Looking For Quacks In The Pavement

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3WA 2018 #40: U2 – War

Please allow me to present to you an exercise in saying nice things about a record while saying unkind things about the band.

Remember the “parabolic enjoyment arc” thing last week? Here’s the other case of that problem I mentioned.

What is it?

War is the 1983 release from U2, who at the time had not yet become the biggest thing since The Beatles.

How does it sound?

Push the sampler and pull the mix:

Why this pick?

It’s simply the one I like best out of their catalog. And yes, I know that there are albums held in higher critical esteem than this. People want to insist that Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby are the peak of U2’s creative output, but the problem is that I don’t like very much of either of those records. In fact the later you go in their catalog the less interest I have and the less enjoyment I derive.

So we go back, closer to where things started. And War started the big-time fame thing for them, really. Deservedly so: This is a deftly made record for the most part, angry where it needs to be and gentle when it suits the mood. Since the point of this is to highlight albums which bring me joy, I can think of no better U2 choice than this one.

Which songs are the highlights?

The big politics-heavy hits play well even now. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” are only dimmed by virtue of having survived 35 years of near-continual airplay, so one can be a bit tired of them if one still listens to the radio. In between those is “Seconds,” which holds its own quite nicely in such company.

My actual favorite songs here, though, are the quieter, downtempo “Drowning Man” and especially the album’s closing piece, “40”.

Which songs don’t work so well?

“Like A Song” kind of unfortunately lives up to its title. Meanwhile, “The Refugee” tries to be pop and punk by turns, succeeding at neither.

“Surrender” isn’t bad, but it kind of wears out its welcome after a while. It’s the same length as “New Year’s Day” but unlike that song, you start paying attention to the time-remaining indicator while listening. Not a good sign, there.

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

I briefly considered Rattle and Hum, mainly because it was my first real U2 experience. One of my friends during my senior year of high school was a U2 superfan and that was right around the time the band was hitting superstardom levels. Rattle and Hum came out that year and I thought it was a heck of a thing, blending the studio and concert material while also blending several type of visual showmanship.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized the whole album/video/event was also a chronicle of a band in the act of starting to believe their own press releases, as it were. The bigger U2 got, the less interesting they became for me. I kept getting the feeling that while they were operating with tongue firmly in cheek, the band also kind of believed that they were Just That Cool, and… man, if you think you’re cool, you’re probably not.

To calibrate your understanding, here, remember that my all-time favorite band is basically five (then four, then three) complete dorks who stumbled into prog-rock success.

Any final thoughts?

While I’m thinking about what’s cool and who’s not, I think I now know what I’ll pick for next week: A record by a band who really should’ve been more than a one-hit wonder, who were for a while really damned cool.

Also: I want to be crystal clear on the fact that U2’s War being entry number 40 for the year while containing a song titled “40” is a complete coincidence. I didn’t realize it until I’d written the first draft of this post.


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.


3WA 2018 #35: Econoline Crush – The Devil You Know

Nine months ago I took a scroll through my music library to select records to write about throughout 2018. Later, when I sorted my choices by release date, some interesting pairings caught my eye. Let’s talk about some late-90s post-grunge angry gloomy whiny alternative stuff, shall we?

Yeah, apparently I was into that for a little while.

Yeah, okay, I remain a fan of it just enough that it’s still in my library and gets a listen every so often.

What is it?

The Devil You Know is the 1997 sophomore release from the Canadian “alternative” band, Econoline Crush. Yeah, “alternative” as a label remains just about the stupidest thing ever applied to a timeline or sound of pop music.

How does it sound?

Sampled the truth, and repackaged the mix…

Why this pick?

I got into this band thanks to a music video. Well: A fan-made music video using visuals from my favorite Miyazaki film, let’s be clear about that. The song from that video is on this album, and it’s a big part of why this is my favorite of the three Econoline Crush albums in my library.

Look, they can’t all have big important reasons to have made the list. Sometimes you just gotta enjoy what it is for what it is.

Which songs are the highlights?

“Surefire” is still one of my favorites, though the album version differs from the mix used in that video. It’s great in any rendition, honestly.

There are a bunch of barn-burners on this record, “Home” definitely the foremost among them. You get good value for money from some of the others, like “Sparkle and Shine” and “Hollowman” and “Elegant” and especially “Burnt.”

Oh hey, the title track isn’t too shabby either.

Honestly, I like nearly the entire album. This one’s another in the “if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll like” category. Let’s hear it for consistent quality.

Which songs don’t work so well?

The mix of “All That You Are” on this album just isn’t that good. There’s a far better rendition elsewhere. Maybe if you’ve never heard the other mix you’ll be fine with this one? I dunno. I really think this one doesn’t gel quite right.

Unfortunately, the semi-obligatory album-closing sad ballad of sadness, “Razorblades and Bandaides,” lands with a dull thud.

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

There wasn’t a contest, here. It was always going to be The Devil You Know. The band’s sound and style don’t change much so if you like this one, you can’t really go too far astray picking up the first album, Affliction, or the 2001 release, Brand New History.

Any final thoughts?

One can look at a band like this as the sort of thing one tends to outgrow over time. How much loud angst-and-woe does one need in their music library, after all? And yet, there are some good and fun tunes in this genre. I can enjoy the sound while generally ignoring the message. (Easier for me than for most folks given my difficulties with lyrics in general, admittedly.)

There’s a “hidden” track on this record, buried a dozen tracks after the last song. I only mention it because it’s properly on a separate track instead of being part of the last track on the CD… I’m looking at you, Filter. Ahem.

Next week: More zombies post-grunge “alternative”!

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