Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Weezer - (The Blue Album)

Release Date: May 10, 1994

★★★★★ Tracks:

No One Else
The World Has Turned...
Buddy Holly
Say It Ain't So
In the Garage

I was introduced to Weezer when most everyone else was, tuning to MTV and seeing that goofy Spike Jonze video for "Undone - the Sweater Song." It was refreshing to see a group of normal, somewhat nerdy guys playing such a great song at a time when rock music was all about long, dirty hair, ripped jeans and flanel. I bought the CD soon afterwards and immediately warmed to tracks "Buddy Holly" and "Say It Ain't So." Both to eventually make it as singles and videos as the record continued to sell. Not a lot of the other tracks appealed to me as a 14-year old, and "Buddy Holly" got so played out I shelved the Blue Album for quite a while.

When I went away to college, I lugged my 300-plus CDs with me to my dorm room and began playing the Blue Album all over again. It was there I realized how great "No One Else" and "The World Has Turned and Left Me Here" were. Cuomo sums them up best himself: "No One Else" is "the jealous-obsessive asshole in me freaking out on my girlfriend" whereas '''The World has Turned and Left Me Here' is the same asshole wondering why she's gone." I couldn't wait to put them on the next mix tape to my girlfriend. Now some ten years later, I find the escapism in completely opposite fashions of "Holiday" and "In the Garage" something entirely new to relate to. And so this record continues to hold up.

While it's unfortunate the Blue Album spawned a lot of those Get Up Kids / Dashboard Confessional-type pop-punk emo bands (I listened to my fair share of them for sure, and I still listen to Saves the Day!), I don't think they necessarily meant to. Weezer just wanted to take that whole quiet-loud, verse-chorus-verse approach that the Pixies and Nirvana perfected, throw in some simple Ramones power chords, and write some poppy, harmonizing Beach Boy vocals to make rock'n'roll a little more accessible again. And this album united everyone, even the friends of mine who could only stand to listen to 2Pac and Biggie were jamming to Weezer. "Say It Ain't So" is one of those 1am bar anthems that nearly everyone will be screaming along to regardless of where you are. "Buddy Holly" was one of the best MTV videos in its existence (yes, it is dead to me now). Meanwhile those self-loathing, over-dramatic emo-rockers claiming Weezer as their primary influence completely polarized the rock landscape a few years later, sort of the antithesis of what the Blue Album is all about.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Wendy Rene - After Laughter (Comes Tears)

I downloaded this soul single because I really liked what I heard of it from the sample Wu-Tang used on “Tearz.” The RZA loves to mine the 60’s for soul and R&B tracks, and he found a gem here. The organ intro is forever memorable, and Wendy’s yearning voice is phenomenal. After reading the little bit of information I found regarding Rene (real name Mary Frierson), it turned out she married as a teenager. The marriage wouldn’t last, and the couple went their separate ways. It must have been very difficult for such a young girl to go through a separation, and I have no doubts it’s the subject to this very track.

Wendy would remarry soon afterwards, and most likely enjoyed the leisurely pace of domestic life, as she never recorded a song after 1965. She would never ascend to stardom, but might have been on her way when she was invited to join Otis Redding, the man responsible for her stage name, for a show in Cleveland. The show was slated for December of 1967, at a time when she had just given birth to her first child with her new husband. She decided to back out at the last minute, wanting to stay home with her family. Otis went on to play the show, and on the way back, somewhere over Madison, Wisconsin, the plane carrying Otis and his backing band crashed in to a lake, killing all but one of them. A tragic story indeed, leaving Wendy to grieve all over again. But I'm sure as time passed she would feel fortuitous in the decision that she made, and eventually, after tears would come laughter for her and her new family.

Monday, June 21, 2010

White Rabbits - It's Frightening

Release Date: May 19, 2009

Following in the theme of my blogmate’s last post, I have no idea how or why I have White Rabbit’s It’s Frightening. I think maybe a friend sent it to me or told me to download it? Anyways, I haven’t paid it any attention for who knows how the hell long it’s been on my iPod until this past week. As I've gotten familiar with it, I am reminded of Kill the Moonlight-era Spoon. And after searching for more information online it came as no surprise that Spoon’s very own Britt Daniel is the chief producer, and Spoon's producer since Girls Can Tell, Mike McCarthy, is its sound engineer.

The first track and the single from the album is “Percussion Gun,” and it sounds like a relative to one of Spoon’s biggest singles, “That’s the Way We Get By.” The song, as is most of the record, is driven by piano and percussion, not always derived by the kit, and some very Daniel-esque vocals. It's alright. The majority of the following nine songs rely on a foundation built by White Rabbit’s signature piano-sound. It’s endearing that a modern-day indie rock outfit is using an actual piano as opposed to a synthesizer, and these guys definitely write some musically airtight tracks. I hear the catchiness in a few of them: most notably “Rudie Falls” and the haunting “Midnight & I.” But other than these few highlights, I can’t shake the feeling that I already have this record, and it’s not the type of thing I need multiple versions of.

I like Spoon, but perhaps Britt Daniel shouldn’t have directed White Rabbits to craft a record that sounds so much like one he and his band have already created themselves. It’s Frightening might have been a little more original, and therefore a little better in turn.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Architecture in Helsinki

Now we've reached an entry of my ipod that inspired the title of this blog. I've only one Architecture in Helsinki song, "Heart it Races," and I have no idea when I downloaded this, or where I downloaded it from. Seriously, when did I download this? The play count was at two, which means I had obviously forgotten about it almost as quickly as I put it on my ipod. It now reads at ten, which I think is more than enough plays to decide whether I like it or not.

It's not that bad, I guess, if you only listen to it once. It's catchy but in that slightly annoying way that will get stuck in your head all day if you don't listen to something else immediately after. The vocals are shrill, they're perhaps a little bit too in love with all their musical toys but now that I've had it on repeat for the last twenty minutes to compose this blog, I need to give my ears a fucking break.

You can hear for yourself:

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

White Stripes - White Blood Cells

Release Date: July 3, 2001

★★★★★ Tracks:

Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground

Hotel Yorba

Even for as mild of a White Stripes fan as myself, White Blood Cells is a pretty damned good record. Jack and Co. tinkered with the production style they had become accustomed to; turning the volume to 11 on the guitar while sometimes adding two to three layers of them to make the songs even louder. They also get Meg White to bang aimlessly on the drums a little harder than she had in the past. The album is abrasive, with a helluva lot of attitude. White Blood Cells also has the best collection of tracks the White Stripes have ever recorded, starting with one of my favorites of theirs, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground.”

“Well any man with a microphone
Can tell you what he loves the most
And you know why you love at all
If you're thinking of the holy ghost”

“Hotel Yorba” follows with what has become the most used and simple three chord progression in pop history. But somehow Jack, with his attitude, his lyrics, and his voice, makes the whole thing sound wholly original.

One of the best records of the decade as so many have suggested? Perhaps by influence but certainly not by content for my money. As with all of the White Stripes records I take it in limited doses. But even though it tapers off similarly to the rest of their albums, Side A has a collection of tracks so fantastic it makes up for it. And as many complaints as I have for the elementary percussion and all the critical acclaim they’ve received over the years, I must admit I have infinite appreciation for what the White Stripes did by crafting White Blood Cells at a time when the likes of Kid Rock and Creed were the names associated with rock’n’roll.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Arcade Fire

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There are few bands I remember where I was the very first time I heard them but I remember the first time I heard Arcade Fire. A college friend had transferred to the same art school in Montreal that Win Butler and company attended, and came home that summer insisting that I sit down right this second and listen to this new band he heard. He pulled out a CDR from a plastic baggie with a homemade album cover, a first printing of the first Arcade Fire release, hustled by the band themselves during their early shows, and dropped it in the CD tray. I always hate it when I'm forced on the spot to listen to this band I absolutely have to hear but it didn't take long for me to see the sheer brilliance of songs like "No Cars Go" and "Headlights Look Like Diamonds." I don't know if my friend predicted fame and fortune for them at the time (plenty of great bands never achieve fame and fortune) but I feel confident in saying that those who heard these songs are not surprised at their level of success six years later.

So then Funeral dropped later that year and made all the year-end best-of lists and sold half a million copies worldwide and introduced a lot of kids to the indie rock aesthetic and made Arcade Fire one of the biggest bands in the world. "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" is as a perfect album-opener as they come; it promises a sensational epic, setting up a momentum that does nothing to disappoint in the subsequent tracks, peaking with the bombastic and anthemic "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) and "Rebellion (Lies)." Funeral pulls off the rare trick of making an epic album demanded to be heard in its unbroken entirety but the individual songs stand their own as potential singles. It's one of the best records of the decade (maybe even the best), so even if no one else seemed to be disappointed with the follow-up Neon Bible, I couldn't help but not be all that wowed the first few listens.

To be sure, Neon Bible is a bit of a grower. The songs don't explode as much as they do on Funeral but multiple listens reveal a very very good (if not great) album. At this point in their career, Arcade Fire had become as close to a stadium band as an indie group can get, and some of these songs sound like Jesus & Mary Chain or Echo & the Bunnymen with U2 aspirations. It isn't exactly inconsistent; the lesser songs still fit the overall tone of the album but "My Body is a Cage" is probably their worse song, the title track is mere filler and the reworking of "No Cars Go" offers nothing new to the early fans who championed them way back when. "Antichrist Television Blues," though…Jesus, what a killer song. It's barely five minutes long but the baroque approach makes it seem twice as long, and to me, a great song is never too long.

Friday, June 11, 2010

White Stripes - De Stijl

Release Date: June 20, 2000

★★★★★ Tracks:

Hello Operator

I just recently watched It Might Get Loud, a documentary featuring three influential guitarists covering three generations: Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, the Edge from U2, and Jack White of the White Stripes. There's a scene where White is showing a young boy (who is supposed to represent White as a kid) some of that great, ear-piercing feedback you can get from an electric guitar and an amplifier; he lays the guitar on the ground and tells the kid to stomp on it with his foot, beat it up, "get in a fight with it, and win that fight." I'm not sure what the hell he means, but I think it has something to do with his belief that music should be a struggle, the theme to most of the scenes he's featured in on the documentary. While I find most of what he says throughout the documentary to be cliché, I do agree with him to a point. Writing and playing music is a struggle.

What I don't understand is how the same argument isn't applied to the other half of his band. Sure, Meg White definitely struggles to play the drums with any sort of skill, but she isn't struggling to hone her craft, and she doesn't add much extra creativity in to the music Jack White creates. I'm not sure most of us would accept the same from a peer in most any other profession, artistically related or otherwise. This is pulled from wiki: "Meg White's minimalistic drumming style is a prominent part of the band's sound. Meg has never taken a lesson. [She] says her pre-show warm-up consists of 'whiskey and Red Bull.'" Being self-taught is great and all, if you actually try and teach yourself. Almost any one of us with just the slightest sense of rhythm could play the drum part to nearly any White Stripes song ever made, within a few minutes of trying.

I disliked the White Stripes for the longest time because of this attention I payed to the drumming; I couldn't get past it. Further fueling my disdain was all the critical appraisal they were receiving. Not only did I not understand how everyone could take a band with such bad drumming so seriously, I couldn't understand why everyone liked music with such simple and familiar song structures.

As the White Stripes have become further ingrained in to rock'n'roll history over the past decade, I've further tried to understand the phenomenon. After countless years and hours spending time with the likes of De Stijl, White Blood Cells, and Elephant I have warmed up to the them. Although I found the small bit of Jack White I got to know through It Might Get Loud to be somewhat irritating, it was revealing to hear him talk about all that classic blues he loves so much. His intentions are to always invoke those simple but powerful emotions good blues artists invoke in a listener. On Jack's best tracks, I think he succeeds admirably in doing so, and that angry rock'n'roll attitude he wears so well can be contagious. While I still think it wouldn't hurt the White Stripes cause to have some improved percussion, I do understand how overly complex drumming would take away from what the White Stripes sound.

The best song for my money still resides on De Stijl. "Hello Operator" is a culmination of everything great about the White Stripes: bluesy guitar work, rock'n'roll solos, catchy lyrics sung with a lot of attitude and infectious inflection, and just enough percussion to add an additional element to Jack's songwriting:

There are a couple of other great tracks like the slide guitar driven "Death Letter" and the ballady "Sister, Do You Know My Name," but all the songs begin to blend together the deeper I get in to the album. I appreciate Jack White's simplistic and refined approach to music, even more so after seeing It Might Get Loud, but the very basic and all-too-familiar chord progressions and the overly-simplistic percussion make it so I lost interest quickly. White Stripes in small doses is quite enough for me. Although I do admit I misunderstood them somewhat at first, and I have grown to like a lot of Jack's tracks, I still think they are one of the most overrated bands of the past decade.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Whitest Boy Alive - Rules

Release Date: March 30, 2009

★★★★★ Tracks:

Rollercoaster Ride



Whereas Dreams started with a bang but quickly tailed off in to dull mediocrity, Rules starts slowly but grows more and more engaging as its second half approaches. There are three especially strong tracks, all in a row, starting with the jazzy-dance single, “1517." “Gravity” follows, and while writing has never been Erlend Øye's strength (although we should give him credit considering English isn’t his first language), relying on a great voice and a million different ways to write about love and heartbreak, he comes up with an excellent set of lyrics on the touchy topic of a friend falling for his girlfriend. The next song, "Promise Less or Do More," has such a great guitar line inserted in to where the chorus would go that they didn't even bother adding lyrics to it.

While Rules is similar to Dreams, it isn't nearly as tedious. This can partly be attributed to the addition of a synthesizer/keyboard, adding more energy, another instrumental layer, and a bit of disco to music that was often too colorless before. Erlend Øye continues to take the "less is more" approach, but it's much more effective here. Using his words sparsely, weaving vocals in and out of the melodies, he allows the music to be the focal point of Whitest Boy Alive, never overcrowding the overall atmosphere with verbosity. Because the hooks are more contagious and the music has additional layering, the approach pays off.

That's not to say there isn't anything wrong with Rules; there are a couple of songs that completely miss the mark. The droning, repetitiveness of "Time Bomb" gets old quickly, and the already-used-a-million-times-over dance melody of "High On the Heels" proves the synths can sometimes be more hindrance than help. Rules may not be groundbreaking, but that's not what Whitest Boy Alive's intentions are. This is breezy, jazzy pop for people who enjoy the relaxing melodies the band produces, and the complete ease at which they do so. It's fun and contagious, but also complex and incredibly tight. The Whitest Boy Alive are not asking you to take them too seriously, they just want you to have some fun, while simultaneously challenging themselves as musicians and performers.

(Note: the LP's songs are arranged differently than the downloaded version.)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Whitest Boy Alive - Dreams

Release Date: March 9, 1999

★★★★★ Tracks:

Golden Cage


I grew up with a father who rarely listened to anything but jazz. Being such a great pianist, he enjoyed instrumental mastery and the skill it takes to write odd time signatures in to a song. Placing the emphasis on lyrics, really a very recent phenomenon in music history, was never something he was OK with. While I understand his sentiment, along with his other major complaint that most pop and rock is confined to major chords and 4/4 time signatures, I never completely embraced jazz myself (I like lyrics too much. And I'm a half-decent guitarist, but not good enough to play most jazz -- so maybe I'm just bitter). But as I grew older I did learn to respect jazz, and slowly I began to listen to some of it on my own. It would eventually lead to a soft spot for any pop/rock artists that include some jazzy elements to their songs. And the Whitest Boy Alive do just that.

I've also been a huge fan of the vocalist Whitest Boy Alive recruited: Euro-pop superstar Erlend Øye. Erlend has a multitude of music projects. And being as Kings of Convenience, my favorite group of his, has one of my all-time favorite folk records, Riot On an Empty Street, I'll give anything of his a shot. With Whitest Boy Alive, his voice compliments the music very well, providing quiet, sparse lyricism to the jazzy and spacious instrumentation the band is so comfortable writing.

All of this should culminate in to a near perfect record for someone like me, but there are a lot of issues with Dreams. It all starts out well enough with the catchy "Burning" and the incredible "Golden Cage," but becomes increasingly monotonous throughout the middle part of the record. There just isn't much risk taken in the overall sound and production of Dreams either. The instrumentation is sometimes too sparse, and there's very little distinction between most of the ten tracks included here. Although Dreams is purposefully minimalist and atmospheric in approach, they could stand to add a bit more excitement to the record, as some might fall in to a dreamless sleep before it's over.

If I'm ever jonesing for some jazzy rock, I'll go to bands like Karate and Sharks Keep Moving, who did this whole thing a lot better about ten years ago. But I do love the two singles on Dreams, especially that walking bass line and guitar jingle on "Golden Cage." And I heard enough promise on this record to go out and grab the second, hoping they'd improved.