Go Down Swinging
My first experience with The Acrobrats was when I got to play guitar for them at the Toxic Summer fest; I was the Grim Reaper and played "Callout," the second song on the album. Of course, I'm talking about Guitar Hero, a game of which a number of Boston bands were lucky enough to be a part, including The Acrobrats.
They deserve to be on such a game, mind you, considering that the guitar work is on point and has great tone. Overall, Go Down Swinging is a well-produced punk album filled with catchy parts, vocals-with-attitude and short-but-sweet solos.
Having already heard and liked "Callout," it was hard to give full attention to the first track, but I guessed that the disc would be a typical 30 minutes-or-less of my 40-minute commute. Track three, "Crash," an enjoyable cover of the 1988 Primitives song , made me travel in my mind to a Mutt Cutts van with a couple of idiots on their way to Aspen to return a briefcase full of money. Keep in mind that I was seven when the song first came out.
The rest of the CD (and the first track) is pretty good; nothing too unique, though. I would rather listen to a number of the bands listed under "influences" on the band's Myspace page, instead. The 'brats' actual Website could use some work, as well, as it seems outdated and could use more material.
Nonetheless, they have a lot of friends on their Myspace page, so they must be doing something right.
The Black make a legitimate bargain with their listeners: efficiency. We will not do anything flashy, they seem to say, but neither will we indulge ourselves. Don't expect to be amazed, but don't expect to be bored, either. We will entertain you. It's the bargain that Kurt Cobain sneered at in "Smells Like Teen Spirit," but once one outgrows the anger of discarded youth, the value of entertainment becomes far more apparent. It is the commodity that is offered today by musicians who no longer have the "shock and awe" power that marks the continually shifting sound of now, which those same people did possess in their own youth. The paradox of classic rock radio is that which once amazed being presented now as entertainment.
That's the paradox that Tanglewood embodies as well, not only on relatively energetic tracks that draw on the likes of the Rolling Stones and Elvis Costello for a fun, inoffensive charm but also on the entire middle section of the record, which plays like Pink Floyd mixed with the Cowboy Junkies -- i.e., drugged, but in a way that straddles dangerously the line between street 'ludes and sleeping pills, especially at an average runtime of more than five minutes each. Vocalist David Longoria has a gift for hooks that comes in handy on uptempo songs like "Disrespecting Dirt" and "J. P. Lenoir Street" and especially on the deceptively elongated chorus of "Cell Block," but even these don't carry the music the way they need to. The Black simply don't have enough good musical ideas. This is particularly true of drummer Andy Morales, who makes too much use of an extremely limited vocabulary, though he isn't helped by the record's cardboard-box production.
The bottom line is that if a band takes as few chances as the Black, they must substitute a real talent for entertainment. The Black are significantly less entertaining than they imagine themselves to be, than by rights they ought to be. As Krusty the Klown once cruelly opined, "In this business, either you got it or you don't." The enduring hope of every musician is embodied in the convenient truncation of his next fallible line: "And you, kid, do not have -- hold on a second while I finish this sentence outside..."
Until There's Nothing Left Of Us
This Chicago band's 2003 release, For Never and Ever, was arguably the guilty pleasure album of the year. Kill Hannah's not a band you're going to brag about liking, and it's doubtful that given the chance, you'd bother to check them out live -- unless, of course, you're into being in a roomful of underage goth wannabes. Kill Hannah are a pretty band (I'm secure enough in my masculinity to admit that they're good-looking guys), and it understandably works both for and against them. Thankfully, they write undeniably poppy songs that are strong enough and catchy enough to make you forget about the trendy haircuts, glammed-out makeup, and wristbands.
"Lips Like Morphine," the first single from Until There's Nothing Left Of Us, is a perfect example of the band's ability to draw a thin line between goth and electro-pop (sample lyric: "I want a girl with lips like morphine / Who knocks me out every time she touches me"). Similarly, "Intro" and "Believer" both start off the album impressively and showcase the band's blend of guitars and synthpop well. Confusingly, "Black Poison Blood" cribs a riff from fellow Chicagoans Caviar, while "Love You To Death" is a pop-punk attempt at pleasing the suburban goth contingent (death's gotta be in there somewhere, right?). What's even more confusing about Until There's Nothing Left Of Us, however, is the band's weak attempt at covering The Church's beautiful "Under The Milky Way." It's so watered-down and lifeless that it simply proves the song in no way ever needs to be covered. (Note, by the way, that the band also covered Billy Idol's '80s anthem "Rebel Yell" on the "Lips Like Morphine" single.)
Unlike their last album, Until There's Nothing Left Of Us gives the impression that the band was trying too hard to write a hit this time out (the pressure from Atlantic was surely great). There are some catchy songs, but it all seems formulaic after a while. Not to discount Kill Hannah's talent -- they can write good songs -- but it's hard to get excited about the album when every song practically bleeds into the other without much distinction.
Love is Chemicals
Love is Chemicals
With their self-titled debut album, the members of Love is Chemicals add a battery of art-rock to the arsenal of clean-sounding alternative music revolving around the west coast indie-rock scene. Hailing from San Francisco, the band resembles the slightly subconscious, spacey sound of bands like Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service, all the while reaching for a more pleasing, attractive variety of Sonic Youth-inspired rock than their contemporaries, which, like Modest Mouse's latest releases, includes ambient waves of oft-melodic guitar noise layered over a vocal melody that touches on British shoegazer influences like the Boo Radleys. Singer Natie Grover's voice falls into the category of soft-rock, somewhere between Ben Gibbard and Radleys singer Sice, and his lyrics are poignantly soothing, with a rusty edge of depression which soaks through the porous sounds of songs like "Friends & Neighbors" and "The Hex" like blood through a sponge.
The part about Love is Chemicals that I really enjoyed was that the intelligent professionalism obvious in the recordings sets the band apart from the myriad of garage bands out there. Production quality and song quality seem synonymous with progressive rock bands these days; these guys can split the balance between musical integrity and pop production.
The down side is that, as far as independent bands are concerned, Love is Chemicals sounds pretty much like everyone else, excessively derivative, unoriginal, and sterile.
Shrine of Counterfeits
Passion. Intrigue. Supernova rock and roll? No. Well, yes, if you count CBS's Rock Star: Supernova.
In all fairness, Boston-based and female-fronted MataHari have probably just run into the wrong, grumpy, anti-pop/"punk"/alternative reviewer for their debut album, Shrine of Counterfeits. While I love a lot of hard-ass female musicians who rock to the high heavens (P.J. Harvey, Diamanda Galás, and even Becky Bondage among these), I'm just not a fan of garbage. Oops -- I mean Garbage. Taking that band as a category of music, I'm also referring to most of the new alternative bands made popular on MTV or the Buzz since the year 2000 (Creed may be the best representative to date of popular but unsuccessful melodrama from which I've had the displeasure to develop ulcers). As a general rule, I guess I'm disappointed that someone out there thinks that shattering one's eardrums with a hard lead block of one-dimensional melodrama will move and elevate people to new heights. Melodrama, used well with a self-aware and subtle vulnerability -- and with a certain amount of thought and intelligence -- can actually do just that; Ms. Harvey, in To Bring You My Love may be one of the best examples. On the other hand, the lead weight of guitar overkill blasted to the nth power doesn't float as well. As you might expect, it sludgifies one's brain and burns out the ability to parse sensitive detail or any sense of dynamics softer than a blare.
MataHari draws on all of these iron-hard, frying-pan-minus-the-meat influences and adds a fiery femininity into the mix. That said, I have full faith that the band'll make it to MTV someday, and that seems to be a level they might be satisfied with. They've put together a slick, super-clean, hi-fi studio album with all the right touches, taken on a catchy band name that refers back to an erotic early 20th century figure, found a very hot and exotic Czech frontwoman who can do rockstar melodrama, keep in tune, and self-harmonize in the studio, and incorporated Portishead-esque trippy electronic embellishments as well as well tested ear-shattering overamplified power guitar, and it all adds to MataHari's appeal to the masses. All an accomplishment, especially for a band taking a recording-before-performing approach for its first album.
I have to issue a warning, however, that this music isn't likely to make a long-lasting impression, much like a lot of recent alternative rock, unless it moves beyond its single (boring -- sorry, guys) dimension. On the way, the band might choose to take on a more sensitive variation in dynamics, read some Rimbaud, cultivate some willingness to back off on that infernal guitar, and tell vocalist Ivona Coufalova to stop straining her voice so much in her passionate rockalepsy. Those towering self-harmonies, used hair-raisingly effectively by Layne Staley of Alice in Chains back in the day, can also benefit from a little curtailing and meaningful dimension, as opposed to being thrown in just for the sake of making the song pop a little more. To Ms. Coufalova's credit, she has a very beautiful voice that comes out in the album's last track, "Not Your Puppet," which is also the only track to use dynamics to any effect by playing through a dark, tripped-out electronic haze. The clear sound of her voice finally rings transparent through the haze and grabs you, an unexpected turn of events.
I still think Shrine of Counterfeits is in all likelihood an earnest effort with specific goals in mind. Good for MataHari. For the deep listener, though, a little like being fed cardboard again. The message: unless you're an alternative-minded music journalist or deeply into the aforementioned year 2000+ alternative figures (or Rock Star: Supernova), you may want to skip this one.
Finally, for those who don't know (I didn't), a look at the band's very interesting and beautiful namesake. The real Mata Hari was born on 8/7/1886 in Holland, although she claimed to be from India. Having been married from 1898 to 1904, she became a well-sought belly dancer in various Parisian salons in the early 1900s after one of her two children mysteriously died of poisoning. When her belly dancing career began to dither, she turned to prostitution and was equally well-sought by French and German military officers. Both sides enlisted her as a spy, and once discovered, she was placed before the French firing squad in 1917. Beneath all of the sex, passion, and espionage, her story is one of false facades and exaggeration, driven on the outside by rumor and reputation. I would suggest that these are principles a 2000s alternative band would do very well not to mimic in earnest.
C.Y.S.L.A.B.F. reminds me of all those times I used to play on the neighborhood rope swing during sweltering summers as a kid. I would make a running dash and jump onto this ratty rope before landing in a wide, grassy ditch filled with grimy filth we believed was water. At times, I would chicken out and dangle on the rope instead of letting go, which resulted in my ass smashing onto a tree knot that jutted out the side of the ditch. This would always pain my bum terribly, but I would keep on swinging.
It's kind of like that.
On their first full-length album, Mika Miko somehow manage to pack thirteen amphetamine-drenched songs into just under twenty-one minutes. The band's comprised of five typical American women (Kate Hall, drums; Jessica Clavin, bass; Jenna Thornhill, vocals/sax/keys; Michelle Suarez, guitar/keys; and Jennifer Clavin, vocals/guitar/keys) who like their nookie, despise clothing labels that demand that women adhere to their size requirements, and can't stand the sight of widow's peaks, as it looks too Dracula-ish...which can actually be quite sexy if you're into that sort of thing, which Mika Miko isn't.
The entirety of C.Y.S.L.A.B.F. plays like it's being performed live in a dark, hole-in-the-wall venue, but without all those emo types with their sad hair and too-loud "I'm smarter than thou" proclamations. Thornhill and Clavin's voices are drowned out by their instruments but are in no way washed away; their words ramble together into an amalgam of incoherent sputters. I absolutely cannot make out what these women are saying ninety-five percent of the time, but who cares? They sound cool, and besides, you can look up the lyrics in their liner notes, if you are so inclined. C.Y.S.L.A.B.F. is punk music, despite what their promoter says. It's loud, raucous noise and, like a mud-slide, the music is splish-splashy and sloppy as hell. "Capricorinations" and "Take It Serious" could be the album's singles (provided it plays on college radio, that is). "Don't Shake It Off" features sax playing à la Naked City, and "The Dress" sounds like Suarez is playing an electric samisen. On "Oh, Head Spin!," Mika Miko are too cool for school: "If I gave a care about your theories / I would have gone to college."
Mika Miko is loud, fast, and totally no-bullshit. Listen to it once -- you might not dig. Give it three tries, instead. It's not like you can't spare an hour.
Never Trust A Hippy
This is a NOFX album. You know what you're going to get: of course, it's going to be punk rock. It's going to be the kind of punk rock that made you feel cool to crap in your pants or put egg yolk in your mohawk. You're going to get power chords, as many as one human can play in a two-minute, 30-second song, and the thumb in the eye of authority that is the punk rock message.
Right off the bat, I could hear the similarity between Never Trust A Hippy and NOFX's Pump Up the Valium. The first song, "Seeing Double at Triple Rock", starts out with a catchy, rapid-fire melody which draws some similarity to the first track of Valium, and sprints through each chorus on a full tank of power chords. "You're Wrong", a rare acoustic track, is a nice break from the barrage of power chords. It also gives the listener a chance to hear what NOFX is really about; Fat Mike gives his opinion on everything from gay marriage to Columbus Day. The song is a perfect platform for his clever and sardonic pillory against modern politics.
One side thing I wanted to mention, by the way, is the great cover art for the album. Rick Remender, the artist responsible, pens a figure of Jesus like the one you might see on the cover of your Sunday school book, except that this Jesus has a bottle of what looks like it could be Mickey's in one hand and the fingers of his other hand parted in a peace sign.
Every song on the album is a sonic circle pit waiting for fans, which is great. Unfortunately, there isn't really anything new about this album. If you were looking for the catchy "Oi!" punk from back in the days of Punk in Drublic or the infectious pop-punk and ska of So Long and Thanks for all the Shoes, you won't find it on this album. When it comes time to run head-first into the mosh pit, I'll be there, but until then I'll be spinning the old NOFX records that made mohawks and self-defecation cool.
Violence Is Golden
Ladies and gentlemen, back from the dead, I give you...the triumphant resurrection of Elastica! Okay, so that's not quite true; yes, on Scanners' debut disc, Violence Is Golden, there is indeed a serious resemblance to those '90s Brit-popsters, particularly in the sleek, sensual feel of the songs, and bassist/singer Sarah Daly definitely has the same kind of charisma as Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann. She's got the same sexy-but-detached vibe going on, and that vibe ends up being a large part of the reason Violence Is Golden works as well as it does -- in less capable hands (like, say, those belonging to Shirley Manson), lyrics about "joy machines," only living when you're on-screen, and following your lover through a darkened dream-world could come off as trite and stupid. Here, they don't.
So, looking beyond the initial Elastica flashback, what is there? Quite a bit, actually. The music on Violence swings between goth-rock and pop, skipping blithely through styles but keeping a murky undercurrent of fear and danger running beneath, a little bit like the dystopian pop of fellow Brits Placebo or Muse. Daly's voice lends to the feel, as well, leaping from sultry and alluring to urgent and desperate and back again with barely a scratch. Along with Frischmann, her vocals remind me of Debbie Harry's, a feeling that gets stronger with the heavy dose of nü-New Wave electro-rock à la The Killers or Interpol that's injected into the band's overall sound, most evident on tracks like "Joy," "Air 164," or "Raw."
On "Lowlife," the first single off the disc -- and without a doubt, the best track -- old-school indie-drone guitars drive the song gently along while Daly pleads and cries beautifully; it's an addictive burst of melancholy pop, and it's already got me coming back for repeated listenings. Other standouts include "In My Dreams," a sinister, foreboding bit of gothiness that's downright spooky even when it rocks out; "Bombs," a speedy, catchy, more straightforward pop-rock track about noisy (bomb-making) neighbors; and "Changing Times," which starts out quiet and chiming but slowly roars in with distant vocals and churning bass. There's also "Evil Twin," which derails things a bit to throw a hint of raga and psychedelia into the mix, and "High Flier," another spooky-as-hell track that stomps and crunches its way like a rampaging nightmare before cutting off abruptly.
The whole thing ends up sounding like the soundtrack to a bleak-yet-hopeful sci-fi flick, probably one with vampires in it or something, even (assuming, of course, that the vampires have better musical taste than they seem to in most horror movies). Is violence golden? Not a clue, but this disc certainly is.
Soft Effects EP
Back in '96, Merge Records had enough common sense to give a precocious young band called Spoon a chance. Marking the 10-year anniversary of Spoon's debut, Merge is now re-releasing Telephono, re-mastered and packaged with the Soft Effects EP (and, of course, they threw in a video for "Not Turning Off" to seal the deal). I would say the re-release sounds cut and clean without becoming overly produced. Having not heard the original, though, I really can't tell you die-hard Spoon fans if it's worth it to buy the re-release, if you already have the original. To me, buying re-releases feels like someone coming into my room and attempting to sell me a CD I already own, but who knows; maybe you're so hardcore you need it. If anything, it's at least nice that the good people at Merge Records were kind enough to include Soft Effects in the package.
More than just a catchy battle cry, Spoon is a progressive rock act, and one that's actually good. If you're into the whole indie-rock/alt/post-punk thing, you should try a "Spoonful." Damn, this article practically writes itself... I'd heard of Spoon a while ago but was reluctant to listen to the hype. After taking an ear to this CD set, I'm eating my heart out with a...wait for it..."spoon." Okay, okay, I'll stop with the puns. Spoon reminds me of a lot of different indie/alt-rock acts, the most easily identifiable being the Pixies. Britt Daniels's singing is very similar to that of Pixies front man Black Francis/Frank Black. Daniels sometimes has a recitative kind of talk-singing, while more often he displays a lush visceral croon -- think The Toadies. The beats are solid, and the guitars belt out a great sound. A lot of the songs derive their personality from the play between the thick meaty walls of distortion and the high punchy clean guitars complementing each other, despite being set clearly apart.
To get a good idea of what Soft Effects is like, listen to "Waiting For the Kid to Come Out." It's a solid track with catchy lyrics and more bounce than my checkbook. For the best impression of Telephono, check out "Cvantez", "The Government Darling", and "Bury the Realistic." I must say that, on the whole, I felt like the songs were all distinct and never ran together, which is something that can happen even on the best of albums. The rhythms on the album are infectious, the songwriting is a breath of fresh air, and the listening appeal is way up there. The band comes together like a finely woven silk jacket, which is definitely rare on debut albums.
I've had crack addictions that were less time consuming than the time I've spent with this CD set. So dole out the money and catch Spoon live, or even better, check out the re-release and EP if don't already have them.
The Avalanche: Outtakes and Extras from the Illinois Album!
Sufjan Stevens just doesn't do that much for me. There, I said it, so now I can breathe a bit easier. I feel bizarre even thinking it, to be honest, since it seems like the general consensus in Ye Magical Land of Independente Musick is that the guy's a freakin' genius and a musical visionary. Which he may be, admittedly, but going by his latest offering, The Avalanche, I'm definitely not seein' those visions myself. I've listened to this CD a good dozen times by now, and God help me, I just can't bring myself to envelop Mr. Stevens in the cloak of adulation he seems to wear pretty much permanently these days.
Of course, part of the problem is that The Avalanche itself is an album's worth of "outtakes and extras" from the critically-acclaimed Illinoise disc; any time you're dealing with outtakes, odds are that there's a reason the songs were dropped off the original album, right? Still, though, we're told that the genius of Stevens is such that even his tossed-off crap is pure gold. Or is it? I hate to say it, but the overall feel of Avalanche is of an album's worth of tacked-on filler, thrown on top of a project that seems to be mostly filler to begin with.
I think my real problem with Stevens is with this "every state gets an album!" project itself, now that I'm doing some deep thinking about it. When I first read about it, my OCD-afflicted geek self was torn -- about half of me thought "hot damn, that sounds cool!," while the other about-half thought "why bother?" Is it really possible to write 50 albums, one for each of the states, and keep 'em all smart, literate, and pretty (I'll get to "good" in a minute) without regurgitating the same stale crap over and over again? Maybe. I'll concede that it's at least doable, and maybe Stevens is the guy to do it. But why? Who benefits? The listener? Nope -- because even if you can keep the songs smart, literate, and pretty, as all of Stevens's songs seem to be, there's no way in hell you're going to be able to make them all good. It's just not possible. I don't care if you're John Lennon, Bob Dylan, or Stevie Wonder; nobody's that good a songwriter.
In the end, the benefit to you and me, the listeners, is about the same as what we'd get if we sat and watched that crazy Japanese kid eat 53 hot dogs. You watch, you think "holy crap, that's amazing!," and then you get up and walk away. There's nothing lasting about it, not in the least. Like any stunt pulled for the benefit of the Guinness Book of World Records people, it's, well, a stunt. It's a trick. And while a trick can still have value, it's true, that doesn't mean that it's guaranteed or even inherently possible. My little brother can burp the alphabet, and while it was hysterically funny when we were kids, it's probably a good thing he didn't try to pass it off as "art." It takes talent, sure, but at the end of the day, it's still just a trick, and that means it's transitory.
Which makes me somewhat sad for Stevens, because I think he's screwed himself on this one. He publicly promised to deliver all these freakin' albums, so now what can he do? At some point I think he's going to have to shrug and say, "actually, folks, it's not happening; sorry about that, but my ambition got the better of me." Somewhere between here and State-Specific Album #42, he's going to have to cut his losses and admit that it was a publicity stunt, and I have a feeling it's going to hurt when that happens. People like to see their heroes win, to be sure, but they also seem to enjoy the hell out of kicking them when they fall.
What makes it doubly sad is that the guy does have talent -- when he wants to, he goes far beyond my little brother's childhood antics. Take "Chicago," for instance, which shows up three different times on The Avalanche, in "acoustic," "adult contemporary easy listening," and "Multiple Personality Disorder" versions. You'd think that loading down one CD with three versions of the same song, none of which are all that different from one another (although I have to admit that the electronicized "MPD" version's my personal favorite, mostly because Rosie Thomas is on it), would quickly become fucking annoying, right? In most cases, yes. Here, though, the song actually stands up under the weight of the repetition, and that's no mean feat. Try listening to some of your favorite songs three or four times in a row and still feeling like they're interesting and exciting; odds are that some of 'em, at least, won't be. That's how you can tell a good song from an out-and-out brilliant song, because the latter still manage to sound fresh and engaging after repeated listens.
Beyond that track, there are some other standouts. "Adlai Stevenson" gets me, with its bizarro quirky-marching-band-at-a-political-rally feel, "Springfield, or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in his Hair" is a darn decent piece of shambling blues-folk, a story-song that's a little like Springsteen's quieter moments, and "No Man's Land" pulls off the sing-song-y chant of its chorus nicely and is catchy as all hell. I also really dig the electrified parts of "The Perpetual Self, or 'What Would Saul Alinsky Do?," and "Pittsfield" is sweet and poignant in its remembrance of the history of a home. Unfortunately, the really good tracks tend to get drowned in the sameness of the whacked-out indie-pop orchestra tracks (the title track, "The Henney Buggy Band," "Inaugural Pop Music for Jane Margaret Byrne," etc.) or the pointlessness of throwaway instrumentals like "The Vivian Girls Are Visited in the Night by Saint Dargarius and his Squadron of Benevolent Butterflies" (which is, by the way, I title I hope to never have to type again), "Kaskasia River," or "The Undivided Self (for Eppie and Popo)."
Trim all the fat away, and there are probably a half-dozen songs out of of Avalanche's 21 that deserved to be picked up off the cutting-room floor. And unfortunately, that's the risk you run when you take on a project as grandiose as this. I only wish Stevens would realize the corner he's painting himself into and break out while he can -- do some serious editing and give me an EP of only the good stuff here, and I'd be happy as a clam. Offer up 48 more discs of obscure pop-folk about local personages and childhood memories, however, and I'll leave 'em sitting in the rack the next time I stop by the music store.
The Story Of
foothill highway appalachian road
Simply awesome. And I mean that not in the high school sense, but in the panoramic 70mm high-definition sense. From the opening EQ automation of "Animals Can Reason" that morphs into an R.E.M homage, then takes a left turn at 2:00 into some of the most interesting, scattered jigsaw-puzzle music I have heard in a long time, The Story Of has created what may be my favorite alt-album of the last few years.
The Story Of's influences are all over this -- Blink-182, euro-techno, Simon and Garfunkel, Radiohead, Irish (?!?) folk music, British pub sing-a-longs, and even that band that was big in the '60s whose name rhymes with "deedles" -- but they're never overbearing. "Song For A Friend" is flat-out joyous, a 6/8 soundscape played with a wonderful restraint (especially the drums) and a vocal part that just swings. The opening riff to "Ergots of Rye" dumps an arena-rock intro onto a marching band verse section that manages to include a lyric about "tech support." "Our Lobe Loop" is a near perfect flow-rap-sing-a-long that would be the lead track on any of the thirty-seven identical 311 albums out there, but it morphs into early Posies for fun just as you wrap your mind around what you're hearing. And that's the real genius of the band: before you finish figuring out any one part, The Story Of is onto the next, but you never feel left behind; in fact, you're giggling to yourself about how cool it all is as it goes ripping by. But best of all, after you have listened to the disc a few times and gotten past all of the ear candy, you come away remembering the songs, not the individual pieces. And that's really what it's all about, right?
Is the cover of "Orinoco Flow" over-the-top? Yep. Does it suck? Nope. Did they need to stuff everything and the sink into the five songs presented here? Nope. Did this album make a two and a half hour train ride from Brig to Geneva a high point of my recent trip to the Continent? Absolutely.
Miami Vice Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
I hadn't actually planned on reviewing this disc. It's one of the perks of editor-dom -- I have to listen to everything at least once, so I get to pick and choose the CDs I really give a crap about to review. And I hadn't expected to be even remotely interested in this one: a soundtrack to an '80s TV retread flick I've got no plans to see, probably packed with a good dozen alt-rock Sensations of the Moment and some obligatory "toughened-up" '80s covers? Why bother?
Phil Collins, oddly enough, changed my mind. In my footloose-and-fancy-free youth, I was a big -- no, make that huge -- Phil Collins fan. I still own the first four of his solo albums (on tape, naturally), from 1981's Face Value on up through 1989's But Seriously, plus three of the poppiest Genesis albums, Genesis, which is actually pretty weird at points, Invisible Touch, and We Can't Dance. I'm not remotely embarrassed about this, by the way; I liked the music then, and while I like to think my musical tastes have broadened and matured since then, I still like the music now. Some of the old tapes lurking in my office closet make me cringe, definitely, but when I look back at songs like "One More Night," "Take Me Home," "Long Long Way To Go," "I'm Not Moving," and "Don't Let Him Steal Your Heart Away," I don't see the schmaltzy cheesemeister who'll apparently do any soundtrack gig that's handed to him, but rather a damn talented pop songwriter -- hell, just writing this makes me want to go scour the used bins at Soundwaves for replacement CDs for the tapes I've got (the first three, anyway; I'll admit that But Seriously kinda sucked).
Getting back to the new Miami Vice soundtrack, I found myself compelled to listen to the album pretty much just so I could hear what alt-rockers Nonpoint did to the Collins classic "In the Air Tonight." I had braced myself, quite honestly, because I was expecting ham-handed butchery of one of the most genuinely tension-filled pop songs ever spawned by the '80s, but I ended up being pleasantly surprised. There is indeed some "toughening" going on, and the song certainly rocks a lot more than the original, but the dark, sinister feel is heightened, if anything, by the scraping, clawing guitars and oddly warbly, Middle Eastern-sounding bass line. And hey, for once it's a cover of an '80s hit that's not a pisstake -- Nonpoint play it so faithfully as to seem reverent of the original, right down to the vocal inflections. The bitterness, the recrimination, the sense of impending danger, it's all still there despite the stylistic changes, and I've got to applaud the band for that. Granted, there's not a whole lot of ground-breaking going on, but still, kudos for not fucking up one of my all-time favorite songs, guys.
So, after unexpectedly enjoying the soundtrack's lone "real" cover, I just let it run. And happily, the album hits all the right notes; it's moody and murky, vibing repeatedly on the theme of sin and redemption (which makes sense, considering that the movie's about cops dealing with the vice trade) and nicely incorporating Latin and Caribbean elements alongside the heavier or dancier stuff. The end result paints a gorgeously bleak, alternately menacing and alluring aural picture of the seamier side of "The Gateway of the Americas," casting it as kind of a North American version of Constantinople or Tangiers, a melting-pot hub that's dark and exotic and beautiful all at the same time. And as a long-ago fan of the original Miami Vice, that seems appropriate -- in the show, after all, the city was as much a character as Crockett or Tubbs.
As you can probably guess (if you know much about Miami's nightlife, that is), there's a ton of electronic/dance stuff packed in here. Perennial soundtrack-dweller Moby makes a couple of appearances, with Patti LaBelle(!) on "One of These Mornings," a gorgeously gloomy meditation on leaving town and dropping off the face of the planet, and "Anthem," which sounds like a rave in Heaven and could probably serve as a companion piece to Moby's work on Vice director Michael Mann's "other" crime drama, Heat. Then there's Felix Da Housecat's remix of Nina Simone's brilliant, starkly terrifying "Sinnerman," a classic so untouchable that my lip curled in disgust when I realized that somebody was going to be screwing around with the genius of Ms. Simone...except that Felix's version ain't half bad. The hypnotic drone of Simone's piano actually lends itself surprisingly well to the repetitiveness of house, and at least Felix doesn't mess with her voice but instead lets it soar up above the proceedings. And again, I definitely get the "sin" theme, which is further expanded upon by King Britt on "New World in My View," a bit-too-long track that takes a gospel sermon on the New Jerusalem and dancifies it to fairly good effect.
The biggest surprise on here for me was the inclusion of heavy-noise instrumentalists Mogwai; they pop up twice, first with the slowly-thundering menace of "We're No Here" and later with the majestic, piano-inflected "Auto Rock," both times acting like the band was freaking born to do this kind of work. Hopefully other folks will take notice and tap those crazy Scots for more stuff like this. I was also caught off-guard by "Strict Machine," a Goldfrapp track that I'd heard in a commercial recently but had no idea was Goldfrapp -- it drops the pretty distance of a lot of her other work in favor of thumping, grinding, full-on robotic sex, as voiced by Debbie Harry. Oh, and it's absolutely awesome.
I can't claim that the tracks contributed by Emilio Estefan ("Pennies in My Pocket," which makes me think weirdly of Rachid Taha) and Manzanita ("Arranca") do much for me, but they add a welcome tinge of Cubano flavor to the mix. Ditto for "Blacklight Fantasy," by Freaky Chakra -- okay song, nothing special, but it definitely evokes the club scene for which Miami's known. Strangely, the two tracks on here that do the absolute least for me are the actual bits of John Murphy's score, "Mercado Nuevo" and "Who Are You." With stuff like this, I usually like the actual score more than the seemingly tacked-on alt-rock hits, but in this case the orchestral bits just don't measure up when stood alongside the likes of Nina Simone, Moby, or Mogwai. "Mercado Nuevo" comes off like a less-powerful Massive Attack instrumental, while "Who Are You" just doesn't come off as much at all, unfortunately; I can't even remember what it sounds like, and I just heard it. Weird to think that the day may be fast approaching when "traditional" film scores may be surpassed by electronic noodlers and sludge-rock heroes, but that's sure what it feels like here.
Now, about soundtracks in general: in my experience, they tend to be transitory. They're made to accompany a movie, so unless you're watching the movie (or at least have just finished watching it), there's naturally going to be a disconnect; it won't be the same without the visual accompaniment. In this case, though, every time the album finished, I found myself wanting to skip back to the start and listen to the whole thing again. I might not listen to all of every song, but I'd want to hear enough of 'em again that just listening to one or two tracks repeatedly didn't make much sense. And given that very, very few soundtracks have any kind of staying power for me (Reservoir Dogs and Glory are the only two that leap immediately to mind), me wanting to listen to the Miami Vice soundtrack over and over again really says something.
Finally, if all of the above doesn't convince you that this soundtrack isn't just some random boring alt-rock compilation, here's a thought to take home with you: at least on this Miami Vice soundtrack, Jan Hammer and Glenn Frey are nowhere to be found. Hallelujah.
Andre Williams with The Diplomats of Solid Sound
Andre Williams is a soul/R&B singer that got his start in the '50s and came pretty close to stardom, but never quite made it, despite writing a number of songs that became hits for other artists. He released a few singles of his own, but his voice isn't your traditional singing voice -- on his big hit, "Bacon Fat," he spoke over the song in a style similar to that of rap yet to come, although Williams's style wasn't as developed as the later one. On Aphrodisiac, Williams sings as well as talks, and his rough singing style works well on the record, with its straightforward '50s/'60s-sounding production and only a few modern touches. The production is very tasteful -- there's nothing here that sounds out of place.
He leads off the record with "Hold Up," an energetic, uptempo Andre Williams advertisement -- the song is basically an excuse to keep repeating his name as often as possible. And to his credit, you don't get bored listening to it. The instruments all work together, starting with a cool intro riff, and the horn riffs during the verses are also effective. If you forget his name on the way to the record store, sing this one and you'll remember whose album it is. "What's his name?" "Andre Williams!"
"I'm Not Worthy" is a great song about an alcoholic and the woman that loves him, with a lot of nice touches -- the distorted bass makes the song ominous, especially when it repeats the riff during the verses, when it's the only thing behind the vocals. The verses build nicely to the chorus, and attention is shown even to the bridge, where he doesn't sing over the first. It's all very simple but very effective. His vocal articulation is a little off on this one, though; the problem hurts several of the tracks.
Backing band the Diplomats of Solid Sound does its best to save the weaker songs on the album. "Three Sisters" is a song about Hurricanes Katrina, Wilma, and Rita that suffers from weak lyrics and an okay melody, but the band still has fun and comes up with some nice backing riffs. "Chrysler 300" is another throwaway song that's saved by the band, particularly by the swing rhythm that they break into at the end. And the band gets its chance to shine on "Thunder Thighs," an instrumental that it runs away with.
You certainly don't hear much music like this these days, and for that alone, Andre Williams deserves credit. But the record is good in its own right as well, thanks in no small part to the members of his band -- their backing works perfectly behind him. Memo to Andre: keep these guys around.