Looking For Quacks In The Pavement

Category: 3WA (page 2 of 11)

Weekly Word Working Assignment

3WA 2018 #5: Wang Chung – Mosaic

Nineteen eighty six was a marvelous year. Genesis and Peter Gabriel individually released their biggest pop-culture hit records (Invisible Touch and So, respectively). Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration landed that year. Janet Jackson really arrived as an artist with Control. The Hagar-fronted version of Van Halen released 5150. Metallica gave us the Master of Puppets. Local Portland popsters Nu Shooz released their kind-of-a-hit record, Poolside. This was the year of Queen’s A Kind Of Magic. There’s the only Emerson, Lake & Powell album and the only album released by the erstwhile supergroup, GTR. Paul Simon’s Graceland. Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet. Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors. Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill. Duran Duran’s Notorious.

That’s not even nearly anything approaching a complete list. Great Ceasar’s ghost, there’s a lot to like about 1986.

Yet here we are, with this record. Why?

What is it?

Mosaic is Wang Chung’s 1986 album release, weighing in at eight tracks long, four to a side.

How does it sound?

Like everybody having fun tonight, that’s how:

Why this pick?

Choosing Mosaic fits the theme of the project because dammit, this is a largely joyful record. I know everyone hates “that Wang Chung song” but too bad, I still like it and almost the entire rest of the track listing is really solid material.

Choosing Mosaic also fits my personal quirk of rooting for the underdog a bit. Look at that list above. I could’ve picked nearly anything else from 1986’s line-up and people would think, “Ah, yes, a worthy choice.” You know what? So is this. Don’t hate it because you got tired of that one song.

Also, the final track (“The World In Which We Live”) is such an unexpectedly fierce and profane middle finger to Western culture in the 1980s that if the album only consisted of “Let’s Go,” “Everybody Have Fun Tonight,” and that closing song the album would have earned its place on any list of quality records of the decade.

Which songs are the highlights?

As pop songs, the hit singles “Let’s Go” and “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” are quite good, as high a quality of ’80s pop as you’re going to find anywhere. “Hypnotize Me” didn’t get as high up the charts but I like it almost as much as the others. I love “The Flat Horizon” and “Eyes of the Girl” the most, however, out of the songs on the album which aren’t “The World In Which We Live.”

Which songs don’t work so well?

“Betrayal” isn’t bad, but it’s a torch song so it loses my interest. “A Fool And His Money” is bad, and it’s a torch song.

So it’s a 25% failure rate at worst. That’s out of only eight songs, mind you. The album’s still worth your hard-earned money.

Which album did you almost pick in favor of this one?

Points on the Curve features Wang Chung’s first big hit, “Dance Hall Days,” and other nice tunes such as “Wait” and “Don’t Let Go.” The album ends with another decent piece, “Talk It Out.”

Any final thoughts?

The band seems to have petered out after this album. They kicked out a new one a few years ago, though. I haven’t worked up the enthusiasm to grab it and learn if they still have any of the old charm. Some day, maybe.

3WA 2018 #4: Pet Shop Boys – Fundamental

And someone said it’s fabulous they’re still around today…

What is it?

Fundamental is the 2006 studio release from the Pet Shop Boys. It runs for a dozen tracks, though one song is only about a minute long. There’s a special edition which adds a 2nd disc worth of remixes, if you’re into that sort of thing. (They certainly seem to be.)

How does it sound?

Everyone has their own sampler in the system that we operate under.

Why this pick?

It’s arguably the last great Pet Shop Boys record. Well, maybe that’s actually Yes, which is catchier overall but less musically or lyrically interesting.


As with any pick for this music project, like it was for last year’s animation project, the primary criteria is that of joy: Did it bring me joy, and do I think there’s a chance it’ll do the same for you? As uneven as it is, I get a kick out of a lot of songs on this album, so it qualifies.

On top of which, this one’s interesting because it’s an unusually political work. The lead-off single is a straight-up political satire. Another song centers on the advent of a controlling surveillance state. We’re also treated to statements about history being written by the survivors and about the conflict between the notion of sin and the desire to live life freely. Not all of these land perfectly, mind you, and it’s not like they’ve shied away from the occasional controversial subject in the past, but it’s unusually concentrated here.

Which songs are the highlights?

The strongest tunes are spread across the album, leading off with the jarring but still likeable “Psychological” followed by “The Sodom and Gomorrah Show,” a song which manages to make a lyrically dense and complex chorus work, somehow.

My three favorites overall are “Minimal,” “Twentieth Century,” and especially the closing track, “Integral.”

There’s amusement value in the Bush-and-Blair-pairing mockery of “I’m With Stupid,” and the down-tempo, non-PSB-penned “Numb” is a nicely somber piece which either hits or misses for me depending on my mood at the moment.

Which songs don’t work so well?

There’s almost no such thing as a Pet Shop Boys album without a few dull thuds. They like doing torch songs and other slow fare; I don’t enjoy listening to them. It doesn’t help that two of these, “I Made My Excuses And Left” and “Indefinite Leave To Remain” get incredibly clunky at the chorus bits.

I find “Cassanova in Hell” a bit off-putting, and “Luna Park” is just kind of there.

(There’s nothing wrong with “God Willing,” it’s just a 77-second instrumental mid-album breather.)

Which album did you almost pick in favor of this one?

I almost chose Behavior, which I consider the strongest of their early albums. I almost chose Bilingual, which features a disproportionate percentage of my all-time favorite Pet Shop Boys songs. I almost chose Very, which isn’t the best album but it’s interesting and does count some truly strong and interesting tracks. I almost chose Yes, which is chock full of classic Pet Shop Boys styling with great modern production values and shows that even at the end of the two-thousand-aughts they could still summon the magic that made them stars. I almost… well, you get the idea.

In other words: This was the toughest musical act to choose an album for out of this entire year’s project. Even more so than for Genesis. (Actually, that one was an easy choice.)

Any final thoughts?

I referred above to Fundamental being arguably the last great Pet Shop Boys record. That’s not to say that their records since have been lousy, just (generally) quieter and slower and not quite as compelling in terms of what I get out their stuff usually. If you’re curious, check out the 2016 release, Super. The first 1/3 of the album (four songs’ worth) is solid enough to suggest that Neil and Chris haven’t lost their verve quite yet.

If you take nothing else away from this, please remember that the Pet Shop Boys are far, far more than just “the guys who did that West End Girls song back in the ’80s.”

3WA 2018 #3: Robert Plant – Now and Zen

I promised that this week’s entry wouldn’t be a debut record. As I looked into the mid-to-late 1980s section of my spreadsheet for what to pick, a whole slew of not-debuts stood out.

Let’s go with one of the most famous options.

What is it?

Now and Zen is the 1988 entry in Robert Plant’s post-Led Zeppelin discography. It’s ten songs long and probably counts as his biggest commercial success. Music videos, remix singles, this album got the full razzle-dazzle promotional push.

How does it sound?

Lighten up, baby, it’s a sampler mix:

Why this pick?

This one’s interesting because of the gusto with which Plant threw himself into the notion of “selling out.” To put that into context: On the previous few records, he’d gone out of his way not to reference the famous old band like folks generally expected of him. He wanted his own career on his own merits. One certainly can’t blame him. There are few four-piece musical acts more revered in Western rock music than the mighty Zeppelin, and the same pressure to make albums which didn’t sound like “the old stuff” seems to apply here as it did to the former Fab Four. So he noodled around and experimented and got a feel for what works. He sold records, had a few singles on the radio, and his career seemed to be puttering along well enough.

Then Plant went into the studio in the mid-80s with a new songwriting collaborator, a whole different backing band, and a grab-bag of sampled Zep riffs and out came a chart-topping radio-friendly monster record. The whole thing is almost a re-balancing. After a half-dozen or so years of mostly avoiding the legacy of the band that made him a household name, here he is releasing a hit single that literally samples some of the most recognizable moments from that band. It should’ve been cheap and shameful and forgettable, right? And yet. And yet.

So, yes, “Tall Cool One” sold a lot of records, but there’s much more to this album than convincing Jimmy Page play some guitar licks here and there. It’s as if in the process of saying “to hell with it” and getting those hit singles and winking Zep references out of his system, Robert Plant found some renewed energy and inspiration. His solo records have always had interestingly moody pieces, but they’re more bright and lively here, more tightly constructed. Perhaps he had to surround himself with the right people in addition to getting some of those hangups out of his system. Whatever the cause, this album works.

Which songs are the highlights?

As one expects from an album crafted to sell big numbers, the hit-quality stuff is front-loaded. “Heaven Knows,” “Dance On My Own,” and “Tall Cool One” is an opening trio for the ages. Follow that with the slower-paced but utterly gorgeous “The Way I Feel” and man, you’re hard pressed to find a better first side of a record in Plant’s entire career.

Yes, albums still had “sides” back then, since vinyl and cassettes were still relatively popular media. CDs hadn’t entirely taken over.

Later one gets the somber “Ship of Fools,” one of his all-time most gorgeous songs. Toward (or at, if you had the original cassette or vinyl) the end you get the amusing piece, “White, Clean and Neat” in which Robert Plant engages his inner 50s-pop-stars fanboy.

Which songs don’t work so well?

Robert Plant seems to have not-so-secretly always longed to be a pop star in the Elvis Presley mold, and his rockabilly tendencies show up here in “Billy’s Revenge.” The doo-wop side of Plant’s career still leaves me cold, so does this song. “Why” is kind of by-the-numbers; it’s not bad, it’s just not all that great either. The “bonus” track which now closes most releases of the album is “Walking Towards Paradise.” You could press the Stop button after “White, Clean and Neat” and be just fine, honestly.

Which album did you almost pick in favor of this one?

Had it not been Now and Zen, I’d probably have gone with the one after: Manic Nirvana, a title which caused some confusion when I was looking for it in record stores around the time of its release because the store clerks would keep pointing me toward some Seattle-based act I’d never heard of instead of the Robert Plant album I actually wanted. It’s not as good an album overall but it’s almost more interesting due to some of the experimental directions traveled along the way. One track, “Your Ma Said You Cried In Your Sleep Last Night,” features a vinyl “hiss and pop” background layer, evoking the experience, nearly extinct already at the time, of listening to the album on a turntable. A “clean” version of the track was later included as a B-side on one of the singles.

In fact, Manic Nirvana‘s best content is at the end, despite the erstwhile radio-friendly stuff being stacked up front again.

I could’ve gone with the 1993 release, Fate of Nations, as well. It’s a very good record overall and I recommend it if you enjoy Plant’s stuff and haven’t tried it out yet. I think of it as the record where he really started embracing his elder-statesman role in a positive way.

Any final thoughts?

I did buy the special edition Digipak CD version in the long black box, so yes, I have the red satin “wolf” flag. It’s around here somewhere…

The flag’s been folded up in that small black box for nearly 30 years. Yes, those creases are basically permanent at this point.

3WA 2018 #2: Caro Emerald – Deleted Scenes From The Cutting Room Floor

Kicking back and relaxing isn’t my standard musical mode, admittedly. Kicking back and relaxing to lounge music is particularly not my standard musical mode.

Sometimes I enter a non-standard musical mode.

What is it?

Deleted Scenes From The Cutting Room Floor is the 12-tracks-long 2010 debut album…

…well, drat. I’m leading off this year’s project with back-to-back debuts. Debut records with a dozen songs. Awfully sloppy of me, isn’t it? The next one won’t be a debut. I promise.

Anyway. This is the first full album from Caro Emerald, or Caroline Esmeralda van der Leeuw if you want to get all “Gordon Matthew Sumner” about it. It follows (and includes) the two singles with which she started making a name for herself the previous year.

How does it sound?

Have you ever dreamed a mix like this:

Why this pick?

It’s hard to pin down why this one works so well. Jazzy lounge-act stylings aren’t normally my thing, but these arrangements work. Caro Emerald’s voice is certainly a part of what works, sure. How does it add up to more than the sum of its parts, though?

Maybe some of the answer can be found in the lyrics and overall tone of the record. These aren’t torch songs, not very many of them anyway. They have attitude, verve, and (dare one say it) a lusty approach to the games that men and women get up to on and around the dance floor. These are the songs of a woman who knows what she wants and is only willing to put up with a certain amount of shenanigans in the pursuit thereof. It’s never crass, though, always clever. The entendre are definitely double, if only thinly veiled.

I’m not a words-and-meaning guy when it comes to music. In this case, though? The metaphors here aren’t too complicated and the intent is usually quite clear.

This album skirts the edges of the “electro-swing” scene, weaving some modern technical flourishes into the jazz-based tapestry. The results are toe-tappingly, hip-swayingly fun. What more could you want, really?

Which songs are the highlights?

For all that the album has a very consistent lounge-act feel to it, there are some clear standouts. The already-popular (for good reason) “Back It Up” and “A Night Like This” are included. I seek out “Stuck” and “Just One Dance” from time to time as well.

Which songs don’t work so well?

Only one song really puts me off, and that’s “Dr. Wanna Do.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, it’s just the pieces adding up to less than the sum of their parts more than anything else.

Which album did you almost pick in favor of this one?

There’s only one other full album so far, The Shocking Miss Emerald, and while it features one of my favorite songs in the artist’s catalog (“Tangled Up”) I just don’t enjoy it as much overall. Sophomore slump, perhaps. I eagerly await the next album… if it ever arrives. It was due in 2015 but things happen in their own pace, I suppose.

Any final thoughts?

If the album sounds like a selection of pieces from a movie, well, that’s the point of the title. The songs made for this album were specifically crafted to evoke that jazz-lounge air of a particular kind of scene in a particular kind of movie. One can easily imagine this record as the soundtrack to an anthology TV series where each episode takes place in different versions of a smoke-filled bar with the same band on stage. Like Doctor Who but for film noir.

Somebody get on that, would ya?

I suspect that there’ll be a necessary shift in style for Caro Emerald going forward, as the whole “lounge act” shtick is such a niche that I can’t imagine it remaining a viable pigeonhole to live in for very long. The singles released after the 2nd album suggest that my guess is correct.

Which is a weird thing to happen to one of my guesses, but there you have it.

3WA 2018 #1: VAST – Visual Audio Sensory Theater

Last year’s project was tracked via a simple text file which I updated whenever I picked something off the list to become a particular entry. This year’s project involves a spreadsheet.

I know, right?

Sometimes the hardest part of a project is deciding where to begin. So I looked at the sorted-by-release-date list of albums in the spreadsheet, and right smack in the middle of the chronology (used to sequence the ten-minute sampler mix a couple weeks back) I found the perfect starting point.

What is it?

Visual Audio Sensory Theater is the debut album by a musical entity named with the acronym of that phrase, VAST. It arrived in late April of 1998, consists of a dozen tracks, and both is and isn’t indicative of where the band would go in the future.

How does it sound?

Like this:

Why this pick?

Back in the “wild west” days of the burgeoning Internet I dabbled in downloading of MP3s. (Don’t worry: I’m an honest respectable consumer of media now.) Among the tracks I found online were the first couple songs off of this record. I was hooked. On my next visit to the local record store, still a frequent part of my routine back then, I picked up this CD and listened to it all the way through, over and over during the subsequent weeks. There’s a sound to this thing that makes my brain fizz in just the right way. Maybe it’s the collision between grungy guitars and Gregorian-monk-style chanting loops. I’m no musicologist; all I know is “I like it, a lot.”

(Yes, the “Gregorian chant” thing was… a thing back in the ’90s.)

Which songs are the highlights?

The lead-off pair, “Here” and “Touched,” are a strong one-two punch. Midway through the album you get “I’m Dying,” which is my all-time favorite VAST track, followed by the lovely and quieter “Flames.” Everything afterward is good, with the untitled track right before the end marking another notable high point.

Which songs don’t work so well?

I’m not a lyrics guy for the most part, so now’s a good time to point out that most of what works for me about a piece of music is its overall sound rather than the meaning of the words. Unless the song’s an actual ballad with literal meaning I’m not going to get the point of the poetry.

With that said, what loses me about “Dirty Hole” and “Pretty When You Cry” can be guessed from the titles. They’re not bad songs for what I normally get from music, I just don’t enjoy listening to them all that much because the lyrical content is just distracting enough to dull the effect. Oh hey, if there’s a “parental advisory” sticker on the record in the store, it’s probably for “Pretty When You Cry.”

Not that I mind F-bombs in particular. Fair warning though, I figure.

Which album did you almost pick in favor of this one?

Nude was a very strong contender. It’s a couple albums down the line, after the record-label-mandated attempt at commercial success which was Music For People, so it exudes both the confidence of a successful musical act and the desire to push boundaries of a musical act which doesn’t want to be crammed into a particular box.

In the end, though, I had to go with the debut album. Why? Because I love it the most. Out of twelve songs, ten of them are four-star or better in my rating system. (More on that, shortly.)

With that said, please don’t take me for the sort of person who believes that a musician or band is at their best right at first and everything afterward is a disappointment. I hope to put such a notion to rest in the weeks to come.

Any final thoughts?

Not about the record itself, but about my rating system. I dithered for weeks on the decision not to include a full track listing with star ratings. It seemed redundant, given I already cover the high- and low-lights in the write-up. I will occasionally refer to my ratings for one song or another as we go, however, so I still need to at least talk about the system just a bit.

Here goes, a slightly reworded and reordered version of what I wrote most of a decade ago

  • Five stars? This song rocks my socks, and I don’t care what anybody else thinks of it. My love is pure and knows no bounds.
  • Four stars? Oooh, I like this song! I probably play it fairly often when I’m doing a listening session with headphones, and my random playlist in MediaMonkey is programmed to pick up anything four stars or higher to keep me pumped up while I work.
  • Three stars? Not great, not bad. This song is probably best used as background music.
  • Two stars? This is not a song I would go out of my way to listen to. I might even go out of my way to avoid doing so. I may or may not skip it when listening to the album all the way through.
  • One star? Please don’t play this song ever again. I hate mopping up the blood coming out of my ears. The only reason this track hasn’t been deleted is because I cringe at the thought of an incomplete record living in my library. (It’s not rational, I know this.)

And there you have it. Thoughts? Suggestions? Invective? Fawning adoration? Bring it on.


3WA 2017 #52: Avatar: The Last Airbender

Here we are. This is it. The last one of its kind, the final Weekly Word Working Assignment of 2017. I had to pick a high point to go out on and they don’t get much higher than this, one of the greatest televised animated stories of all time.

He never, ever tires of this trick.

What is it?

Avatar: The Last Airbender is a three-season, 61-episode animated series produced by and aired on the Nickelodeon cable television network. It spawned comic books, video games, a sequel series (The Legend of Korra), and… I’ve been told there was a live-action movie adaptation but let’s ignore that for now. (Or forever, really.)

What kind of story is it?

A powerful young boy hides away from the terrible things happening in his world, inadvertently entering suspended animation for an entire century. He’s found and awakened by a pair of siblings, and thus begins an epic journey of danger, excitement, wonderment, intrigue, personal growth, and basically saving the world.

Siblings being siblings.

Why do you like it?

Much like its similar-in-length closest contender for “the show I want this year’s project to go out on,” Fullmetal Alchemist, this show has it all. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll jump for joy, you’ll fear for the lives and sanity of these kids who have chosen to take on an seemingly impossible series of tasks. I mean, you will if you’re anything like me, which is admittedly up for debate.

Let’s dig in.

Do you like characters who interact in believable ways? Good. Do you like characters who face their demons, own up to their failings, and try to do better? Good. Do you like clever banter? Oh, excellent. No, seriously, do you like laugh-out-loud bits of witty dialog? Rock on.

Speaking of rocks, here are two entertaining earthbenders.

Do you like well-designed, interesting, properly lived-in worlds for the characters to inhabit? Good. Do you like the idea of a consistent set of martial arts disciplines applied to an ostensibly “magic” powers system? Sweet. Do you like complex backstories and exploration of moral shadings beyond simply Good Guys Versus Bad Guys? Okay then.

Speaking of martial arts, do you like inventive combat sequences and creative uses of the powers established? Great!

Do you like sprawling epics told from the perspectives of different key players over the course of several years? You’re in luck.

Do you think you can avoid crying over a lost, lonely, flying bison? You may think you can. You can’t. Trust me.

I could go on. I really, really could.

It’s always about honor with you, isn’t it kiddo?

Let’s go on.

I’ve railed against the trend toward “grimdark” storytelling from time to time. Grimdark is what you get when your readership decides that “mature, realistic, and sophisticated” means “put your characters through hell,” then writers and publishers answer that demand. I get why people like that sort of thing, I really do. I admire, for instance, the storytelling craftsmanship which went into Joe Abercrombie’s “The First Law” trilogy. The ending nearly made me throw the last book right at the wall, but it is a masterpiece. I can’t argue that.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is not grimdark. It’s exactly the kind of tale I like best. It mixes a found-family aesthetic with a strong story arc where the good guys learn to work together to defeat the bad guys, and the bad guys get what’s coming to them. It’s a satisfying heroic story. But it’s not simplistic! All of these kids, and they are kids, are flawed in various ways. They’re nowhere near ready at first and they’re only mostly-kind-of ready at the end. To paraphrase the opening narration, they have a lot to learn before they’re ready to save the world.

One of the best things I like about this show? It gives you so many opportunities to cheer when a character does something really, really awesome. And it’s earned, because what makes most of the moments awesome is a combination of training and effort paying off, and the character choosing in that moment to do the right thing with their abilities. The further the show gets into its main plot arc, the more chances you get to pump your fist in the air and shout, “YES!”

Of course, sometimes the antagonists pull off truly stunning displays of wicked prowess as well, just to keep things interesting…

What might one not like about it?

It started life as a kids show, and as such it spends some of its runtime being a bit cutesy and ham-handed with the Aesop endings on occasion. A bit like another slow-burn show with an epic story arc, Babylon 5, the first season has its share of clunky episodes. Yes, this is another of those “just stick with it” situations.

To a certain extent, the baddest of the bad guys are basically bad because they’re bad and want more power. The motivations of several major antagonists are… lacking complexity. Luckily the best of the antagonists, while still simple in motive, are supremely fun to watch nonetheless.

And thus Team Azula is formed.

Other thoughts about it?

One character who seems like an ineffectual buffoon early on will end up making you bawl your eyes out at one point, in an otherwise quiet moment of reflection.

One character who seems like the token “normal” early on will end up being seen as one of the primary threats by one of the most adept antagonists, for good reason.

A strong theme which runs through the show is the idea of overcoming challenges and limitations. Sometimes this means genuine actual handicaps, such as the boy stuck in a wheelchair (who wants to fly) and the blind little rich girl (who wants to… well, you’ll meet her in the second season). It also often means self-imposed limitations, such as self-doubt and self-deception. A lot of it isn’t terribly subtle, since it’s ostensibly a kids show, but that’s not a bad thing really. There are worse lessons to weave into your magic-martial-arts adventure story than “try to do better, and help others however you can.” Right?

You will wish there’d been even more episodes showcasing these ladies.

You will take away from this any number of quotable quotes. “That’s rough, buddy.” “Boomerang! You always do come back!” “The Boulder’s over his conflicted feelings.” “You’re awfully cute, but unfortunately for you, you’re made of meat.” “Meh, if you’ve seen nothing once, you’ve seen it a thousand times.” “My cabbages!”

It’s been argued that A:TLA is as close as an American-produced animation project can get to being anime without actually being made by a Japanese studio. I don’t know if I’d go that far, because “anime” becomes a heavily loaded word once you start trying to pin down what it is and isn’t in a conversation. (I keep it simple, personally: Anime is animation made in Japan.) With that said, I think the show has as much of the Wuxia tradition in its DNA as it does of anime.

Oh hey, that Legend of Korra thing. I think it’s worth seeing, but that’s a very… qualified… recommendation. In short: It starts well, devolves into utterly unnecessary love triangles and similar terrible interpersonal crap, goes through a grim and maudlin stretch, then finishes very strongly. Korra (the character, the next Avatar after Aang) exhibits a profound inability to select healthy mentoring figures for most of the show’s run. It ends well enough that I’m mostly willing to forgive a lot of its failings, but I can’t give a 100% enthusiastic endorsement. Make of that what you will.

And yes, I couldn’t limit myself to the standard four screenshots this time. Go out with a bang, right? Right.

Where can I watch it?

Amazon Video and Google Play are among the streaming options, albeit for a price. Or you can pick up the DVD boxed sets.


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