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Looking For Quacks In The Pavement

Category: 3WA (page 2 of 19)

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.

3WA 2018 #46: BT – Movement In Still Life

And now for an artist who serves as a good metaphor about fishes and the size of the ponds they inhabit.

What is it?

Movement In Still Life is the late 1999 album release by the electronica artist who goes by his initials, BT. For the purposes of this entry I should clarify I’m talking about the US version, which is radically different from the UK version both in song selection and in having the tracks clearly distinct from one another instead of cross-faded together.

How does it sound?

She says, the sampler mix is coming:

Why this pick?

Let’s be clear: I resisted this pick. I wanted one of the later records but by the time I was looking at the balance between decades in this year’s version of the project I realized I needed the 1990s option.

It’s not a bad record, by any means, but it’s the first “big hit” record and I tried to shy away from those for the most part.

Ah well. As introductions to BT’s work go, it’s certainly accessible and acceptable. I like a lot of this record, and if you’re unfamiliar with BT then Movement is a great jumping-on point.

Which songs are the highlights?

“Madskillz” and “Never Gonna Come Back Down” and “Smartbomb” are high energy pick-me-up go-get-it tracks, worthy of any given uptempo mood-improvement playlist you want to make.

“Dreaming” and “Running Down The Way Up” are marvelous examples of a type of electronica piece I’ve written about a couple of times during this project, the “dude with synthesizers hires a woman to sing some words on top of his tune.” This is literally 1990s euro-techno in its purest form.

And then there’s “Satellite,” which is just absolutely beautiful.

Which songs don’t work so well?

“Shame” doesn’t quite gel; there’s the germ of a good idea in it, but the existing result isn’t worth it.

The album closes with “Love on Haight Street,” which is a bit more of a rap-focused piece than I tend to like. Your mileage may vary. (Also: The lyrics mention “Don Trump” at one point. Sigh.)

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

My original plan was to tackle the pair of These Hopeful Machines and These Humble Machines, which I think is an interesting exercise in contrasting the artsy and the commercial sides of BT’s output. I still don’t know which I’d end up actually recommending to the casual listener; I’m not sure that the “normalized” Humble works better than the artsy original Hopeful, and it’s been a few years now since their releases.

Some other time, perhaps.

I mention the contrasting aspects of BT’s releases sort of as a warning: If what you want is peppy dance music, you have to choose carefully from among the available BT records. If what you want is atmospheric experimental electronica, you have to choose carefully from among the available BT records. Someone who finishes Movement In Still Life and finds themselves in love with the upbeat energy of it, then runs out to pick up, say, This Binary Universe, is probably going to be confused and frustrated.

The Machines releases seem to try to either bridge that gap or deliberately muddy the waters, I’m not sure which.

Any final thoughts?

When I talk to a normal person who isn’t the type to wind up in random corners of the Internet scouring for odd musical acts to get into, and I mention BT, I get a blank look. When I talk to someone who’s heavily into electronica, and I mention BT, I get a sigh with a possible addition of eye-rolling.

If you’re into this stuff, well, BT is everywhere (or was, anyway). If you’re not, he’s a nobody. Fame is relative, yeah?

Part of BT’s relative fame comes from his use of what he calls a “stutter edit.” One could argue that Movement In Still Life is an album-length advertisement for the technique, and for the digital audio software plugin of the same name.

3WA 2018 #45: mind.in.a.box – Crossroads

And now for an artist who I found through a video game demo, lost track of, then found again by accident not realizing until a while later that the new project was run by the guy who did that video game music years ago.

There isn’t too much; I’ll sum up. But first:

What is it?

Crossroads is the 2007 release, the middle part of a series of concept albums, by the oddly-named mind.in.a.box which is the brainchild of Stefan Poiss.

How does it sound?

We don’t lose a sampler mix, we are always right behind:

Why this pick?

Because it includes “Stalkers.”

Every now and then, someone on Twitter or other social media outlet will link to a video or suggest a song. One particular semi-stranger, who had linked some good selections (they helped point me at VNV Nation) previously, pointed me at “Stalkers.” I listened. And I listened again. And then I listened again. And then I bought the record it’s on.

So, here we are. Years later, “Stalkers” is still my favorite mind.in.a.box track, by far.

Anyway.

The funny part of writing about this record is that it’s not only a concept album, it’s part of a series of five connected concept albums, joined lyrically in one grand tale. What am I, a man who has a difficult time parsing lyrical meaning, doing listening to this thing at all?

Well, it sounds good. I know I’m not getting everything out of this project that I could be, but what I’m getting is enough. I like it! What more do I need?

Which songs are the highlights?

Three of the first four tracks are quite strong: “Introspection,” the seven-minutes-plus of “Amnesia,” and “Identity.” My favorite thing here is, of course, “Stalkers.” At nearly eight minutes long, “What Used To Be” manages not to wear out its welcome. And to close out the record there’s “Run For Your Life.”

Which songs don’t work so well?

“Into The Night” starts moderately strong but wanders aimlessly for the middle part of its seven minute runtime.

While the vocal effects (Stefan sings all the parts, including the female characters, with a lot of distortion effects processing) are more or less effective overall, on “Fear” they’re more distracting than complementary.

“The Place” is trying for a style and an effect and it misses both, unfortunately.

There are a couple of short spoken tracks, “Lucid Dreams” 1 and 2, which I only mention because they contribute to the song count and are probably story beats of some kind but otherwise are skippable.

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

I have three of the other four “story” albums, and given the general arc of improvement over the course of the project I nearly went with Memories, the final installment. There’s a lot of good stuff on that record. Problem is, I would feel weird if I recommended starting at the end then working your way back up the storyline. It’s bad enough I’m suggesting that a new listener start in the middle. But… I don’t like as much of Lost Alone or Dreamweb as I do Crossroads. So there you have it.

Any final thoughts?

Let’s talk about the Parsec demo, shall we?

In the late 1990s, fancy 3D computer graphics weren’t yet all that fancy. But some folks decided that what the world needed was a space-fighter shoot-em-up game, and decided to build one themselves. (You can see the current state of it at the OpenParsec site. You can also see a snapshot of convincingly-1990s web design while you’re there.)

Oh, and the guys working on Parsec were also dabbling in music, and posted MP3 files of the bits of soundtrack they’d been working on. I downloaded and played the demo (yes, back in the 1990s, it took a while) and also the music, which I liked more than the game (such as it was).

The game never went anywhere, but as a launchpad for Stefan Poiss and mind.in.a.box and such? Hey, whatever works!

3WA 2018 #44: Rush – Presto

Sometimes, what an established band really needs is a change of scenery to shake up the creative flow a bit.

What is it?

Presto is the 1989 studio album release from Rush. It’s their first under the Atlantic label and with a different producer from their previous couple of records.

How does it sound?

Girls and boys together, play the sampler mix:

Why this pick?

Rush is another of those bands of whom I’m never going to be the biggest fan. My enjoyment of their stuff is definitely far more casual than it is devoted. Like Garbage’s Bleed Like Me last week, Presto is the first (and only) Rush album to fully click with me. Most of the albums before and since have all had a song or two (maybe three) that I like, but as a whole the albums have left me somewhat cold. This record, though, I enjoy all the way through.

Go figure.

Which songs are the highlights?

You get no points for guessing that I like a lot of the uptempo songs like “Show Don’t Tell,” “Red Tide,” “Superconductor,” and “Scars.” I enjoy the title track’s mellower vibe just as much, though. Same for “Hand Over Fist” and especially the closer, “Available Light.”

You do earn bonus points if you get the joke behind the title of “Anagram (For Mongo)” without Googling for it.

Which songs don’t work so well?

I don’t actively dislike anything on this record.

Having said that, “The Pass” and “War Paint” are… merely okay, I suppose.

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

I considered going with one of the post-millennium releases like Vapor Trails or Clockwork Angels, but other than a couple of big tunes I’d have struggled to find anything to say about either one of those. So instead, I could probably have made a good case for Roll The Bones, the follow-up to Presto which features a couple of my all-time favorite Rush tunes (the title track and “Ghost of a Chance”).

Any final thoughts?

The mix for Presto is brighter, almost shimmery in its use of the higher sound frequencies, compared to earlier records. This is appropriate given that the lyrical content seems mostly positive and upbeat. Insofar as I can parse it, anyway. Is this why I like Presto the best?

If you’re a Rush fan who, for some reason, hasn’t tried out Geddy Lee’s solo record My Favorite Headache, I can at least recommend giving it a listen. (It was a freebie from the radio days. Would I have paid full price for it? Maybe, maybe not.)

… Hey, can you believe we’re getting close to done with this year’s project? Wow. Time flies when you’re playing oodles of music.

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