Looking For Quacks In The Pavement

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A strange choice for high visibility

I want to talk about underwear for a moment.

Now, duly warned, you have the option to click elsewhere on the dub-dub-dub before reading further. Right? Right.


Men’s underwear usually comes in two color schemes: All white, or a variety pack of colors. The colors are, for the most part, something on the white-to-black greyscale spectrum or a subdued kind of blue or green. None of it really matters because ninety-nine days out of a hundred nobody’s going to see the underwear anyway.

Okay, except those dudes who still insist on doing the saggy pants thing. I have never and will never understand that, but whatever.

Why, then, did the makers of my current brand of underwear decide to throw bright orange into the mix of available random colors? I’m not just talking about kind-of-orange, oh no. This is high-vis orange. This is “it’s hunting season please don’t shoot me” orange. This is a kind of orange which, were it any louder, would require donning protective eyewear before pulling the garment piece out of the drawer in the morning.

It boggles the mind. I wonder how this got past the committee which almost certainly was in charge of approving color choices.

And these are the thoughts that drift through my mind on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Aren’t you glad I’ve started using my journal again?

3WA 2018 #16: KOTOKO – Hiraku Uchuu Pocket

It was bound to happen eventually: At some point the writing project’s music-focused present was going to bump into the project’s animation-focused past. Kind of.

What is it?

Hiraku Uchuu Pocket is the 2011 album by the Japanese singer who goes by the name KOTOKO.

No, I don’t understand the all-caps either. Let’s not pretend I’m an expert on this sort of thing.

How does it sound?

Like… something I can’t make a funny lyrical reference to because I don’t know the language:

Why this pick?

KOTOKO is another example of an artist where fans tend to be nostalgic for the songs which hooked them back in the day, but the work still improves over the years. This album displays greater and more successful experimentation than ever before, even if there are no individual songs more memorable than past hits. (This is her fifth and most recent full studio album.)

Which songs are the highlights?

The lead off track, “TR∀NSFoRM,” is a prime example of the kind of songs KOTOKO made her reputation on: Upbeat, heavy synths and guitars, sounds like it probably could be the opening theme to an action-adventure anime show. Two tracks later, “Maeterlinck” is closer to being a straight-up rock-n-roll cut.

In between those two we get “Mirai Ressha,” which is KOTOKO in hyper-cute mode. I know that the statement “your mileage may vary” is a given for any of these project entries but it bears special mention here.

Partway through the album there’s “Mirror Garden,” showing off one of the other things KOTOKO’s known for: A kind of dark, almost grim, techno piece. Only “kind of,” mind you, because this is still a pop record at its core. Coming out of that we get “Command + S,” eight and a half minutes of trance-type noodling which works better than it probably should.

Speaking of anime, “Hirake! Sora no Oto” is the opening theme song for the series, Sora no Otoshimono, aka Heaven’s Lost Property. It’s a better song than the show deserves, really. Sprinkling a J-pop album release with the fruits of other paying gigs is traditional, and far from unwelcome. (Oddly enough, there’s only this one “anison” on the album.)

Hiraku Uchuu Pocket closes strongly with the power-ballad-ish “Chikyuu -TERRA-.”

Which songs don’t work so well?

“Aoi Jeep De” is just too chaotic, as is “Sa-yo-na…ra.” “X-kai-” is just too jarring of a collision between two competing styles.

Maybe someone who likes the slower pieces could get something from “Kikoeru,” but not this little grey duck.

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

I could have picked almost any of the five releases so far and felt I was doing a good service by recommending it. If not for Hiraku Uchuu Pocket, though, I think it would’ve been the previous album, 2009’s Epsilon no Fune. It’s made up partly of material from some really good singles. One can’t go wrong with packing your album full of established hits, right?

While I love individual songs on the earlier records quite a lot, the last couple albums are more consistently good across the range of song styles presented.

Any final thoughts?

There’s always that one song which gets you into a new artist. You listen, you wonder if there’s more like that, you dive into the artist’s full catalog, and suddenly you’ve a few dozen dollars poorer but musically richer. With a J-pop artist like KOTOKO, the entree is often an anime theme song. In my case it was “Second Flight” (actually a duet w/ Hiromi Sato) from the Onegai Twins anime series. Go figure!

On the off chance that a J-pop aficionado comes along and wants to question my devotion to this particular artist: Yes, I know, there are better-regarded singers with greater range, yadda yadda. You’re talking to a guy who listens to Tony Banks solo records where he sings his own stuff, so just assume I’m a lost cause, okay? Okay.

Now’s a good time to bring up a part of my relationship to pop music which probably baffles people. How can I enjoy so much music for which I can’t understand a single word sung? That’s easy, since I really don’t process lyrics very much anyway, even when I know what the words say. As long as it sounds good, I’m happy.

3WA 2018 #15: Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand

I should take this opportunity to apologize to anyone I was friends with during the springtime of 2004. I was, in fact, just a little bit insufferable about this record. I know. I know.

What is it?

Franz Ferdinand is a 2004 eponymous debut record.

How does it sound?

It’s always better on sampler mix:

Why this pick?

Earlier this year I tried to make a point about later albums showing the strength and value of an ongoing artistic endeavor, and so on, and so forth. Thing is, though, I’ve never been able to connect with the later FF records like I did with this first one. Go figure!

Which songs are the highlights?

That first hit song, “Take Me Out,” still works for me. I still bop my head and tap my foot every time it comes up in rotation, and I still love the tempo change after the intro, and I just adore the whole damned thing. Can’t help it, won’t quit it.

Right afterward on the album is “The Dark of the Matinée,” which is almost as good. Not quite, but almost.

“This Fire” is a great barn-burner, if that’s not too close to a pun for your tastes. Likewise “Darts of Pleasure.”

My favorite song comes at the end, though: I love “40′” to pieces. The sound, the vibe, the styling, all the pieces come together here.

Which songs don’t work so well?

“Tell Her Tonight” leans a bit too far into the pseudo-1960’s styling and falls flat for me entirely.

“Cheating On You” is two and a half minutes of noise. It’s the one true dud on the record. Maybe it’s just too “punk” for me, or something. The lyrical subject matter is more off-putting than I can ignore, too.

(As an aside: Decades of Pet Shop Boys fandom left me inured to the “dude singing about how hot some other dude is” aspect of the song, “Michael.” I just shrug my shoulders and move on.)

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

This is another case where if I’d not picked Franz Ferdinand I wouldn’t have picked Franz Ferdinand, as it were.

Any final thoughts?

I still like the feel and the vibe and the sound of this record even as I recognize that it was a thing very much of its time. The band built a lot of their reputation on the style of the thing, at least as much as on the substance. Hey, it worked for Duran Duran so I’m not going to knock it.

With that said, sometimes the stylistic experimentation doesn’t land cleanly. The first track, “Jacqueline,” meanders through several styles and motifs in less than four minutes, and if they’d stuck with just a couple of them I’d like the song a lot more. The parts that don’t work, though, drag the whole song down a bit.

3WA 2018 #14: Men At Work – Cargo

Late April, 1983. An Australian band which had burst into the public consciousness of a U.S. audience with their previous record releases a follow-up, hopeful to continue and expand that level of success.

I’m reasonably certain this is the last time I’ll be able to use the preceding sentence during this year’s project. Reasonably. The previous two were on purpose, this one didn’t occur to me until I skimmed the spreadsheet weeks afterward and realized what I’d done with this pick.

What is it?

Cargo is the 1983 sophomore-effort album by Men At Work, the band best known for the hits “Down Under” and “Who Can It Be Now?” from their debut album, Business as Usual, two years prior.

How does it sound?

Believe the sampler mix will eventually survive:

Why this pick?

Men At Work were, in a way, the Platonic Ideal of the early-1980s pop-rock band. They made reasonably catchy 4/4-time radio-friendly light-duty rock-n-roll songs. Of the three albums they created, Cargo is far and away the strongest.

Which songs are the highlights?

The album kicks off with the whimsical and delightful “Dr Heckyll & Mr Jive.” Yes, I very much adore a song which includes the lyrics, “He loves the world, except for all the people.”

Speaking of upbeat radio-friendly fare, both “It’s A Mistake” and “High Wire” fit the bill nicely, thank you. The latter features the other snippet of lyric from this album that I’m often prone to quoting: “I may be an idiot but indeed I am no fool.”

My favorite song on the record by far is “No Sign of Yesterday.” It’s a weird thing for me because usually I’m all about the upbeat higher-energy stuff. Yet here’s this unrelentingly melancholy piece with a six point five minute run time that hits me right in the soul. Go figure, eh?

Finishing off the album is “No Restrictions,” another solidly enjoyable tune.

Which songs don’t work so well?

Every now and then the band would let someone other than Colin Hay sing lead, and the results are a lot like what happened when The Police put someone other than Sting on the microphone: A sense that something’s off. That’s mainly the problem with “Settle Down My Boy.” Hay shows up for some backing lines and all I can think is, “Couldn’t we have, you know, let him sing the whole thing?” This applies doubly for “I Like To,” which a delightful and spectacular bridge section just can’t save, unfortunately.

“Blue for You” is a basically torch song; you may recall how I feel about those.

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

It would’ve been the debut album, which I mostly enjoy in spite of the general ubiquity of “Who Can It Be Now?” and “Down Under.” You can’t really go wrong with acquiring either or both of these albums, honestly.

I’ve never seen anything nice said about the band’s third album, Two Hearts, so I figure that’s best left alone.

Any final thoughts?

Not all of the bands make the distance. A lot of what’s on my CD shelf (and in my digital library) is the work of long-term successful artists and acts. Sometimes, though, all you get is one or two solid records and that’s that.

In this case I consider that a shame because the world could’ve used more catchy, clever pieces sung by Colin Hay, I’m thinkin’.

3WA 2018 #13: Metallica – S&M

If you grew up in the ’80s and ’90s and paid attention to both the rock music scene and the action-film scoring scene, the fact that superstar composer & conductor (not to mention frequent pop/rock collaborator) Michael Kamen teamed up with superstar rock band Metallica for a live show wasn’t surprising in the least. If you didn’t, and you stop and think about it, it seems at least slightly ridiculous that the guy who scored the films Highlander, Lethal Weapon, and Die Hard would go on stage with the guys who gave the world “Master of Puppets” and “Enter Sandman.”

And let’s be clear, it is ridiculous. In the best possible way.

What is it?

S&M is the late-1999 double-album release of material from a set of live shows by Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony (conducted by Michael Kamen).

How does it sound?

Then it comes to be there’s a sampler mix at the end of your tunnel:

Why this pick?

Because it’s a stunt that works.

Let me explain no there is too much let me sum up. At some point someone had to do this, to smash together these two varieties of loud, self-important, self-indulgent musical expression. The rock band had to be established, with mainstream appeal, and loud. The orchestral collaborator had to be established, with a track record of delivering high profile and high impact symphonic results. Anything less from either side and the whole project would’ve fallen apart with a series of dull thuds. It required ridiculousness.

While I listen to this album I’m occasionally struck by the absurdity of it all for a few moments, then it pulls me back in again and I forget to think about why it shouldn’t have worked and let it get back to working.

Which songs are the highlights?

The first disc kicks off strongly with a twenty-minute three-song sequence: The orchestra itself doing a bit of Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstacy of Gold,” the orchestra and band together powering through the instrumental “The Call of Ktulu,” then a heck of a rendition of “Master of Puppets” rounds out the opening sequence.

Unsurprisingly, the two original tracks crafted for this project stand out as the strongest fusion of the two performance elements. “No Leaf Clover” and “-Human” are still two of my favorites, all these years later.

“Hero of the Day” translates surprisingly well to the new style. Likewise, the grim and dramatic “Outlaw Torn” and “One” both sound superb here.

The second disc closes with a really good take on “Battery.”

Which songs don’t work so well?

A lot of the radio-hit barn-burners don’t make very good use of the textures provided by symphonic accompaniment. “Of Wolf and Man” isn’t one of my faves anyway, and throwing a bunch of soaring strings on top of it doesn’t help its case here. “Fuel” just comes off as a noisy mess. “Until It Sleeps” tries and fails to gel. And somehow the biggest hit of them all, “Enter Sandman,” is just kind of… there. It’s not bad, but we know why it’s in the playlist and it has nothing to do with its suitability for this treatment.

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

I suppose it might’ve been the so-called “black album” but there’s not much to say about it, really, so I probably would’ve gone with ReLoad.

Any final thoughts?

I mean, yeah, Metallica. Boy howdy do people have opinions about the band or what? Luckily I’ve only ever been a moderate-level fan so I can enjoy bits and pieces from their catalog without feeling like I have to justify my choices. “They sold out! They got terrible! The new bass player sucks!” Eh. Whatever. I’m one of those who started with Metallica (“the black album”) and wandered off some time after… well, this record actually. Clearly my opinion is suspect, from a fannish perspective.

Look, I can’t go all-in on every band or I’d never have any time or money left for anything else. It’s for the best.

Of course one could argue that I’m tempting fate by making that sampler mix. If this webserver gets nuked from orbit then I guess we’ll know why…


3WA 2018 #12: VNV Nation – Transnational

Now for a sterling example of a band getting better over time.

What is it?

Transnational is VNV Nation’s ten-track 2013 release, and is the most current regular studio album in their discography.

How does it sound?

Which of us the sampler, which of us the mix:

Why this pick?

I have a weird relationship with VNV Nation specifically and what’s called EBM (or EDM and let’s not even start on the pedantry involved in the differentiation) in general. When it works for me, it really works. When it doesn’t, it’s off-putting as heck. There’s very little middle ground here. I got into VNV in late 2010, just before Automatic came out. For that album, and for the several beforehand, I ended up really liking three or maybe four songs and can take-or-leave the rest.

Not so, for Transnational. I like a whole lot of this album a whole lot.

Which songs are the highlights?

“Everything” and “If I Was” are excellent examples of the “up” side of VNV’s songwriting, while “Retaliate” serves as an equally excellent example of their “grim” side. (More on that, later.)

Of the unvoiced tracks, you could take “Aeroscope” and use it in a Matrix-type knockoff action movie and it’d fit right in, while “Generator” serves as a nice lead-in to the album.

Which songs don’t work so well?

The first “Teleconnect” track is one of those stately, slow, serious tracks that tends to put me to sleep. It’s not bad, it just doesn’t work for me at all. The second “Teleconnect” track is half-again as long as the first; I wish there was a good-parts edit available but as it is, it’s still not too engaging.

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

I nearly chose Automatic, my first “new” VNV album, released right after I’d gotten into the band. It’s a bit more front-loaded with the quality cuts than Transnational, however, and the later songs don’t hold up as well.

Any final thoughts?

What I find most amusing about the band’s work is its extreme dichotomy. On the one hand you get upbeat songs about the grace, power, and potential of humankind, such as “The Farthest Star” on the Judgement album. On the other hand you get grim diatribes about how humanity can’t seem to stop screwing everything up, such as “Testament,” the song immediately after “The Farthest Star.” There is no in-between, near as I can tell.

Basically, whichever mood you happen to be in regarding the world we inhabit today, VNV have you covered.

And yes, I somehow put together a sampler with absolutely zero vocals. Whoops.

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