties, “Emaline”. I know that’s a long list, but I sincerely believe that the songs as a whole are different enough, and in most cases, completely better than the songs containing the borrowed ideas. “Landed”‘s been featured as the theme for the kennel club dog show, and now on the Hilton ads, “Judy” was slow and kinda empty without the added music and faster pace, and “Jesusland”, “Time”, and especially “Prison Food” are among the best on the album, if not the best he’s ever recorded.

For the most part, these songs include what could possibly be considered the most difficult piano parts he’s written (especially the first four), and a large number (every one excluding “You to Thank”; “Gracie“, and “Sentimental Guy”) having what might be his most complicated backing vocals to date.

Overall the album is very intriguing and complex, and grows on you the more you listen to it, as long as you don’t get bogged down by a few slower songs in the middle, and the sappy, yet completely understandable, “Gracie”.

****½

“Songs for Silverman” gets four and a half stars, as it’s more complicated and pleasing to listen to than most every pop recording you can find these days, a few of the songs stand out among my top favorites (which is enough to counteract the sub-par ones), and it has a cohesiveness to it, with only “Gracie” feeling akward and out of place.

In case you’re wondering, I’d rate the rest of them, in order of my favorites: “WAEA”- Five Stars; “Rocking the Suburbs”- Four Stars; “TUBORM”- Three and a half stars; and “Ben Folds Five”- Three stars. Not included in those are “Fear of Pop: Volume One“, “Ben Folds Live“, “Naked Baby Photos“, “William Shatner: Has Been“, or any of the EPs.

Keasbey Nights, Vol. 2 by Streetlight Manifesto

At this point, I’ve realized that the readership is very selective in terms of what it considers interesting enough about which to read an entire review. Being that Nate’s and my interests, though not identical, can be said to not be all that enthralling to whatever we’d consider the readership-at-large, and this is another one of those reviews that is more-than-likely out of the realm of interest for most of you, feel free to suggest future topics as you gloss over this one.

My short list of best albums ever is very short. #3 tends to vary depending on any number of factors, #2 is always “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd, and #1 has been “Keasbey Nights” by Catch 22 since the first time I heard it in 1998. I’d evangelize for it (if that’s a correct usage of that word), but it’s music that is only appealing those that already like that type of music. This part will sound like every other description/write-up of the album in 1998, but it combined punk, ska, and hardcore elements in a way that didn’t simply add a ska-inspired brass section to a punk band (Less Than Jake, I like you, but I’m looking in your direction) or a lead singer who alternated between hardcore yelling and regular singing so he could, you know, “show that he had a sensitive side.” I’m not one to get much out of the simple fact that people in band are (or aren’t) skilled musicians, if I were, I’d be a Rush fan, but most write-ups of Catch 22’s album in 1998 mention the “chops” of the brass section.

vol2
Bitter much? I think the “volume 2” part is just used so retailers can more easily keep track of the two albums of the same name and same songs.

Though a hugely popular album, “Keasbey Nights [1998]” is part of a genre where popularity is usually measured on one or two scales of magnitude down from “pop” popular music. Pretty much any fan of non-MTV punk music and what people with too much time on their hands call the 3rd Wave [of] Ska has heard of the album; they might not all consider it the best album ever, but it is generally held in universally very high regard.

In briefest terms, “Keasbey Nights, Vol.2” is a 2006 released re-recording of that same album that came out in 1998 by a different band (Streetlight Manifesto) that includes some of the original members of Catch 22, notably the original lead singer who was also the one who was the songwriter for the whole thing. Oh yeah, he also left Catch 22 less than one year after Keasbey Nights came out. Moreso, he’s the founder of Streetlight Manifesto. Not to turn this into story time, but we see how there is a lot more to this, um, “re-album” than you might expect…

Like I said earlier, the album was popular among a very limited group of people, but if anything, that group is rather passionate. If you look around the internet, you’ll see numerous “stories” about why that lead singer/songwriter, Tomas Kalnoky, left Catch 22, and not to contribute to “the internet,” but I think I remember hearing an audio interview with him where he said that he left to go to college and touring definitely wasn’t conducive to that. A fair number of websites say that there was a dispute between him and the record company, though I’m not sure why he’d choose to distribute his new band’s CDs through that same label though. To be honest, the reason he left doesn’t matter to anyone but him and 1998 Catch 22 (like a lot of 5+ person bands, they’ve shuffled their lineup a bit, just like Streetlight Manifesto). But, to contribute to “the internet,” let’s assume that the mystery situation that made it so he felt compelled to re-record and re-release a CD from 8 years ago, let’s unsafely jump to some unfair conclusions that, being that we’re decidedly removed from the actual people involved (and it’s not our business), will attempt to explain why.

No matter the talents of the original members of Catch 22, the strength of the album came from Kalnoky’s songwriting. Catch 22’s follow-up album, “Alone in a Crowd,” was mediocre at best. To be fair, their most recent album, “Dinosaur Sounds,” is perfectly acceptable, as it seems they got comfortable writing songs that weren’t trying to sound like ones that Kalnoky would have written. Kalnoky’s leaving relatively soon after the release of Keasbey Nights created a number of problems:

  1. The other guys in Catch 22 were aware of the success of the album (for a time, it was Victory Records’ all-time highest selling album, and Victory is not an insignificant record label in the punk/hardcore world). When the reason for their success (Kalnoky) left for whatever reason, they were probably pretty miffed at him as he was almost singularly responsible for their success. So, that’s the band being mad at the all-of-a-sudden checked-out lead singer and songwriter.
  2. Instead of calling it quits or re-organizing under a different name, Catch 22 shuffled the lineup and continued being a band whose drawing power was defined by someone no longer affiliated with the band in any way. Not that Kalnoky considered Catch 22 his baby, but Catch 22’s livelihood stemmed from his songs. Not to judge anyone’s moral character, but he would have been crossing a long asking them to break up the band when he quit, while they would have been crossing a line if they would’ve said he would’ve been being unreasonable had he asked for that. Again, who knows what happened, but it ties into the release of “Keasbey Nights, Vol. 2.” So, that makes the checked-out lead singer and songwriter miffed at his former (by his choice) band.
  3. At two Catch 22 concerts I attended in 2003 and 2004, the audience had huge reactions for “Keasbey Nights” songs and merely receptive reactions for anything made by the band since Kalnoky’s departure 5+ years earlier. This’ll be enough to get those in Catch 22 a little miffed at themselves, if only for the fact that their most popular work was done by someone else more than half a decade ago. It’s weird to think of it in these terms, but at the time I said to the friend with whom I went to concerts that it’s like Catch 22 became their own cover band. The thing was, they weren’t even a very good one. Songs from Keasbey Nights, even though they received the biggest reactions, were played with the littlest precision or care for getting the right notes, or most tellingly, were played at obscenely fast tempos, giving the impression they were trying to get them over with. Now that Catch 22 has two (and supposedly a 3rd coming out in June 2006) post-Keasbey Nights albums, they have enough material to play only their “own” songs, though “Catch 22” is still emblazed on their fans’ favorite album, so there will be fans upset that they didn’t play any of the “old” songs.
  4. One of the tracks which included spoken “thank-yous” on the 1998 album now has two computer voices doing a question and answer about why the record exists. Apparently someone was planning on a re-release of the 1998 album, and Kalnoky says that the recording quality of the original album was so bad that he’d feel like the fans were getting screwed over if they were going to be buying the same album. Significantly, the fact that Kalnoky is no longer in Catch 22 and most likely had nothing to do with the decision to repackage the original CD means that his re-recording of the album with Streetlight Manifesto makes it so any re-release of the unenhanced 1998 album is entirely pointless “artistically” and commercially for both the current Catch 22 and the record label both bands share. In fact any other re-release of the 1998 won’t go over well at all now that it’s been done.
  5. Being that the world of punk and ska music isn’t exactly the realm of millionaires, a feud doesn’t really accomplish much beyond the principle of it all. Kalnoky has sort of gone out of his way saying that there’s no bad blood anymore, and everything’s fine, but it’s doubtful that “Keasbey Nights, vol. 2,” which has a computer voice saying “In the end, this will piss people off, and that’s all that really matters” isn’t related to this non-existent feud.

So, aside from making it so a Catch 22 (in name) re-release won’t ever happen, Keasbey Nights, Vol.2 also makes it so Catch 22 will be put in a tough spot in concert, considering that their already one-step-removed connection to the songs on Keasbey Nights was strained even more with the guy who actually singularly wrote the songs re-recording them with his new band. At that point, one could argue that Catch 22 really needs to move on and face the fact that other than their name is on the album, they’re more Kalnoky’s songs than theirs. Also, related to the previous point, when I saw Streetlight Manifesto, once in 2003 and once in 2004, Kalnoky was definitely not into playing any of “his” Catch 22 songs. There’s no way he wouldn’t expect the fans to want to hear some of them, so I was surprised that the only Catch 22 song the band played was “Giving Up, Giving In” which is probably the last song fans would want to hear from Keasbey Nights. In some figurative sense, his re-recording of the album with his band might re-establish some sense of artistic “ownership.” To be honest, I’m obviously sort of into “only they know what’s going on” territory, and my life would be enhanced in no way if I knew what was really going on as they say. I’d say that I’d rather everyone get along and they all get filthy rich from the sheer awesomeness of even the 1998 Keasbey Nights album. If they don’t have the personalities to mesh well in a band, that can be that.

Oddly enough, I’m thinking I haven’t actually covered the CD itself. I guess I was so enthusiastic about the original album and I was sort of caught by surprise by the release last Tuesday, that the whole situation seems interesting in a “behind the music” sort of way. Of course, I’m not a journalist; I’m just some schmuck that can use Google, like everyone else on the internet. Speaking of “the internet,” Tomas Kalnoky has quite the collection of fanboys out there. Few of them will admit that Catch 22’s post-Keasbey Nights albums have any redeeming value, and just as baffling, they’ll say that Streetlight Manifesto plays perfectly in concert, which having been to two concerts and having MP3’s of two others, the music is just too fast to be played perfectly by anyone except robots. I don’t expect perfection, but when people trash one band (Catch 22) for missing notes while ignoring the fact that another (Streetlight Manifesto) does the same thing, the whole “fanboy” thing is obvious. (Note, my take on how Catch 22 plays their “old” songs is a different issue than whether or not they miss notes.)

Anyway, the album itself… Well, imagine pizza is your favorite food for effectively forever. You really like pizza. Then imagine that someone just showed you that unknowingly, you’ve just been eating plain pizza, and there are toppings out there that make it even better. It’s like that.

I sort of literally know the original album backward and forward, so it was immensely familiar while the enhanced fidelity of the recording (specifically, that you can hear the words instead of vocal mush, and each instrument can be heard individually) made it something new. Small lyrical changes are peppered here and there while there are numerous inconsequential (but not pointless) musical changes, namely in the horn riffs. You get the impression that Kalnoky said, “I’ve always wished that trombone part went bum-bum-bah instead of bah-bah-bum.” For those that listened to the heck out of the original album, it’s fun to listen to what’s really the same CD without with being exactly the same, similar to listening to a live version of favorite song. Universally the solos are stronger than on the original album. What little negative I have to say about the new recording might be just a sign that I don’t know much about audio recording, but it sounds like in addressing one of the issues of the first recording (the different instruments, singing, etc.) sort of getting lost in the audio mix, they over-boosted the trebles. The tracks were hard to listen to with headphones in my MP3 player which had a zeroed equalizer and the headphones I always use without issue. Boosting the treble makes the sound stick out and more “piercing” but I can’t say it doesn’t sound a bit tinny. Also, specifically on the first track, “Dear Sergio,” the mix just sounds “off:” the lead vocal seems to only be mixed into the right channel while the harmony is only in the left, and I’m not sure that’s how it’s usually done. The “problem” is less pronounced depending on where I’m listening to the track, but it was annoying the first time I heard it. But that’s nitpicking.

*****

Keasbey Nights, Vol. 2 by Streetlight Manifesto receives five stars due to the strength of its source material and the whole “toppings make pizza better” thing. It’s not an album that has been “covered,” it’s more-or-less the same people (sort of) just doing it over, better with higher quality recording equipment. The original album would also receive five big stars whether or not this re-recording existed. The issue is whether it’s worth buying the new if you already have the old…I’d say yes, as for those that hold the album in high esteem, the two versions are more accurately “different” than “better” and “worse.” Many of you are familiar with my dislike of “gimmicky” anythings, so if you ever listen to this album (either version, though the fidelity of the newer one makes it more obvious) you might notice how Pachelbel’s Canon is D is more or less inserted into track #07. Yes, this would obviously be a gimmicky thing, but when you take the time to write in the 4th, 5th, and 6th(?) parts of the Canon, it’s not gimmicky, it’s ambitious.

Gauntlet Review – The Beatles – “Rubber Soul”, “Let it Be”, “George Martin: In My Life”, and “I am Sam Soundtrack”

This is a huge mega gauntlet review. I wanted to write a review of the first two albums above, kinda comparing them, etc., but then I realized that I had these rather interesting cover albums, and it would be a total shame if I didn’t write about them in some capacity (one of them being decidedly stranger than the other), so I’ve ballooned this up to epic scale. I’ve also kinda assumed that everyone is at least familiar with the more popular song titles.


AHHH! It’s like they’re staring straight into my soul!…. My Rubber soul!

Up first: Rubber Soul is quickly becoming one of my favorite Beatles albums, partially because of how underrated it is, but more because it is THE bridge between what the Beatles were and what they became, and also because of the amount of creativity and musicianship put into it. First off, to name the tracks that everyone should already know: Drive my Car, Norwegian Wood, Nowhere Man, Michelle (which somehow won the “Song of the Year” grammy for that year, even though there are plenty of songs on this album that are better, and it didn’t even hit number one on the singles charts… granted i don’t know the effect that it had on pop culture, but from a musical standpoint, I don’t get it… not that the Grammys judge anything by musical standards anyway), Girl, I’m Looking Through You, and In my Life. That’s a lot of songs that were major hit singles, although none of them ever hit the number one spot. Not only is that an impressive feat, but this was the second album they released that year, in addition to the movie “Help!”. With the exception of maybe 4 slow to moderately paced songs, all of the tracks are upbeat. All, except maybe one George Harrison-written song are catchy, and all contain at least two-part vocal harmonies, with most of them containing consistent three-part vocals. The tone as a whole, as well as the musicality, is consistent. In addition, this is the first of the albums to begin experimenting with other sounds, and more diverse lyrics. Norwegian Wood, with it’s sitar, and In My Life, with the sped up piano solo in the middle of it, giving it a baroque sound, are prime examples of advancements in both sound and lyrics beyond those of cheeky love songs. The album carries a romantically jaded lyrical tone to it, with songs about manipulation, death threats, and being in relationships you don’t want to be in. All in all, a very pleasurable and underrated album that paved the way to their first real change to the pop music scene, and the record that was voted the greatest album of all time by a crapload of magazines and music stations, (even though I find it to be highly spotty) Revolver.

****
The album gets four stars, due to the two or three lackluster songs in the bunch. The rest are gold, and work very well together. The songs form a coherent album, not just a collection of tracks that were thrown together to get past a deadline.


“Let It Be”, once again proving that the Beatles were good at not all being able to look in the same direction.

The “Let It Be” album is another that’s moving up on my list, and could very well be at the top. It’s at the opposite end of the spectrum entirely in terms of tone and presentation from Rubber Soul. Whereas all of Rubber Soul’s songs are tightly compacted, and cleanly put together, Let It Be plays like the closest thing they have to a concert album, mostly due to the fact that many tracks were live recordings, some from their famous rooftop concert, and others being raw takes from the studio. Wikipedia has a more detailed version of the story, including specifics of how each track was pieced together, but basically the story is that these tracks were going to be for a soundtrack to a documentary film that was being made about the making of a Beatles album called “Get Back”. The band was starting to have their fights though, and the material got shelved in order to put out the Abbey Road album. After they had been broken up for about a year, Phil Spector managed to piece together the audio clips from the various takes, and the album was released. Of particular interest (among the individual song details) is the details of the various guitar solos on the actual track “Let it Be”. I prefer the album version with the 1970 guitar solo over the single version, which is kinda weak as far as the guitar part goes. Anyway, the album is a lot of fun, and it has a very casual mood to it. There are audio clips of the band goofing off in between songs, certain tracks that are kinda “spur of the moment” messing around-type songs that fall apart after 40 seconds or so, but are still fun, and of course the famous closing line, “we’d like to thank you all, and we hope we passed the audition”, or something to that extent. Famous tracks include, “Let It Be” (obviously), “Across the Universe”, “The Long and Winding Road” (the most infamously criticized of the tracks, due to Phil Spector’s inserted overpowering and sappy orchestration), and “Get Back”. Other standout tracks include the band showing off their blues-rock influence with the live “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “One after 909”, and the last released of the McCartney-Lennon dual lead vocal tracks, “Two of Us”. The most interesting thing is how different the band sounds here than on any album between Rubber Soul and this one, with the possible exception of the White Album. Even though Sgt. Pepper is supposed to be fun, and Abbey Road and Revolver have some fun songs, it doesn’t seem like the band is enjoying itself, and that’s what really shows through here. Even though apparently they were at the peak of their fighting, the musicianship seems pure and easily accomplished, rather than worked on and overdubbed and experimented with. It seems spontaneous and lighthearted (with the exception of three tracks), and they again seem like a band that you would like to have playing at a party, rather than one who would rather be perfect and pristine. The other thing of note is that again, like many bands who go through big changes musically, if you play these two albums back to back (you can actually fit them both onto one CD) you wouldn’t realize that they could be the same band, especially considering that they were only four years apart…. just look at Scott Stapp.

****½
“Let It Be” (the album) is an incredibly fun listen, mostly because you can hear the fun that the band (at least by all outward appearances) had while making it, and we’d all rather imagine them that way instead of arguing. The only weak spot is that although I really like “The Long and Winding Road” (and hate the acoustic version on the “Let It Be: Naked” album), it really has no place with the rest of the songs. The orchestration completely separates it from the tone of everything else, especially between the roots-rock of “One After 909”, and the folksy acoustic blues of “For You Blue”. It might have been better suited to end the album, after “Get Back”, especially knowing as Phil Spector did at the time that it was going to be the last Beatles album.

Onto the cover albums.


If this was 2003, it would be a perfect time for me to do the Sam voice. Fortunately, I’ve gotten over that sad time in my life. Ahh, what the hell,….”WHY CAN’T LUCY GO HOME WITH MEEEEEE!!!”

For the 2001 movie about a mentally handicapped Sean Penn raising his daughter Lucy, (Dakota Fanning), the producers wanted to get the most fitting of soundtrack material. Someone decided to make the movie heavy on the Beatles references, including the fact that Lucy is named after “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, so it was a prerequisite that their songs be included. They had trouble getting the rights to the songs, or at least the original performances of them, so they worked around it by getting a bunch of musicians to play them, with Eddie Vedder, Sarah McLachlan and Sheryl Crow being the highest profile names. The full track list can be found here. The album runs hot and cold, with the first three-fourths being well translated, and the second half going more for mood than preservation of the original intent. In fact, the only miscue before track 13 is “I’m Only Sleeping” by the Vines, and that’s mostly because the song is a weak one to begin with. Maybe the song fit thematically with the movie, but the skip button usually gets pushed when it comes on. The aforementioned three artists do perfectly competent (in Vedder’s case more like near perfect) recreations of the original versions of their respective songs. Rufus Wainwright, Stereophonics, Wallflowers, and Chocolate Genius (presenting a track that’s one of my favorites from the White Album), successfully update the songs with more contemporary instrumentation and vocal styles. Aimee Mann and Sean’s brother Michael blend their voices perfectly on the opener “Two of Us” (what I would consider, along with Rufus’ “Across the Universe” as the two standout tracks). Ben Folds iisn’t given enough to do with “Golden Slumbers” (the original goes on into two other songs, with a drum solo in the middle that he could’ve pulled off well… yes he does play the drums too… and bass… and probably a few other instruments), Ben Harper’s “Strawberry Fields” is light before turning into the noisiest of the tracks, and the Black Crowes’ track is perfectly forgettable. The album turns after track 12, with slow acoustic versions of “We Can Work It Out”, “Help”, and “Nowhere Man” by two people I’ve never heard of and Howie Day. Someone forgot that “Help” was urgent for a reason and that the best part of “Nowhere Man” was that the whole thing was sung in three parts, and not a whiny Bob Dylan impresion. The album finishes off with a simple, solemn, baritone version of “Let it Be” that gets the point and shows the hope-tinged sadness of the original. The worst track is Grandaddy’s “Revolution”, that changes the tune entirely and removes the bluesy synchopation that made both the album and the single version of the original worth listening to, in addition to singing with an apathetic tone instead of one of cynicism.

***

The I Am Sam Soundtrack is probably the best compliation of Beatles covers available, and I’m sure that there are people out there who like the tracks 13-16 but they aren’t me. Three stars for all of the aforementioned reasons.

gminmylife.jpg
George Martin: In My Life? More like George Martin:Sells His Soul to Crap all Over His Life’s Work and Make a Few Dollars…. BAHHH-ZING!

In case you couldn’t guess by the above caption, this album is a total wash and the only purpose it serves is for comic relief when telling other people about it, and the fact that anyone would want to make something like it, especially someone like George Martin. For those of you unfamiliar with the man, you can view a detailed biography here.
Basically, he produced every Beatles album from 1962 until 1969 (essentially just leaving off the Phil Spector-produced “Let It Be”), and is oftentimes called “The Fifth Beatle”, although I think that’s kinda lame… just like this album coincidentally. Anyway, this CD came out in 1998, when Martin decided that he wanted to go out on his own terms, with his last work. So of course, you’d think that he would try to get interesting musicians, and probably have the means with which to get them to do it. You would think that, but instead we get people like Goldie Hawn, Robin Williams & Bobby McFerrin, Phil Collins, Celine Dion, and of course Sean Connery and Jim Carrey. Yep. That’s who does the songs. Not only that, but they managed to make some very good songs into mostly terrible songs. Out of that list, you wouldn’t expect that the best one would be from Jim Carrey, but it is. His version of “I am the Walrus” was something that I would play for other people and not tell them who was singing it. Nobody could ever figure it out, because it sounds nothing like Jim Carrey, except for the few ad-libbed lines he threw in, and, in the most knowing line on the album, the part at the end where exclaims, “There! I’ve defiled a timeless piece of art! For my next trick I’ll paint a clown face on the Mona Lisa while using the Shroud of Turin as a dropcloth”. Celine Dion turns a rather bland song (“Here, There, and Everywhere”) into one of her terrible sappy love songs right up there with the Titanic song. Goldie Hawn destroys “A Hard Day’s Night” by making it a lounge ballad. Robin Williams and Bobby McFerrin do a serviceable job with “Come Together”, but it’s completely overshadowed by Jim Carrey pretty much doing the same thing but better. Phil Collins provides a highlight with his full version of “Golden Slumbers” including an extended drum solo, something that Ben Folds should’ve been allowed to do. Sean Connery reads “In My Life” like he wants to be William Shatner, but with a Scottish accent. It’s okay, if you don’t care about the actual tune of the song. Other tracks of note are electric guitarist Jeff Beck playing the melody of “A Day in the Life” note-for-note without adding much else, classical guitarist John Williams outdoing Beck with his acoustic guitar version of “Here Comes the Sun”, and George Martin conducting a new version of the Pepperland Suite from the “Yellow Submarine” movie. Other tracks of ill-repute include Billy Connolly and his Scottish accent portraying a ringmaster for “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, and the biggest travesty of them all, making the decision to can the best part of the second best of the Beatles’ three-part harmony songs, “Because”, in favor of having electric violinist and fad at the time, Vanessa Mae give us her instrumental version. I believe that covers the entirety of the album. It’s a very obscure compilation that not that many people really know about, and it should be kept that way.

*

This album gets one star due to a few tracks that would be enjoyable to people who’ve never heard the original versions. Also, other tracks are guilty pleasures as you listen and wonder why anyone, especially someone with this much music industry power, would do something like this. Then you realize that in the liner notes he actually explained each decision individually. These explanations are worth about as much to me as the explanation for the movie “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band“, the lowest regarded of anything even vaguely having to do with their music, and an entirely different subject that perhaps one day I’ll tell you all about.

Weezer’s Make Believe

I’m not sure if this is a copout, but it definitely is a lazy-man’s way to do it. This “review” was originally an e-mail I wrote in September, a good month+ before the concept of this very website existed. That doesn’t mean that the contents of the e-mail aren’t worthy of inclusion on this site. You’ll notice that it’s written more like an e-mail than a review (what with instances of a specific “you” and “me”). I’ve added some links and some popins, and the rating and conclusion are new for this review. This entire e-mail basically was a response to him saying, “As would be expected, the new Weezer album is quite excellent.” As always, don’t be afraid to post comments, it’s not like we’d write an extensive analysis of something that would be contrary to one sentence you wrote or anything.

make believe
Make Believe — How About Make…A Good Album. Buh-Zing!

So, having gotten the new Weezer album just two days ago, and having given it two listens“”.I hate to say it, but I agree with the Pitchfork review. I don’t agree with giving it .4/10, as that would only be appropriate for the review of an album by someone who happened to be responsible for the rape of an immediate family member of the reviewer, but their reasoning for it being “bad” was spot-on. To be fair, I knew that it was reviewed poorly (the .4/10, specifically), but I had not read the contents of the review, so I had no pre-set opinion of the album before listening as Rolling Stone gave it a rather straight-forward 4 star review [the type of 4 star review given to bands that have a solid “sound” (like Cake and soon, the Strokes) that can’t be faulted and release albums that sort of sound alike, for better or worse””.remember that the most recent Cake album was rather poorly reviewed by Rolling Stone for sounding “

Pitchfork Media’s Top Album and Top Single of 2005

Obviously, at year’s end the opinion-based media puts out best of/worst of collections to (again, obviously) serve as “year-in-review” without going month-by-month, the same way that respected publications don’t review albums track-by-track, instead covering the highlights of the “grand scheme” of the album, then investigating the highlights of particular tracks. Pitchfork Media, which is one of the leading internet-based music sites is known for their devotion to “indie” music, though they do review non-indie music, specifically higher profile hip-hop/rap albums. To get a feel for their editorial slant, the best comparison is that the way that Spin seems “indier” than Rolling Stone, Pitchfork Media is just as “indier” to Spin. In fact, Pitch Fork Media sometimes makes even Spin seem like Tiger Beat (to keep the magazine theme going). To get an impression of Pitchfork’s expecations, Weezer’s most recent album, was given a 0.4 out of 10. Weezer never really spent much time as an “indie” band, as “The Sweater Song” and “Say it Ain’t So” were rather successful singles from their debut album, but their other albums have been reviewed in less than a favorable light, and needless to say 0.4 out of 10 is the type of review you’d give to a band that has carnal knowledge of one’s mother, especially considering how much other music came out in 2005 that they didn’t even bother to review. For those of you concerned about bias showing up in my review, don’t fret; I didn’t like the most recent Weezer album either, but it wasn’t 0.4 out of 10 bad, more like 5.5 or 6. Keeping in mind that if I were to give them a 0.4, I can’t imagine to what degree my personal reviewing index would be messed up if I had to somehow figure out what I’d give a Scott Stapp CD. With such strong opinions, they’ve developed some “haters.” Tuning Fork is a blog which (supposedly) reviews Pitch Fork’s reviews, and Sub Pop made a parody site entitled Popdork News. Enough about Pitch Fork Media. They gathered lists of the top 50 albums and singles of the year, and I’m going to review their top picks.

I\'m sorry
A likely pitchforkmedia.com reader.

First and foremost, this review will be of both the top picks together. That way, it’s a bit more than just reviewing the top album and single, it also leaves room for nitpicking of the pitchfork folks, though honestly, I’ll focus on the music, as the musically pretentious are usually critic-proof, if not critics themselves.

As the top album selected, Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois is quite the challenging pick, if only because The White Stripes released an album in 2005 and music critics love The White Stripes. In full disclosure, I had previously heard two songs from from the record on the radio, but I didn’t actually realize they were from this record, so I was pleasantly surprised that once I tracked down the album, I could finally place the songs that had wondered about months prior. Well, the album itself is quite a collection. Mr. Stevens apparently has designs to make an album about each of the 50 states, but he’s in his 20’s and only has Michigan and Illinois to show for it in three years. That doesn’t change the quality of the music, but unless he ramps up his output, he’s going to be one of the busiest 140 year-olds I’ll have heard of.

The album which, as the title suggests, involves the state of Abraham Lincoln and covers all sorts of Illinois-centered topics, including such random topics as Casimir Pulaski Day. I’m not reading between the lines: track 10 is titled “Casimir Pulaski Day.” In terms of whether or not the album meets the stringent requirements of Pitchfork Media? Let’s investigate.

  • singer-songwriter vibe? — check
  • bizarre instrumentation? —check
  • simultaneously straight-forward and “deep” lyrics? — check
  • a bit off-putting on the first listen-thru? — check

Moving away from those categories, in all seriousness, it’s a particularly solid album. Most every song is memorable, and none sound alike yet aren’t out of place. The highlights, Track 1: “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland Illinois,” Track 3: “Come on! Feel the Illinoise!,” and Track 9: “Chicago.” Whether or not it’s fair to be called “The Best Album of 2005” is not something I’m prepared to answer. Music critics live ina weird world where they seemingly are only interested in current music. Reviews aren’t released for albums that came out months ago and were missed; that’d show that the critics weren’t on top of things, and they lose “indie rock cred.” Needless to say, they listen to a lot of music in a calendar year, so being that I probably haven’t heard much of it, I’ll reserve judgement. Being that I’m not a music critic and have the luxury of seemingly have “older” music be my “new” music, I’ll say that “Give Up” by The Postal Service was probably my favorite album new to me in in 2005, though it came out in 2003. All of that in mind, I’d consider “Illinois” to potentially be a fair pick for 2005 once I have enough hindsight working for me.

Pitchfork’s top single was a bit less agreeable to me. They picked “Hope There’s Someone” by Antony and the Johnsons. Nothing like (what I assume to be) a big sweaty white guy plaintively singing love songs like a big sweaty black woman. I’ll mention that his schtick is of the variety that “those that get it love it, and those that don’t get it never will.” Oh, I get it, and it stinks. People that can’t stand sardines aren’t “not getting it;” they’re just more sensitive to crap. To be fair, I’m talking only of the single, “Hope There’s Someone,” I’m not sure of the whole of the album, but Pitchfork didn’t pick it as its #1. The song itself…well, I’ll let the opening lyrics speak for its “message”…

Hope there’s someone
Who’ll take care of me
When I die, will I go

Hope there’s someone
Who’ll set my heart free
Nice to hold when I’m tired

Now, let it be said that there’s nothing wrong with those words, in fact, if I didn’t have to keep up my tough-guy persona, I’d even call them “nice.” But, are they, as a Pitchfork writer called them part of a “quiet, unself-conscious elegy for that long-lost bohemia, which was eventually decimated by AIDS, drugs, gentrification, and, perhaps, its own success” No thank you.

Musically, you’d like listening to Antony‘s singing if you’re intrigued by someone singing just like Aaron Neville, but in the Alto range instead of the Soprano. Strike One. You say you also liked to listen to that guy in highschool who’d sit and the piano with the knowledge of three chords and that banging the keys makes everything more dramatic. Strike Two. Being that this is Canadian Baseball, the song’s out.

***

Pitchfork Media’s Top Album and Top Single of 2005 receives three stars due to their insistence on keeping up their “indie rock cred” no matter what the cost. Of course, their top 10 singles were all over the place in terms of the whole indie rock thing (though “Since You Been Gone” does deserve a place on the list), but there’s nothing wrong with expanding horizons, at least temporarily. The top album was a great choice, but their top single fits the stereotypes just too well.

The Streets’ A Grand Don’t Come for Free

The concept album. Such an ugly idea, conjuring images of Styx, Dreamtheater, Rush, and other shameful bits of Canadian “culture” (I’m not sure if Sty is from Canada, but they might as well be). Sure, Pink Floyd succeeded admirably with The Wall, The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here (if you’d consider that an official concept album), and The Final Cut, though Momentary Lapse of Reason didn’t exactly succeed so much (at all) with the whole high-brow nature of the concept album. Unfortunately, this whole high-brow image (which is more accurately described as pretentiousness, not simple high-brow-ed-ness) serves only to make “concept album” a dirty word. The Beatles weren’t exactly pretentious with Sergeant Pepper and the Lonely Hearts Club Band, though it does have its moments of stylistic experimentation bordering on above-mentioned pretentiousness (John: Yoko says it needs more sitar! Paul: I hate you.), but it worked. Each song brought a lot to the table and none were just musical masturbation in the studio. But can there be a straight-forward concept album if The Beatles’ template practically necessitated some obtuseness? Is it even a concept album anymore? What if it maintains that common theme and thread through each song but its depth is in the straightforwardness of the lyrics? The best album of 2004 was a concept album. In fact, the best two albums of 2004 were concept albums.

The Best Album of 2004
The Best Album of 2004

Though it doesn’t deal with themes such as alienation (OK Computer), living in a consumer-driven society (the last two Pink Floyd albums), and the eternal lightness of being (Hit Me Baby One More Time), A Grand Don’t Come for Free tells the entire story of a night of a recreational drug-using 20-something who begins his big evening out by unfortunately losing 1,000 pounds. It’s not particularly profound, but it’s very British, as The Streets (Mike Skinner), who can lazily be called “Britain’s” Eminem, talks of “birds, holiday, football (when he means soccer)” in the re-telling of his story. All things considered, and for the sake of internal consistency, I’ll remind everyone that I (still) get very little out of words and lyrics in songs. I might know them from frequent listening, but 9 times out of 10, I wouldn’t be able to actually say what a song is about. That said, the significance of A Grand Don’t Come for Free doesn’t stem from its lyrics (or its standing as a concept album due to those lyrics).

The quality of rap music is usually described in two parts: the music and the actual rapping (as much as I hate to say it…… the “beat” and the “flow”). I’m not sure what makes either good or bad, but I can listen to a Jay-Z song and tell that he’s good at rapping, and almost anyone can recognize that the appeal of Hey Ya! is sourced [it’s a hip-hop pun!] back to the musical half (the beat). Granted, lots of people also liked the part about shaking it like a Polaroid picture, but I digress. The Streets (well, Mike Skinner) frequently showcases his wordplay skills (simultaneously completely similar while completely dissimilar to Eminem) and sets this wordplay against music that is almost completely unlike any other rap music in the US. Maybe this is where the appeal lies. I won’t go so far as to say that all rap music sounds the same, but much of it does sound like it was generated with the same “toolkit” or template. Likewise, among popular rap songs, there really aren’t too many topics: “honeys” and “hoes” (obviously, both are synonyms for women…the label simple implies how the guy plans on arranging procreation). Now, for those of you that might be jumping up and down about the myriad topics explored in US rap music, or how there are lots of rap groups that make music that doesn’t sound anything like the MTV-popular(ized) rappers. Yes, there are lots of those groups, but how often do you hear Jurassic 5 blasted out of a car stereo? Nothing against Jurassic 5, The Roots and other groups favored by underground hip-hop apologists, but it’s not mainstream rap. Now, The Streets does mention women (the above-mentioned “birds”) but in decidedly less vulgar terms than any hairmetal band. Though The Streets offers a different take on the concept of rap, one that addresses different issues, different situations, it expands what would normally be considered rap’s limits. These aren’t limits of vulgarity, but similar to Kanye West writing lyrics about un-rap-like concepts of spirituality (in Jesus Walks), A Grand Don’t Come for Free turns the mundane into entertainment in “Blinded by the Lights” as he takes a hit of ecstasy, worries it was a dud, wonders why his friends haven’t returned his text messages, then suddenly is lost in the sweat and jitters of the ecstasy. It’s not profound, but what other artist would be able to make these topics interesting? Sure, there are songs about girls (“Fit But You Know It” – about girls who are dangerously aware of their attractiveness to the point of looking ridiculous and “Dry Your Eyes” – a not inaccurate discussion of how things usually end) but there are also songs about being addicted to soccer gambling, bums who won’t leave your house and on and on.

*****

The Streets’ A Grand Don’t Come for Free receives 5 stars as even in a year of well-regarded releases (especially Green Day’s American Idiot, another concept album) it did more. Simultaneously turning not particularly interesting topics into interesting music is quite the feat, especially if it manages to avoid pretentiousness. (Sorry, but the 50’s-esque rock’n’roll break in “Homecoming” on American Idiot is a bit too much.) Musically, it’s an all new soundscape (ooh). Highlights: track 1 (“It was Supposed to be So Easy”), the hidden track after #11, “Empty Cans” (when listening to the album, you can decide how symbolic that title is), and #4, “Blinded by the Lights”, all among a particularly solid collection of songs.