Looking For Quacks In The Pavement

Month: January 2018

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.


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