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3WA 2018 #52: Mono Inc. – Together Till The End

We did it, folks. We’re at the end of another year of these Weekly Word Working Assignment posts. Thanks for staying with me through this.

(The both of you who have done so, anyway.)

As is traditional (if “twice” makes for a “tradition”) I saved pride of place at year’s end for one of my absolute favorite things.

What is it?

Together Till The End is the early 2017 studio album by Mono Inc, a German outfit that does a brisk business in English-language songsmithing nowadays.

How does it sound?

There’ll be no sampler mixes when the day is done:

Why this pick?

This is absolutely my favorite record of 2017. Yes, even over Public Service Broadcasting’s Every Valley. (I assure you it’s a slim margin.) I tried to listen critically in order to point out the highlights and low points on the record and kept getting pulled into the groove, forgetting entirely to actually jot down words. It’s amazing this post got written at all.

I can’t even claim that this is because it’s somehow musically superior in some subjective way. Oh, heck no. This record just hooks directly into the grin-inducing head-bop-making toe-tapping center of my brain and rarely lets go. You want to know what I’m into right now? This. This is what I’m into right now. I bought this record early in 2017 and I haven’t tired of it yet.

So yeah, that’s why this pick.

Which songs are the highlights?

“Boatman,” which features Ronan Harris of VNV Nation, was my first exposure to Mono Inc and remains a favorite most of two years later. It’s part of the rock-solid high-energy opening block of four songs on the record, including “Banks of Eden,” “Out In The Fields,” and the record’s title track.

Later in the album we get “Across The Waves” and “This Is My Life,” among other gems.

Which songs don’t work so well?

There’s nothing actually wrong with “There Comes A Time,” it just doesn’t come together as well as most of the others for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on.

The album closes with a mostly-instrumental reprise of the opening track. Your enjoyment of it will center on how much high-pitched warbling you can stand. For me, it wears thin well before the three minute run time completes.

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

There was no other choice. Not that I dislike Terlingua, but Together is just so much more my kind of thing, and I haven’t gone further back into the band’s catalog yet.

And since Welcome To Hell didn’t arrive until partway through 2018, that one wasn’t an option. (It’s a damned good record, though.)

Any final thoughts?

Compare and contrast, even via just the sampler mixes, the music I was into as a kid (last week’s Lindsay Buckingham album) and what I’m into now (Mono Inc, VNV Nation, etc). I’m not sure what kind of journey I’ve been on all my life, but it’s been some kind of.

So, what’s next? How do I follow “animation” and “music” into 2019? Well, it’s a bit complicated: I’m going to do a hybrid project next year.

My original idea was to follow from media type to media type, following “animation” and “music” with “books.” Most of my readership (all half-dozen of you) are into books, right? Right.

Problem is, 52 books is a tall order. I read less than I watch shows and listen to music, so coming up with a roster would be troublesome all on its own. Then I’d have to commit to reading and writing about a book every week, which is… daunting. The first solution to that problem was to simply cut the roster in half and do a project post every two weeks.

But… the 3WA concept starts with the word “weekly” so that wasn’t going to cut it.

Then it hit me: The other idea I considered was instead of doing reviews, doing a sort of serialized bits-of-a-story thing. Not creating an entire fully-fleshed story, mind you, more of a something inspired by the concept of one of Caro Emerald’s albums, Deleted Scenes From The Cutting Room Floor. Bits and pieces from a story that might-have-been. The good-parts version, if I may take a bit of inspiration from Bill Goldman here.

So the final result of all this is: Once per month, last Friday of the month, you get a book write-up much like the animation and album write-ups I’ve done up to this point. The other Fridays, you get dribs and drabs from a story which will probably never be completed but you should be able to piece together the key bits of by the time I’m done.

We’ll see how that goes. The first story entry is due next Friday. Here’s hoping.

3WA 2018 #51: Lindsay Buckingham – Go Insane

It’s the middle of 1984. I’m not yet officially a teenager. I have one of those radio/cassette decks with the single big speaker and I keep it by my bed so I can listen to the Top 40 countdown or whatever at night, recording the songs I like. I grab one of those Columbia House magazine advertisements, the “give us a penny for a bunch of records” deals. I do not, of course, clear this with the adults in the house, and I order up some Herbie Hancock and Laura Branigan and Men At Work and Duran Duran and some others I don’t remember and oh yeah, this one:

What is it?

Go Insane is the 1984 studio album release from Lindsay Buckingham, the guy usually associated with the band Fleetwood Mac though one could argue he’s spent at least as much of his professional career out of that band as he has in it.

How does it sound?

So I sampler mix like I always do:

Why this pick?

Oh, pure nostalgia, I assure you.

I wanted to include something from my youth, and how better than to pick one of those Columbia House records I got in trouble for as a kid? I’m getting older, I don’t remember much of anything very well anymore, but I remember those vinyl platters arriving.

Not that it’s a bad record. I wouldn’t do that to you. The point of this 3WA thing has always been “stuff which brings me joy” and I still get a kick out of this album.

What I find interesting now is how well my youthful enjoyment of Go Insane presaged my growing obsession with digging into the Genesis back catalog just a few short years later. Like a lot of Genesis albums, this Lindsay Buckingham record is a mix of awkward (and occasionally successful) attempts at pop hits plus prog-rock-like musical meandering. (Lest you think I’m knocking Genesis in general or this record in specific: This particular blend of musical directions is my strike zone, to borrow a sports metaphor.)

Which songs are the highlights?

The title track was the big hit, the one which made me aware of Buckingham in the first place, leading to my adding the album to my for-a-penny list. (This is before I really knew anything about who was in what band when. That came a few years later.) It’s still the strongest piece here.

Following “Go Insane” we get “Slow Dancing” and “I Must Go,” the other two solid pop-song cuts on the record.

I realize that the closing track, “D.W. Suite,” isn’t going to be for everyone. But I love it, so here we are. Mileage varies, yadda yadda.

Which songs don’t work so well?

There’s a lot of “Loving Cup” that I like, but the parts which don’t work really bring it too far down to recommend. Maybe shaving a minute or so off of its five-minute runtime would save it? Dunno.

If I had to pick a word to describe “Play in the Rain,” that would be: experimental. You don’t listen to it for enjoyment, really. You listen to it to try to figure out what was going through Buckingham’s head when he created it.

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

I’d have to pick the next solo record, Out of the Cradle, which has the distinction of being the album for which the publicity tour brought the artist to KGON for a day, thus making Lindsay Buckingham one of the few household names I ever shook hands and had a (blurry) photo taken with. (To say we “met” would be putting it too strongly, let’s be clear.) Cradle has some truly gorgeous songs on it, but overall it’s not as interesting a record to me.

Any final thoughts?

One thing I loved about the album as a kid was the way the first part of (the utterly bonkers) “Play in the Rain” ends on the vinyl LP.

For the youngsters in the audience: If you didn’t have a fancy record player which would automatically lift and return the tonearm at the end of a side, the needle would just rest on the innermost groove, looping quietly until someone realized the music had stopped.

In the case of “Play in the Rain,” what you’d realize is that you’d been listening to a snippet of music over and over and over and over, perfectly timed to the circumference of that innermost groove. It was a silly little trick (technical term: “locked groove,” though that generally refers to the technique used to prevent the needle from wandering over to the label itself) that someone went to a fair bit of trouble to arrange. I salute whoever that was. Of such minor touches are moments of pure delight made.

Upon flipping the LP over the first thing you’d hear after dropping the needle at the start of the groove was… the rest of “Play in the Rain,” which was deliberately split into two parts.

Now, past the age of the cassette and the compact disc and well into the digital regime, that little vinyl-record-loop trick is long obsolete. More’s the pity. (The old CD pressing I have keeps the two parts split but does a fade at the end of the first part.)

By the way… how did you like the sampler mix?

Next week: We finish the Weekly Word Working Assignment for 2018 with my favorite album of 2017.

 

3WA 2018 #50: Depeche Mode – Violator

My relationship with this band lasted much, much longer than the relationship with the girl who got me interested in this band.

What is it?

Violator is the 1990 album release by Depeche Mode, who had spent most of the decade up to this point working hard at becoming the biggest presence on the bedroom walls of teenaged girls since Duran Duran.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s important to have goals.

How does it sound?

To faithfully pursue the sampler mix of truth:

Why this pick?

When you get right down to it, Violator is the zenith of DM’s career. One could argue that their best work artistically is a release or two earlier or later, but you can’t deny that the band was never bigger than this moment, right here. That makes this record a superb jumping-on point for exploring their catalog.

It helps that it’s a stupendous record that, at merely nine tracks long, doesn’t overstay its welcome or get bogged down. My affection for the other albums comes and goes but I almost never tire of listening to some or all of this one.

Which songs are the highlights?

There are the hits, of course. “World In My Eyes,” “Personal Jesus,” and “Policy of Truth” hold up just fine nearly 30 years later.

Wait, it’s been how many years? Those of us who were around when the album landed: We’re getting old, aren’t we?

Anyway. My actual favorite of the songs here is “Halo,” perhaps in part because it wasn’t one of the big hits.

“Enjoy the Silence” in its album form is a weird beast. Two thirds of its run time is the hit song and the last couple minutes consists of weird electronic noodling. I don’t actually dislike it, but there’s a good argument to be made for picking up the single version.

The album closes with “Clean,” which benefits from an opening bass riff uncannily similar to Pink Floyd’s “One Of These Days.” (This was apparently unintentional on DM’s part.)

Which songs don’t work so well?

I’ve never been a fan of Martin Gore’s weepy little numbers, so “Waiting For the Night” still doesn’t do anything for me. “Blue Dress” falls more-or-less into the same category with similar results.

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

Were Violator taken out of consideration somehow, it would’ve been a dartboard situation: Make me a paper target with some album names on it, I’ll throw a dart and pick whichever name gets (un)lucky. The selection list would’ve been Music for the Masses, Spirit, Black Celebration, Some Great Reward, Songs of Faith and Devotion, and maybe Ultra. Maybe.

Any final thoughts?

Thank you to my (poor unfortunate) first girlfriend, a kind soul that I won’t shame here by naming in public, who gave me all those DM mix tapes back during the brief whirlwind stretch when we were dating. Nobody that good and decent should’ve been saddled with being my first romantic entanglement. I got the better part of that deal, no doubt about it.

Holy cannoli, there are only two of these left for the year…

3WA 2018 #49: Dolce Triade – Last Exile O.S.T.

You thought we were done with the soundtracks, perhaps? Oh no. One more time, folks.

What is it?

Last Exile O.S.T. is the first of two soundtracks for studio Gonzo’s Last Exile anime series from 2003. It consists mostly of instrumental material by the trio called Dolce Triade, plus the voiced opening and closing theme songs (among others).

How does it sound?

The answer is a cloud age sampler mix:

Why this pick?

The anime, Last Exile, didn’t make the cut for last year’s project. The entire point of this weekly writing thing is to hold forth upon things that might be enjoyable and while parts of the show are a delight, other parts are a slog and having watched it twice I still have to consult the Internet to remember how it ends.

But wow, it sounded good! So here we are.

Which songs are the highlights?

There are some delightful pieces in here, and one’s enjoyment of them aren’t reliant upon association with a particular scene or character in the show. Songs like “A Morning In Norkia” and “Flyin’ To Fly” don’t require context at all, for instance.

Some of the instrumental content is of an almost Ren-faire quality, pennywhistles and tambourines and such. Other pieces are martial themes done in full orchestral style. It’s a mixed bag, but of the good kind.

One nice thing about the instrumental selections (luckily the bulk of the content on the record) is the composer managed to avoid motif abuse, which is to say that no one thematic or character motif element gets overused. (I’m looking at you, soundtrack to Pacific Rim…) And only one track, “Silverna,” feels made up of multiple discrete pieces.

At any rate, as with all soundtracks, your mileage track-by-track will always vary.

Which songs don’t work so well?

It being a soundtrack, some bits are only useful in context. But where this particular record falls down is on the songs with vocals.

I don’t like the full version of the opening theme, “Cloud Age Symphony.” I wish there was a half-length edit available on the record, maybe relegating the full-length rendition to the tail end of the track listing or something. Bits of it are nice but the full six minutes of it, with all the weirder elements included, is just too much too-much-ness. When you’re watching the show and get the minute-or-so opening credits version you might think, “This is interesting and I want to hear more.” No, you almost certainly really don’t.

“Prayer For Love” is another voiced piece, and it doesn’t do anything for me either. It tries for “pretty” and achieves “pretty boring.” In fact, all of the voiced tracks are skippable. Take for example “Skywriting,” which is trying desperately to tap into a Beach Boys vibe of some sort. Yikes.

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

I considered the other Gonzo show soundtrack in the library, that of the earlier series, Vandread, but it wasn’t much of a contest between the two. The other show may be more fun overall but in terms of pure musical value, Last Exile wins by a landslide.

Any final thoughts?

Should you watch Last Exile? I didn’t recommend it last year, and I have a hard time recommending it now. I won’t insult the show by describing it as a triumph of style over substance. There’s plenty of substance, it’s just somewhat impenetrable and occasionally baffling. Sure is pretty, though. As an early exercise in melding computer-generated with hand-drawn animation in a big-budget-weekly-show kind of way, it’s occasionally dazzling to watch. (Vandread used a lot of CG as well but usually in separate shots from the hand-drawn stuff. Last Exile worked to blend them together.) There’s a reason it’s considered one of Gonzo’s masterworks.

If you have the time, I’d say, go for it. But if it doesn’t grab your attention in the first few episodes, don’t feel bad about dropping it.

3WA 2018 #48: The Police – Ghost in the Machine

Deciding the roster for this year’s project required a number of decisions regarding artists who appear under more than one project. David Bowie could’ve been represented in the roster by Tin Machine. Several people were represented by Genesis. Robert Plant could’ve been represented by Led Zeppelin. Chris Cornell was represented by Audioslave but I could have selected a Soundgarden record instead.

And then there was the question of what to do about Sting.

What is it?

Ghost in the Machine is the 1981 album release by The Police, aka That Band Sting Was In For A Few Years Early On.

How does it sound?

Every little sampler mix is magic:

Why this pick?

And here we go.

My intention for this project’s album line-up was to balance out 52 records across four decades, more-or-less evenly, as close to 13 selections per decade as I could get. Due to the way other artists’ selections (for various reasons) filled up later decades rather quickly, this meant that for Sting it was always going to be something in the 1980s. But… I don’t feel strongly enough about his first two solo records to focus on those, and for all that it’s the much-renowned last hurrah of The Police, I don’t actually like Synchronicity that much. Is that a blasphemous musical opinion? Okay. I don’t mind a bit of blasphemy on occasion.

Through a weird kind of process of elimination, then, I picked Ghost in the Machine. It’s still almost entirely a Sting record, but not as much as Synchronicity while still more so than the first few albums from the band. And some of the non-Sting bits here are among my favorite Police tracks.

Which songs are the highlights?

“Spirits in the Material World” and “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” are, of course, stupendous pop songs. I still like them, more so now that it’s been a while since they were on the radio every single day.

“Invisible Sun” and “Secret Journey” are my favorite two songs on the record. “Omegaman” (by Andy Summers) and “Darkness” (by Stewart Copeland) are good tunes in their own right, and make me wish that The Police hadn’t devolved into The Sting Show quite so quickly as they did.

I’ll throw in an honorable mention for “Demolition Man” as well. It’s better in its later live renditions but the original has some charm to it.

Which songs don’t work so well?

Why am I not a bigger Police fan? Because I don’t really like reggae, and “One World (Not Three)” leans heavily on that style. The band’s whole early sound was a kind of reggae-rock hybrid, the sort of thing No Doubt would try to do with ‘ska’ in a later decade. No, I didn’t like them all that much, either.

I’m not sure what about “Too Much Information” puts me off, but it puts me quite off. Probably the combination of vocal delivery and repetitiveness. Sure, we’ll go with that.

I go back and forth on the mostly-French-language “Hungry For You.” This time around, it’s back rather than forth.

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

I considered Zenyatta Mondatta, the album just prior to this, but I really can’t stand “Don’t Stand So Close To Me.” In which case, to stay in the 1980s, I’d have gone with the sophomore solo record from Sting, …Nothing Like The Sun. Hey, my very first big-name concert experience was at a truly awful venue (the old Civic Center) in downtown Seattle in support of that record.

Were my memory any better I’d write up my concert-going experiences, but. Alas.

Any final thoughts?

One thing about Sting’s pop song crafting sensibilities I didn’t learn to appreciate until much later is that punk quality of getting in, landing the hook a few times, then getting out again briskly. Several of the songs here clock in under three minutes and only a few run past the four minute mark. In my teen years I wanted every song to last forever, hence the massive collection of extended remix singles, but now? I admire a song that doesn’t wear out its welcome. (Admittedly, the longest track here is “Demolition Man,” which… could probably have been half to two thirds as long and been better for it.)

I’m gettin’ old, I guess.

 

3WA 2018 #47: KONGOS – Lunatic

And now for something that became more popular than I expected.

What is it?

Lunatic is the 2012 not-actually-a-debut record from the band KONGOS.

How does it sound?

They’re playin’ sex on the sampler mix:

Why this pick?

It’s an astonishingly good record, really.

Also, I already did a full write-up for the follow-up release, Egomaniac. Whoopsie.

I can thank J. Michael Straczynski (the Babylon 5 creator & head writer) for pointing me at the band, as he’d periodically link to one or another of their videos over on Twitter. After the first couple of times I thought, “Okay, Joe’s really into this band, let’s give it a listen.” It was the concert-type video for “Hey I Don’t Know” and I was hooked. Thanks, JMS!

Just, if you do get into KONGOS, be aware of who’s around when you play their records; they’re a bit cuss-prone. Mind the presence of bosses and small children!

Which songs are the highlights?

Most of them, really. Obviously you’ve got the big singles, “Come With Me Now” and “Hey I Don’t Know,” but there’s also “Escape” which is just absolutely lovely, and “Sex On The Radio” & “Kids These Days” are pretty good too.

The US release of the record ends strong, with “Take Me Back,” “It’s A Good Life,” and “This Time I Won’t Forget.” No dumping of the weakest songs in the back half of the CD here, no way.

Which songs don’t work so well?

“As We Are” and “Traveling On” are a bit meh, unfortunately. I don’t think slow songs will ever be KONGOS’ strong suit.

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

Egomaniac is the only other one I have, so… process of elimination, there. And I certainly wasn’t going to leave the band out of the listing if I didn’t have to.

Any final thoughts?

I love both of the KONGOS records I have so far, and eagerly await their next release. Luckily that seems to be slated for first thing next year.

Weirdly, I thought they were an unknown niche band for ages, then I started hearing “Come With Me Now” in restaurants and such, and realized that they started making it big. Good job, guys! I’m sure those licensing deals for using a couple of their songs in ads for various games and shows and movies didn’t hurt.

Kudos to the band for going all-in on trying to make accordion solos cool, too. You may have noticed I used a couple of those in the sampler mix? Yeah. That’s a thing.

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