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Looking For Quacks In The Pavement

Month: September 2018

3WA 2018 #39: Muse – Black Holes and Revelations

Some bands improve with age. Some bands start off strong, then fizzle out. Some bands follow a parabolic trajectory arc of enjoyable quality.

Let’s talk about a couple of acts from that last category there, shall we?

What is it?

Black Holes and Revelations is the 2006 big hit record from Muse, three quarters of an hour of music spread over eleven songs.

How does it sound?

When will this sampler mix be over:

Why this pick?

I like individual songs from earlier and later Muse records quite well, and in fact certain of those songs I like better than nearly anything on Black Holes. But if I’m going to recommend an album to someone unfamiliar with the band’s works, it’s got to be this one. This is the crowd-pleaser. To be blunt: This one has “Starlight” and “Knights of Cydonia.”

Before this one, there’s a lot of diamonds-in-the-rough quality to the records. Great stuff is there to enjoy but you’ve got to want it enough to get through everything else.

After this one, I get a strong sense that the band has increasingly started to believe their press releases and disappear up their own backsides. There’s too much “too much,” basically.

(Yes, we’ll be exploring this theme again a bit next week.)

Which songs are the highlights?

“Starlight” got a lot of radio airplay for good reasons, and it holds up moderately well over a decade on. “Supermassive Black Hole,” “Assassin,” and “City of Delusion” are pretty darned good, too.

I can’t even explain why, but just know that “Map of the Problematique” is my all-time favorite Muse piece. Something about the sound and energy of it just gets me right where I live. I never tire of it and hope I never will.

The album closes with “Knights of Cydonia,” and it’s a ridiculous hoot of a piece. In a way it’s their riff on Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” except done as a six-minute trashy 80s sci-fi conniption fit of sheer lunacy. I adore it to pieces.

Which songs don’t work so well?

The record starts out with “Take a Bow,” which is… iterative, for lack of a better term. There’s a germ of a good musical idea in there but it’s so grating (presumably on purpose) that it’s almost impossible to really enjoy (presumably on purpose).

Midway through we get “Soldier’s Poem.” I’m sure it’s supposed to be snarkily meaningful but for me it just falls flat. This is probably a problem with me trying to enjoy more of Muse’s songs: All the clever wordplay goes in one ear and out the other! Whoopsie.

Right before the end of the album is “Hoodoo,” another experimental mostly-quiet piece with some louder bits and, no, just no.

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

It was almost The Resistance, the record immediately following Black Holes. They’re both solidly enjoyable entry points to the Muse catalog. (Purists will, of course, argue with me. Good thing I’m not a purist.)

Any final thoughts?

The remarkable thing about this album is that every song here swings for the fences in some fashion, even the quiet(ish) ones. Sometimes those swings catch nothing but air, striking out wildly. Sometimes the swings send the ball clean over the outfield fences and into the parking lot. (Sports metaphor! That’s relevant to my readership, right?) If nothing else, I have to admire Muse for going all-out. A band who did anything less couldn’t have recorded “Knights of Cydonia,” let’s be real.

That parabolic arc I mentioned at the start? Maybe it’s the weight of expectations, that everyone expects them to do more, bigger, pushier, edgier stuff every time. Two albums after Black Holes, we get The 2nd Law which is full of obnoxious dubstep-type ‘wub-wub-wub’ noises, which is great if you’re into that sort of thing, and Drones is just kind of grim and portentous, so at this point I can’t even work up any excitement about the new forthcoming record. Where’s the fun, guys?

Maybe they’ll prove me wrong, though. That’d be nice.

3WA 2018 #38: Queen of Hearts – Cocoon

I done goofed up.

I reviewed this album already. Somehow in the process of putting together the spreadsheet and assembling the preview sampler mix late last year I completely and totally forgot about the existing review post. But, I’m forcing myself to stick with the roster as written. So here we are.

The good news is that I still love this record. As a bonus, it continues our little trend of counterbalancing the earlier angst-and-woe selections with some nice upbeat danceable fun.

What is it?

Cocoon is the 2014 debut full-length album by the singer/songwriter who has dubbed herself Queen of Hearts. There was an EP called The Arrival a few years beforehand so it’s up to you if you want to consider that the debut rather than this. Given that these two releases are all we have to work with so far, it probably doesn’t matter too much yet.

How does it sound?

Mix the sampler to my heart:

Why this pick?

Usually with the dance-y electronica type stuff, it’s a dude or a couple of dudes and they hire a woman to do the singing. (See the Space Brothers album earlier in this year’s lineup.) This is a nice example of coming at it from the other direction: The singer/songwriter and her voice (literally and figuratively) are foremost.

Which songs are the highlights?

“Freestyle” and “Shoot the Bullet” survive from the earlier EP to anchor this album with some known quantities, and they’re definitely standouts here.

There’s so much more to enjoy, though! For straight-up head-bopping hip-wiggling good times there’s also “Neon” and “Like A Drug” and “It Isn’t Enough” and also “Overcome By The Rhythm.”

It’s not all high-tempo feel-good fun-times, though. One of my favorites on the record is serious & somber “Warrior,” while the album closes with the lovely “Tears In The Rain.”

Which songs don’t work so well?

“Heartbeat” doesn’t quite gel for me. Luckily it’s the shortest track out of the 14 on offer. “Angel,” likewise, is a bit of a miss.

“Suicide” isn’t scored low because it’s bad, I just have a heard time with that word as a key part of the chorus in any song, sorry. It’s not you, song, it’s me!

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

Had I been paying attention I’d have ended up with something by some other artist entirely. That one-off by a band nobody’s heard of, The Men, maybe. (I saw them at the Roseland Theater way back when, with Cree Summer’s band Subject To Change as the opening act. Heck of a show!)

I was hoping for a new Queen of Hearts record to come out before the end of the year so I could cheat a little and write about that instead, but, such is life!

Any final thoughts?

Double-check your work, kids. Your WordPress site comes with a search feature. Use it!

3WA 2018 #37: Thomas Dolby – Aliens Ate My Buick

I owe you all an apology. I just looked at the roster of the last handful of posts and realized, wow this has gotten grim and depressing. I am so, so sorry about that.

Let’s lighten things up. A lot.

What is it?

Aliens Ate My Buick is Thomas Dolby’s third studio record, released in 1988 with a resounding, undeserved, commercial thud.

How does it sound?

Karmann Ghia plates say “Sampler Mix”:

Why this pick?

Unless you’re a tech nerd of a particular stripe, mostly what you know Thomas Dolby for is that “Blinded Me With Science” song. He had other hit songs on the radio! Just, unless you’re already a fan of his, you probably can’t bring any to mind.

“Airhead,” from this record, is basically the last one.

And that’s a shame, because Aliens Ate My Buick is a record made by a guy who seems to want to break out in a lot of interesting directions with pop music. After this one he basically made quieter stuff, easy-listening pop songs, pleasant enough but not as engaging.

Not everything on this album works but even the failures are at least interesting. I think it’s worth a listen, and it’s a whole lot of fun.

Which songs are the highlights?

The album kicks off with a Robin Leach (the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” guy) voice-over at the start of “The Key To Her Ferrari,” which is a ridiculously fun romp that I try not to think about the lyrics too much of. After that comes “Airhead,” the best of the radio-oriented pop songs on offer here.

Late on the album is the deliciously groovy “The Ability To Swing” followed by the sprawling, moody eight-minutes-and-some-odd of “Budapest By Blimp.”

Which songs don’t work so well?

“Hot Sauce” was another of the singles from the record, and it’s not nearly as fun as “Airhead” nor does it age particularly well.

The album’s finale is “May The Cube Be With You,” which I can take or leave depending on mood. (Usually I leave it, though.)

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

It was always going to be Aliens. I like Dolby’s first record, The Golden Age of Wireless, and that one has my all-time favorite of his songs (“One Of Our Submarines”) but it’s still a debut record and I still find Aliens much more interesting to examine.

Any final thoughts?

If you get into Dolby’s music and want something a bit out of the ordinary to add to your collection, grab the Gate To The Mind’s Eye soundtrack. The Mind’s Eye videos were VHS releases highlighting the cutting edge of computer-generated graphics. They look quaint as heck to us in the twenty-teens, but in the early 1990s they were super cool! (Really. Honest. Very very cool. Trust me.) I have two of the soundtracks, this one and its predecessor: Jan Hammer’s work for Beyond The Mind’s Eye. (I also recommend that one!)

I think we could use more upbeat pop music, don’t you? Let’s do that.

3WA 2018 #36: Stabbing Westward – Darkest Days

The last one was all because of a music video. This one’s all because of a girl.

What is it?

Darkest Days is the third album released by Stabbing Westward, another of those 1990s post-grunge angst-and-woe bands that made a bit of a splash for a brief moment. It’s a whopping 16 tracks long, most of the songs clocking in at close to three minutes.

How does it sound?

How can sampler mix be justified by you?

Why this pick?

I got into this band because of a girl. It was her favorite band at the time, and enough of it clicked with my tastes that I ended up buying several of the available albums at the time.

Let’s be honest, I could say that about several artists in my library, but… anyway. Moving along!

So why this record out of the three? Because it’s the best of the bunch. The album before this is quite good, the one afterward (the final release before the band’s breakup) is okay but doesn’t click with me very well, and for all that it’s supposedly a “concept album” I find Darkest Days to be the album where Stabbing Westward really brought it all together.

Let’s be clear, though: Like last week’s pick, there’s a very specific “angry mopey white dude” sound at play here. Mileage, it will definitely vary.

Which songs are the highlights?

The title track leads things off well, and sets the tone for the proceedings. And that tone is, generally speaking, “loud & angry.” Let’s be clear, this is mostly not a subtle piece of musical artwork. Generally well-crafted for what it is, mind you, otherwise I’d not be sitting here writing about it.

Darkest Days doesn’t really front-load the strongest songs, due to its attempted concept-album structure. This provides an interesting fringe benefit: The high points are scattered throughout, which I generally prefer to an album which one can simply turn off after the first four tunes. So a few songs after “Darkest Days” we get “Drugstore,” and a couple after that one there’s the best-known track on the record, “Save Yourself.” Shortly afterward is the album version of “Torn Apart,” a barn-burner of a tune that was collaboratively reworked (for the better) for the Spawn movie soundtrack. Toward the end we find “The Thing I Hate.”

My two absolute favorite tracks, though, are slightly downtempo: “Sometimes It Hurts” and the closing piece, “Waking Up Beside You.”

Which songs don’t work so well?

The album’s commitment to telling a story about a failed (sabotaged, actually) relationship leads to some grim clunkers in the mix: “How Can I Hold On,” and the hitting-rock-bottom depressing-as-heck trifecta of  “Drowning,” “Desperate Now,” and particularly “Goodbye.”

Concept albums are prone to weak tunes in the service of the story, I suppose. Pink Floyd fans might not particularly enjoy my opinions about large portions of The Wall

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

Due to the generally-more-consistent quality over a shorter track count, I very nearly went with Wither Blister Burn + Peel instead. If the above sampler has you intrigued but the idea of a grim break-up-songs concept album turns you off, maybe give that album a try instead.

Any final thoughts?

At this point in my life, most of the songs of the type found on this and the previous album in this year’s project lineup don’t do much for me. I still enjoy enough of the tunes to merit at least a mild recommendation, however. Just… grain of salt, mileage varying, and so on.

And, boy howdy are a lot of these songs making super-unhealthy statements about how relationships work! Yegods. The older I get, the more I cringe at a lot of what little lyrical content actually latches onto my brain for processing.

 

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