Tuesday, August 22, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1044: Cake

Life has been hectic of late, and I’m a bit knackered as a result. I’m going to try to get this review written on what reserves of energy I’ve got left and then hit the sack.

Disc 1044 is…Comfort Eagle
Artist: Cake

Year of Release: 2001

What’s up with the Cover? Another typical Cake cover, consisting of a background the colour you paint all the rooms in your house right before you decide to sell it.

There is also a graphic of a lovely early sixties couple enjoying a cocktail. These two look smashed. I imagine that he’s about to confess that he lost the Jaguar in a late night card game and she’s working up the courage to tell him she’s been sleeping with the pool boy.

How I Came To Know It: I was already a Cake fan when this album came out so this was just me buying their latest release.

How It Stacks Up:  I have seven Cake albums, which at this point is all of them. Of the seven, “Comfort Eagle” is my favourite – so #1, baby!

Ratings: 4 stars

“Comfort Eagle” is one of those great albums that I played a bit too much when it came out. Despite all that overplay, I still enjoyed every minute of it when the Odyssey deemed it was time to return.

Cake is one of those bands that have created their own unique sound. They channel sixties lounge, seventies funk, eighties synth and a bit of modern indie detachment. The combination is a mix of heavy groove and catchy beats that gets your head bobbing and your toe tapping.

“Comfort Eagle” is the band’s fourth album and is more of the same formula, but with a bit more polish. The production values are superior, and the arrangements are inspired. These guys just seem to know when the bass should lay down a riff, when the horn section should fire a blast and when to calm it all down and let lead vocalist and writer John McCrea deliver a few lines with the perfect phrasing and timing of a beatnik poet.

Thematically the songs are a mix of idle observations and impressionistic character studies. The opening song, “Opera Singer” is the story of an opera singer; temperamental, difficult but brilliantly talented. On “Pretty Pink Ribbon” you get the sense of a spoiled girl, navigating through life on her looks. Neither character is particularly likable but they’re so well drawn you can’t help but want to know them better.

The album’s best song is also the band’s most famous. “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” is part character study and part wishlist of what the perfect girlfriend might be like. The song always reminds me of my own girl, particularly the line:

“I want a girl with a mind like a diamond
And eyes that burn like cigarettes.”

That latter part is only when I’ve said something stupid, of course.

The whole record has a rolling incessant energy that makes you want to be behind the wheel of a car, driving slightly too fast. On the surface, songs like “Comfort Eagle” make you want to get somewhere in a hurry, without overthinking about where exactly you’re going. Just drive. Yet for all this urgency and celebratory hand-clapping (which many of the songs feature) there is a subversive quality to the lyrics, exposing the emptiness of modern culture even as they showcase their allure with a catchy beat.

Songs like the title track make you want to sing along when the man in the music business calls you ‘dude!’ even as you also recognize he doesn’t have your best interests at heart. Also, for songs that are so good for driving, Cake once again delivers a solid anti-traffic song with “Long Line of Cars”. As the song admonishes, “This long line of cars…is all because of you.” If you’re wondering who caused the traffic jam take a look in the rearview mirror and see your reflection looking back at you.

Like a lot of great music, “Comfort Eagle” can be appreciated on multiple levels. You could just bob your head and enjoy the beat, or you could consider the deeper message Cake is delivering about the dangers of ego and self-absorption at both the personal and the societal level. It is best enjoyed when both experiences impact you at the same time.

I enjoy this album every time I put it on. I may have been guilty of playing it too much when I first bought it, but with music this good, it was a victimless crime.

Best tracks: Meanwhile Rick James…, Short Skirt/Long Jacket, Commissioning a Symphony in C, Comfort Eagle, Long Line of Cars, Love You Madly

Saturday, August 19, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1043: The Mountain Goats

For about a year I’ve had a backlog of “new (to me”) albums and I’ve been invoking Rule #5 (see sidebar) on an alternating basis to see what I review next. However I can also ‘naturally’ roll of the new music section and this album is the second in a row from there. This is just as well since there are about 130 albums in there right now.

Disc 1043 is…Goths
Artist: The Mountain Goats

Year of Release: 2017

What’s up with the Cover? I think this art piece is intending to show how it feels to be an outcast. See how the person in the green sweater is the only one who isn’t black and white? How everyone else is boring and obvious? This is alienation and isolation in the middle of a crowd of people? How very…Goth.  Someone give that kid a hug.

How I Came To Know It: I discovered the Mountain Goats through “Beat the Champ” (reviewed back at Disc 1032). I liked what I heard and dug through their back catalogue. When they released a new album earlier this year, I took a chance it would hold up.

How It Stacks Up:  My faith in the Mountain Goats was not misplaced. “Goths” is a worthy addition to their discography, coming in 4th best out of the 6 Mountain Goats albums I own.

Ratings: 4 stars

The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle is a master of looking back at very specific elements of his youth and translating them into concept albums that become about so much more than the sliver of memory that forms his inspiration.

On “Sunset Tree” that journey is a retrospective on his abusive step-father on the occasion of his death, and on “Beat the Champ” it is the memories of going to local professional wrestling shows. On “Goths” Darnielle digs back into his youth in California, growing up listening to eighties Goth music.

While “Goths” is inspired by that music, the album remains Darnielle’s mix of indie folk, rock and lo fi, albeit with a Gothic twist on the sound. The biggest change is that the album is completely free of guitar, with organ and piano filling in the melodic gaps where you might expect one. This creates an emphasis on the horns, bass and drums and makes the whole thing feel a bit more dark and moody.

A record like this could’ve easily resulted in a self-indulgent bunch of name dropping or – even worse - a bunch of novelty songs. Darnielle skillfully avoids both. This isn’t to say there isn’t name dropping, because there is a bunch. Sisters of Mercy’s Andrew Eldritch, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Smiths all get their moments. Even metal band “Motorhead” get an unexpected shout-out and on “Abandoned Flesh” Gene and Jezebel get special love. But because Darnielle weaves these bands into a narrative that is about his experience growing up with them, it never feels forced or awkward.

Instead it feels, heartfelt, like these bands were old friends that Darnielle grew up with; high-school pals he is looking back on with fondness. It’s the relationship that all music lovers have with their early influences, and how I still feel about Blue Oyster Cult, Alice Cooper and Iron Maiden.

The first four songs on the album are all amazing, and I started wondering if “Goths” would challenge for my favourite Mountain Goats album. This didn’t happen, with the middle of the album taking a slight step down in quality, but the step is slight. If anything, the songs just become that much more insular, as though thinking back on these songs about alienation push him a bit deeper into himself, creating songs with less compelling melodies, but that retain a deep emotional punch.

That’s because at their core, Goths back in the day were just like us metal heads; outsiders finding a community among each other. While we foolishly missed out on a whole bunch of other good music (including each other’s) it created a space in our developing psyches for a secure community that, once tempered with a bit of maturity, let us build bridges to other forms of music (and people) a few years later.

That connection between musical styles is what drives “Goths” so well. Darnielle’s high indie-style vocals mesh beautifully with gothic-inspire thumping bass riffs and hollow drums. You can almost feel your there alongside him, driving in a crappy old Pontiac Grand Am on “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement” or hitting night clubs after the show is over on “Rage of Travers”.

The Grey King…” has one of my favourite lines on the album with “I’m hardcore…but I’m not that hardcore.” We all want to be more hardcore than we are, or think back and imagine we once were. Darnielle’s willingness to poke gentle fun at his younger self trying to be cool really related and feels emotionally honest without becoming trite.

On “Stench of the Unburied” the synthesizer feels Cure-like, but it is used like a solo or a flourish to a Mountain Goats style folk song. On “Rage of Travers” the saxophone warbles notes here and there and makes it work. I admire anyone who can work in a saxophone and not wreck a song. Few people not named Clarence Clemons can make it work, but Darnielle succeeds.

And for all this thematic excellence, many of these songs are just damned catchy. The driving beat and Gothic chanting of “no…no no no” on “Rain in Soho” will make your head bob, and the swing beat on “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds” is infectious, and had me doing little two step dance moves on multiple occasions the last couple of days.

Whether in your youth you were a Goth, a metal head or something else entirely doesn’t matter. There was a time when musical discovery was happening to you for the first time, and “Goths” will bring you back to how that felt. What’s more, it will bring you back with some top-notch songwriting, as once again Darnielle takes a very personal experience and weaves a narrative that belongs to us all.

Best tracks: Rain in Soho, Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds, The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement, We Do it Different on the West Coast, Stench of the Unburied, Abandoned Flesh

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1042: John Prine

This is the fourth album from the 1990s I’ve reviewed in a row. Two of them I’ve owned for a long time and two (including this one) are recent additions to the collection.

Disc 1042 is…Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings
Artist: John Prine

Year of Release: 1995

What’s up with the Cover? The instantly recognizable art of John Callahan. While I found his TV show “Quads” pretty funny, I’ve never been a fan of Callahan’s art. This picture does little to change my opinion.

How I Came To Know It: I was doing a recent dive through John Prine’s back catalogue and this one caught my eye (ear?).

How It Stacks Up:  Since parting with “The Missing Years” back at Disc 1026, I now have five John Prine albums remaining. This one did much better and is a keeper, although it only managed to land 3rd or 4th overall, depending on how I feel about “Aimless Love” when I review it.

Ratings: 3 stars

John Prine’s early career is full of quiet and thoughtful folk and country songs, but 24 years on “Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings” he opts for a bit more rock and roll in the mix. The results are uneven.

First the good stuff. Prine’s songwriting continues to be solid, and while these are rhythms and melodies you will have heard countless times before, Prine knows how to use them well enough that you forgive the lack of originality on that front.

Lyrically, Prine has always been the king of self-examination, and on “Lost Dogs…” he focuses his wit on relationships, mostly of the long-term variety. There are a lot of love songs on this record that are so touching that they sometimes cross into trite.

When they stay on the right side of that line, they are touching and romantic. Twenty years earlier “All the Way With You” might have been about getting lucky down by the lake, but here Prine just reminds you that relationships are a slow build, and a commitment to keep at it not because you have to, but because you want to. It is an obvious theme, but when you hear him sing it, you still smile.

On “We Are the Lonely” Prine lists the many types of lonely out there in the world, including multiple hilarious references to the newspaper dating section. These now seem anachronistic yet strangely evocative of modern dating apps. When it comes to what it feels like to crave human companionship, the more things change, the more they stay the same – which is entirely Prine’s point.

We Are the Lonely” is also one of the songs where Prine “rocks out.” It isn’t terrible, but rock and roll is not Prine’s strong suit. He does succeed better here than later, though.  “Leave the Light On” is a painful and strained appeal to Chuck Berry fifties rock, which has more strained rhymes than I’ve ever heard in one place since “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. I suspect Prine revels in these bad rhymes, having never shaken that ‘goofy uncle’ vibe in his music.

Lake Marie” is a beautiful song and the album’s standout. It tells the story of Prine’s relationship with a lake, through its discovery, naming, romantic excursions there and then – in an unexpectedly morbid twist – a murder:

“The police had found two bodies
Their faces had been horribly disfigured
By some sharp object.”

These lines are more at home on an Opeth album, and a bit of a shocker given only a couple minutes earlier Prine was remembering grilling Italian sausages down by the lakeshore and cuddling his wife. This song should not work, but strangely, it does.

On “Humidity Built the Snowman” Prine writes a pretty melody, but the metaphor feels strained, as though he fell in love with the turn of phrase in the song title, and tried to build it into something more than it was worth.

Near the end of the record, “This Love Is Real” gives a nice surprise, with a guest vocal from Marianne Faithfull. I love Faithfull’s raspy hurt-filled voice. Prine has never been a strong singer, but here Faithfull’s vocals bring the best out in him. Also a nice surprise – heartbreaker Benmont Tench returns for another Prine album, lending his prodigious talents on the piano and organ.

For the second straight review, the album ended up being too long – this time 14 songs and 57 minutes. This is a common malaise among nineties albums, as artists realized they were no longer bound by the strict time limits of vinyl. The time limits are a good thing, 90s artists – respect them!

At times “Lost Dogs…” feels dated, but at other times it just feels experienced, with Prine embracing aging and the perspective it gives you on life, love and even lakeshore getaways.

Best tracks: Ain’t Hurtin’ Nobody, All the Way With You, We Are the Lonely, Lake Marie, This Love is Real

Monday, August 14, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1041: REM

This is the second album on the Odyssey entitled “Up” – the last one was Great Big Sea’s 1995 album, reviewed way back at Disc 374. No, they're not the same.

Disc 1041 is…Up
Artist: R.E.M.

Year of Release: 1998

What’s up with the Cover? This is what it would look like if R.E.M. was some kind of corporate entity. I imagine the offices of R.E.M. worldwide headquarters would have a lot of offices with frosted glass walls furnished with white molded chairs where staff could gather and discuss their corporate vision, maximize their synergy, and think outside the box. Yuck.

How I Came To Know It: I already liked R.E.M. when this album came out and I liked the single “Lotus” which got a modest amount of airplay on music video stations, so I took a chance and bought the record.

How It Stacks Up:  We have six R.E.M. albums, and I had originally reserved last place for “Up”. However, I ended up liking it enough that it knocked “Monster” down to sixth instead. Since this also represents the end of the R.E.M. journey on the Odyssey, here’s a recap:

  1. Automatic for the People: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 563)
  2. Life’s Rich Pageant: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 662)
  3. Document: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 544)
  4. Out of Time: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 145)
  5. Up: 2 stars (reviewed right here)
  6. Monster: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 1011)
Ratings: 2 stars but almost 3

Listening to R.E.M’s “Up” made me realize what a seminal band they are in the early development of what we now call “indie rock”. If you had never heard of R.E.M. and you heard this album, you’d think it was the first album by some modern indie band, not the 11th album by a bunch of rock legends. While “Up” isn’t their strongest effort, it still sounds fresh and current, nearly twenty years after its release.

The record feels softer around the edges than a lot of their earlier efforts, with fewer rock riffs, and more rounded out synthesizer sounds. Even Michael Stipe’s signature vocals are quieter, although they maintain their distinct mix of vibrato and angst.

There is a lot of soundscaping going on, with eastern rhythms mixed in with the lilt of western melodies. I like the mix of influences and the willingness to reject the boundaries of genre.

The songs have a majestic slow build, although at times there is a bit too much majesty and not enough movement, making things drag in places. I like a little drone for effect, but I wished they’d got on with it more often.

After a bit of a ponderous start that had me worried for the future, the single I bought the record for got me in the groove. “Lotus” has a lascivious guitar lick that would be at home on a Mudcrutch album, mixed with a pseudo R&B groove. It is a lot of fun with just the right amount of grit and grime.

While “Lotus” is an energetic rock song, the album mostly feels like it has been wrapped in a cozy blanket of regret. These songs are about how things are sad, but the sadness has an acceptance to it – part resignation and part wisdom, depending on whether you are feeling depressed or upbeat when you happen to be listening.

The best song is “Sad Professor,” which captures a character trapped in deep melancholy, made worse by their complete and total understanding of themselves. When Stipe sings:

“Everyone hates a sad professor
I hate where I wound up.”

You can feel the pain of the character knowing he’s letting people down, but who can no longer muster the energy needed to climb out of it.

Regrettably, while there are a few other poignant and emotionally engaging songs on the record, they are spread a bit too thin on a record that - at 64 minutes and 14 tracks – feels bloated. The overall quality of the record is solid, but when you are wallowing this deep, you need to come up for air a little more often or you lose the tension built up from holding your breath in the first place.

For all that, there are enough tracks on this record that I can’t see myself living without, so I’m keeping this one, warts and all.

Best tracks: Lotus, Sad Professor, Why Not Smile, Daysleeper, Falls to Climb

Sunday, August 13, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1040: Opeth

I’ve had a nice relaxing weekend chilling out with Sheila playing board games and recharging my batteries.

Disc 1040 is…Still Life
Artist: Opeth

Year of Release: 1999

What’s up with the Cover? A sad woman bemoans her fate at the edge of a mire. This cover is awesome and more than a little creepy – just check out the reflection of the cross in the water…

Also of note, this is a reissue on thick cardboard or pressboard, with great finishing details. Metal bands seem to be the only ones still putting out beautiful CD cases (I have another one from Cirith Ungol that’s of similar high quality). Keep it up – I appreciate it!

How I Came To Know It: I first heard Opeth years ago when my buddy Kelly played some for me. While I liked it, it didn’t register enough for me to seek them out. Then I saw them on a list of “Top 50 metal albums since 1970” for their 2005 album “Ghost Reveries”. I really liked “Ghost Reveries” and it caused me to start exploring their other albums. “Still Life” immediately stood out as one of the best.

How It Stacks Up:  Opeth has twelve studio albums, but I only have four of them. Of those four, it is a dead heat between “Still Life” and “Ghost Reveries” for top spot, but I’m going to go with “Still Life” at #1. I reserve the right to change my mind when I review “Ghost Reveries”.

Ratings: 4 stars but almost 5

Over their twenty year career, Opeth has never been afraid to let their sound evolve, starting with balls-out death metal riffs and slowly moving toward complex progressive soundscapes. “Still Life” is right in the middle of this transition, and represents the best of both worlds.

“Still Life” has it all. There are screaming guitar riffs for the traditional and thrash metal fans, double bass and guttural growls for the death metal enthusiasts and haunting, complex guitar picking for the progressive metal fans. It is a lot to pack into a single album, but Opeth has an uncanny knack to know just where to steer a song and not get lost in the process.

The driving force behind the band is singer, guitarist and songwriter Michael Akerfeldt. Akerfeldt. Akerfeldt is the embodiment of rage and fury when he is growl singing, but can also drop down into a normal singing voice that has a rich but haunting tone. When singing like this, he reminds me strongly of Tool’s Maynard James Keenan, only with more range.

When Akerfeldt breaks out the acoustic guitar he reminds me of a British folk singer. With its trilling melody and echoing, stripped down production, “Benighted” sounds like it would be equally at home at a Renaissance fair or the Wacken open air metal festival. It gives way to a gorgeous electric guitar solo that is almost jazz-like in its progressions, without ever crossing the line into wankery. Whether playing soft or hard, the guitar work on the record is exquisite.

“Still Life” is a concept album telling the story of someone returning to some kind of religious cult in order to reunite with his true love. She gets her throat slit and he gets hanged – the end. Hey, it’s a metal album and these things happen. Actually, they happen on folk albums as well.

The journey taking you through this sad tale contains only seven songs, but clocks in at over 60 minutes. Despite the length of both the songs and the overall record, it never drags. The musical shifts are perfectly placed to hold your interest. The record hits hard, then soft, then hard again, usually having multiple movements within each song.

There is a lot going on in “Still Life” and even though I gave it three successive listens over the last four days, I feel like I have only begun to plumb its depths.

For example, the intricate music and arrangements held my attention so completely the lyrics became almost an afterthought. However, a quick look at the (excellently arranged) liner notes had me wanting to delve in all over again and just focus on the words. “The Moor” opens with:

“The sigh of summer upon my return
Fifteen alike since I was here
Bathed in deep fog, blurring my trail
Snuffing the first morning rays.”

Pretty stuff, even more so considering English is their second language. The whole album has this natural narrative quality to it, like you are listening to an audio book as much as a metal album. Lines have strong alliterative qualities and natural caesuras that had me thinking of “Beowulf.” Later, on “Serenity Painted Death,” the lovely Melinda’s death is depicted in stark blood reds, pale white skin and the vacant fading stare of the dying. It is creepy but brilliant.

Serenity Painted Death” has all the musical elements of the album in one song – shredding traditional metal guitar combines with haunting acoustic playing to capture the narrator’s combination of rage and grief. It isn’t a happy tale, but it is a tale well told.

 I bought a couple more Opeth albums on Friday (“Blackwater Park” and “Watershed”) and while both were good, they seemed to be missing something. Then I realized they were solid records, and just suffering from comparisons to “Still Life”.

Best tracks: Hard to separate individual tracks out of the overall experience, but since you asked…The Moor, Benighted, Face of Melinda, Serenity Painted Death

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1039: Nirvana

After being inexplicably in the doldrums, I got to work this morning and started to feel energized and positive. I can’t credit this next album though. It is energized enough, but not exactly positive.

Disc 1039 is…In Utero
Artist: Nirvana

Year of Release: 1993

What’s up with the Cover? Ever wonder about the inner workings of the angels? Ever wish you hadn’t asked? This picture provides at least one piece of wisdom though – which is why you should never have a drinking competition with an angel: they have a hollow leg.

How I Came To Know It: My old roommate Greg introduced me to Nirvana. This was just me years later, finally admitting he had done me a good turn, even if I didn’t appreciate it at the time.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Nirvana albums. Of the four, I put “In Utero” in at number two, just behind “Nevermind” (reviewed way back at Disc 191).

Ratings: 4 stars

Oh, Nirvana, sometimes I wish I could just give all of you a great big hug, but maybe that would have just spoiled all the amazing music you made. “In Utero” is another example of exactly that. Building on the success of the classic “Nevermind,” “In Utero” showed that despite a career cut short by Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Nirvana’s brilliance was no fluke.

Once again, Nirvana manages to seamlessly blend punk, metal and classic rock sensibilities that at the time we all liked to call “grunge.” Actually, that’s what it’s called; just because the movement eschewed having commercial labels applied to it, doesn’t mean they weren’t there. It’s called grunge.

You don’t find a band that is more loaded with self-loathing, sadness and futile rage than Nirvana, and “In Utero” just adds to that canon of despair. Advancing through the album you’ll hear the band invite themselves to be raped (“Rape Me”), invoke the long-dead ghosts of mentally ill film stars (“Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle”) and express confusion over whether they are dumb, happy or just some kind of confused fraud pretending to understand the difference (“Dumb”).

“In Utero” is even crunchier than “Nevermind” and while it doesn’t have the primal fury of their earliest release - 1989’s “Bleach” - it more than makes up for that with more thoughtful song structures and range. The album is equally at home with crunch-riddled songs like “Scentless Apprentice” and “Frances Farmer…” and soft almost acoustic numbers like “All Apologies.” On masterpieces like “Rape Me” they combine both elements; alternating hard and soft as they deftly show internal turmoil, quietly bubbling away until it bursts in an explosion of musical fury.  

This is music for the disaffected, disenfranchised youth of the early nineties (Full disclosure: I was both, but chose folk music as my emotional outlet in the day). For those who chose grunge, it was easy to latch onto Nirvana. Kurt Cobain’s lyrics speak out against the mouth-breathers of the world, best expressed on “All Apologies” as:

“I wish I was like you
Easily amused.”

His vocal style is the perfect match to this disconnected experience: half growl, half strangled cry, and yet strangely gifted at carrying the tune. And that is Nirvana’s secret: underneath all the growl and guitar feedback, the bones of these songs are beautiful melodically. They crunch along with a punk edge, but they also have a mournful lilt to them that draws you in by both the guts and the heart.

I don’t put this album on that often, but listening to it for the last couple of days I can’t think of a good reason why not. It is chock-full of fast-paced, brilliantly constructed rock and roll, with a liberal dose of teeth-gritted frustration. Maybe it is the latter that put me off – sometimes you just don’t want to feel bad. But listening to it this time, “In Utero” didn’t make me feel bad at all, it just give me an outlet to shake all that negative energy out of me.

It is sad that while Cobain gave this emotional outlet to so many people, he could never shout out his own demons, leaving us too soon, with all his future masterpieces unwritten. Luckily, before that happened he gave us one last moment of brilliance with “In Utero.”

Best tracks: Scentless Apprentice, Heart-Shaped Box, Rape Me, Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle, Dumb, All Apologies

Sunday, August 6, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1038: Alice Cooper

There’s nothing better than waking up on a Sunday and realizing that you are only mid-way through your long weekend.

After a fruitless day of shopping for my dream car (so close…) last night I got to spend some quality time with friends listening to music, which made it all better. I wanted to get a song off this next album onto one of my playlists but couldn’t quite manage it.

Disc 1038 is…Paranormal
Artist: Alice Cooper

Year of Release: 2017

What’s up with the Cover? A two-headed Alice Cooper. Alice probably thinks this cover is cool, but it is actually silly and a little dated. The booklet features a bunch more pictures from this ill-fated photo shoot, where Alice tries to look edgy and scary. Thankfully the music makes up for the bad cover art.

How I Came To Know It: I’ve known and loved Alice Cooper all my life, and this was just me buying his latest album. I purchased it the day it came out after a day of fretting the music store wouldn’t have it in yet. They did.

How It Stacks Up:  I have all 27 of Alice Cooper’s studio albums (plus one weird compilation album I’ve since sold). “Paranormal” comes in at a solid #13 on that list.

When I reviewed Dirty Diamonds back at Disc 1003 I ranked all the albums, not realizing he was about to break his six year studio silence. That’s OK – here’s the list again for those of you who missed it – now with “Paranormal” bumping “Dirty Diamonds” down one spot, along with everything beneath it:

  1. Billion Dollar Babies: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 228)
  2. Love it to Death: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 604)
  3. From the Inside: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 99)
  4. Welcome To My Nightmare: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 449)
  5. Killer: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 429)
  6. Muscle of Love: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 357)
  7. Alice Cooper Goes to Hell: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 447)
  8. Da Da: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 18)
  9. School’s Out: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 406)
  10. Lace and Whiskey: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 180)
  11. The Last Temptation: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 710)
  12. Dragontown: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 950)
  13. Paranormal: 3 stars (reviewed right here)
  14. Dirty Diamonds: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1003)
  15. Along Came a Spider: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 164)
  16. Zipper Catches Skin: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 355)
  17. Flush the Fashion: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 264)
  18. Special Forces: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 354)
  19. Constrictor: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 89)
  20. Raise Your Fist and Yell: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 286)
  21. Easy Action: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 444)
  22. Pretties for You: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 152)
  23. Hey Stoopid: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 345)
  24. Trash: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 343)
  25. Welcome 2 My Nightmare: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 956)
  26. Brutal Planet: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 833)
  27. The Eyes of Alice Cooper: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 439)
  28. Science Fiction: 1 star (reviewed at Disc 661)
Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

“Paranormal” features two songs co-written and performed with the original Alice Cooper band, which is fitting given how this album bridges the gap between Cooper’s early work and his more recent sound.

The record has the clean post-metal production that Cooper has preferred on his last three or four records, crossed with some of the hard rock weirdness of his early career. Producer Bob Ezrin (who was the mastermind behind that early sound) returns to steer the production again. Ezrin’s previous record, 2011’s “Welcome 2 My Nightmare” fell a little short, but here he seems to get exactly how to take a more mature Alice Cooper and make him creepy again.

The title track starts things off well, with an unsettling guitar riff crossed played quietly, then juxtaposed against a flourish of sound. It is a song that is triumphant in the way a group of cultists would cheer bringing Cthulhu into the world: exultant but more than a little wrong.

Cooper is now almost 70 years old, but his voice on “Paranormal” sound as good as anything he’s done in the past 15 years. It is amazing what not drinking or smoking can do for the survival of your vocal chords.

The next track, “Dead Flies” keeps up that throwback feel, with a song that feels like it could have easily appeared on the original “Welcome to My Nightmare” released back in 1975.

After that, Cooper goes into a metal mood, with “Fireball,” an apocalyptic vision with a pounding beat that demands to be heard while driving (but which will have to wait, while my car search continues).

Paranoic Personality” is a bit too Nu Metal for me, and worse reminded me strongly of that old In Living Colour song “Cult of Personality” only not as good, making the Cooper song stale by comparison.

Disc One ends with “The Sound of A” which is a soft and atmospheric number that is a throwback to Cooper’s early work, and just as good.  Never have I felt more unsettled by a song about a musical note. I was unsurprised to find that original bassist Dennis Dunaway co-wrote and played on the song.

“Paranormal” is a two-disc affair, and Cooper makes some odd decisions on how to divide things up. Disc One features 10 new songs, and Disc Two has two new songs (both performed with his old band) and then six classic tracks performed live at a 2016 show in Columbus. I would have preferred all 12 new songs on one disc, and the live disc as a separate feature.

The two news on Disc Two are two of the better tracks. “Genuine American Girl” is another Cooper song that blurs the lines on sexual identity in the same spirit as previous efforts like “Mary Ann,” “The Saga of Jesse Jane”, “No Man’s Land” and “Prettiest Cop on the Block” among others.

You and All of Your Friends” features a bit of a muddier seventies sound, fueled again, in large part by having the original band add their talents to the mix. Long-time fans of Alice Cooper who have been waiting impatiently for this reunion will not be disappointed.

When I saw six live tracks of his classic hits I cringed a little, not wanting another version of songs like “Under My Wheels”, “No More Mr. Nice Guy” and “Only Women Bleed” that I’ve heard a hundred times before. I was wrong, however. Cooper nails every single one of these. Even “Feed My Frankenstein” sounds great, with Cooper in full throat and his current band going all out. These tracks reminded me how great Alice Cooper is live, even here in the latter stages of his career. They also reminded me how good his current backing band is.

“Paranormal” may come forty-eight years after Alice Cooper’s first album, but it shows he’s lost nothing over the years. The influences of his old band and producer serve to rejuvenate his sound, and capture some of the early magic, while avoiding becoming pale imitations in the process. In short, Alice Cooper is back, and we’re still not worthy.

Best tracks: Paranormal, Private Public Breakdown, The Sound of A, Genuine American Girl, You and all of Your Friends

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1037: Patti Smith

At 30 degrees it was a hot walk home, and while I enjoyed the heat more than I usually do it wore me out a bit. I had to take a nap before I could give this next album the energy and attention it deserved.

Disc 1037 is…Dream of Life
Artist: Patti Smith

Year of Release: 1988

What’s up with the Cover? Patti Smith in what appears to be a jungle, or maybe just a backyard. Hard to tell. She looks very earnest and soulful, with hands artfully placed. Fun fact: this picture was taken by famed photographer Robert Maplethorpe.

How I Came To Know It: Sheila bought me a couple of earlier Patti Smith albums for Christmas a few years back. I loved them both, so when I saw a boxed set of her first five records (including “Dream of Life”) I snapped it up.

How It Stacks Up:  I have five Patti Smith albums and they are all amazing. This makes competition tough, and the best “Dream of Life” could manage was fourth.

Ratings: 4 stars

By the time Patti Smith released “Waves” in 1979 Patti Smith had become famous as a punk, poet and musical prophet. After an almost ten year gap with no new albums, this legacy would have been a lot to live up to. Despite all this pressure, “Dream of Life” is a return to form, reminding anyone who might have forgotten what an artistic force Smith is.

It would have been easy to overreach on this record, or to have it feel dated and stale, but Smith avoids both fates. The punk edge has been rounded out, but the album is still infused with vigor and restless energy. This is an album that shows ten years of maturity, but retains Smith’s revolutionary spirit at its core.

Smith’s vocals remain low and controlled, occasionally switching to introspective spoken word but for the most part full and deep in the throat with a more lyrical and smooth singing style than her earlier work. Her vocals give the songs an anthemic quality, like you are in some dark temple, having the hidden truths of the universe revealed to you.

Much of the album feels upbeat and hopeful, evidenced most obviously on the opening track “People Have the Power.” With its insistent beat and Smith climbing up the majestic melody of the chorus, you feel like there isn’t any social or political problem too big if we all just stand together.

On “Where Duty Calls” she even manages to tackle conflict in the Middle East in a way that makes all the players in that cycle of violence human first, and any other division a distant second. As Smith sees it:

“Forgive them Father
They know not what they do
From the vast portals
of their consciousness
they're calling to you”

Paths That Cross” further demonstrates the strength of community that weaves its way through the record, and the faith Smith puts in connectivity. When Smith sings:

“Speak to me heart, all things renew
hearts will mend, round the bend
Paths that cross will cross again
Paths that cross will cross again”

She comforts you that things will get better, even as she calls on her own inner strength to convince herself of the same. She’s vulnerable, but certain that things will get better.

This record made me feel hopeful  and joyous, without denying the doubts that are a necessary part of true and honest contemplation. The resolute conviction of her youth remains, even though her anger has been replaced with a core of optimism that somehow we’re all gonna get through this.

My copy of the album has two bonus tracks not on the original album, but both fit well thematically, and with them the album remains a tastefully restrained 10 tracks and 51 minutes long. The songs are in a different order from the original vinyl as well, but again, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment.

In 1988 so much music felt artificial and empty, but Smith bucks the trend with a record that feels raw and real. "Dream of Life" reminds us that it is never too late for a comeback, and never too late to believe in a better world.

Best tracks: People Have the Power, Up There Down There, Paths That Cross, Going Under, The Jackson Song

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1036: The Shins

It’s been over four years since I’ve reviewed an album by this next band and five since they’ve put something out. It was a solid return, and after experiencing a bit of bad luck on albums released in 2017, a welcome upturn in quality.

Disc 1036 is…Heartworms
Artist: The Shins

Year of Release: 2017

What’s up with the Cover? A hot mess of flowers, 8-bit font and a skeleton with what I think is a heart full of worms. The artist is someone called Jacob Escobedo, who is clearly not familiar with the expression “know when to say when.”

How I Came To Know It: I like the Shins, so this was just me buying their new release when it came out and hoping for the best. Finally, it paid off. Great – that’s just going to encourage me.

How It Stacks Up:  We have five Shins albums, which I believe is all of them. Of those five, I rank “Heartworms” fourth, displacing “Oh, Inverted World” in the process.

And while it has been over four years since my last Shins review this is once again the final album in my collection. Let’s recap how they stack up again: 
  1. Winging the Night Away: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 366)
  2. Chutes Too Narrow:  4 stars (reviewed at Disc 496)
  3. Port of Morrow: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 442)
  4. Heartworms: 3 stars (reviewed right here)
  5. Oh, Inverted World: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 22).
Ratings: 3 stars

The Shins don’t make albums very often, but when they do they tend to come back with a refreshed sound that makes you wish they wouldn’t stay away so long. So it is with “Heartworms” which didn’t grab me on my first listen, but got better and better each subsequent time through.

There are some standard features that span all Shins albums, and those are James Mercer’s high and airy vocals, his innate ability to write catchy pop melodies, and his bravery to give those melodies all manner of crazy studio treatments.

“Heartworms” takes this to a new level, layering synthesizer sounds, backup singers and a joyful busyness that reminded me of Manchester sound of the eighties and nineties. Usually this style doesn’t inspire me, and more often than not all that layered sound is just annoying.

Here, I wouldn’t change a thing. There is a lot going on, but Mercer has the good sense to keep his own vocals high in the mix so even if you’re getting distracted with all the beeps, boings and whirrs, you can always cling to his voice until you find your bearings again. By the third listen you know the songs sufficiently to let yourself drift in them, picking up the many and varied sounds that, when stitched together, make up the complexity of the album.

The opening tracks were OK, but they also sounded like what I imagine you’ll hear on alt-rock radio on a Thursday afternoon. The song that first grabbed my attention was “Fantasy Island,” a lovely homage to the seventies TV show, wrapped in a mix of synth-pop and Caribbean rhythms. Mercer knows how to back off on the production here and there, letting the song strip down, before he loads the sounds back in, creating a swell like the waves on a tropical beach. He also shows a talent for turning a phrase, my favourite being:

“I’ve always had something to hide
My skinny arms, my evil intentions
And back at school hitting the fire alarms
Desperately wanting attention.”

This is followed up by the (comparatively) stripped down “Mildenhall” which tells the tale of Mercer having to move with his family to an RAF base in England. Here he struggles to find good streets for his skateboard, but discovers guitar (and based on the album’s sound, some English pop music as well). This song had me thinking of eighties Kinks as well, with Mercer telling a story that reminded me strongly of “Come Dancing” without feeling derivative.

The album has a throwback quality to it, with Mercer exploring the things that shaped him, and the music that influenced him. While it isn’t all garlands and roses, the album’s tone is primarily celebratory and upbeat, and it put me in a positive mindset.

Dead Alive” and “Heartworms” both have the early Shins’ signature meandering melodies, and while I enjoyed both songs (particularly “Heartworms”) I didn’t mind it when Mercer lets things get a bit busier than normal either.

 “So Now What” is a touching love song. It is about what it is like to be with the same person for a long time and finding yourself wondering what you’re going to do next, and then realizing you just want to continue the journey with that person. I can relate.

There are times when the album lost me, but those times were rare. Most of the time I was either happy to float on the soup of sound, or catch the melody and let it pull me through the experience.

The Shins don’t put albums out very often, but when they do it is clear a lot of thought has gone into them, discovering new directions to their sound without losing the core of who they are. “Heartworms” is a worthy entry into their discography.

Best tracks: Fantasy Island, Mildenhall, Heartworms, So Now What

Saturday, July 29, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1035: Don Henley

I’m in the middle of a lovely long weekend, filled with social engagements with the people I love. Today began with a game of Ultimate and then brunch, but now I’m home and I’ve just awakened from a restorative afternoon nap. Things don’t get much better.

Disc 1035 is…Building the Perfect Beast
Artist: Don Henley

Year of Release: 1984

What’s up with the Cover? Mock him if you must, but chances are you had a similar haircut, and owned a similar blazer.

How I Came To Know It: I knew this music growing up but I never much liked any of the hits I heard on the radio and stayed well away. Sheila felt differently – this one is hers.

How It Stacks Up:  We have two Don Henley albums, this and “End of the Innocence” which I bought. Unsurprisingly, of the two I prefer “End of the Innocence.”

Ratings: 2 stars

“Building the Perfect Beast” is a bad combination of songs I don’t like that I’ve had to hear too many times. I try to be fair, but the combination inclines me toward hurtful words.

Mid-eighties pop means you’re going to get synthesizers, horn solos (usually saxophone) and insubstantial drums that sound like they’re being played inside a tin can. Asking mid-eighties pop to not be these things is unrealistic.

While these things aren’t my favourite sounds there are plenty of albums that did a better job of managing these maladies in 1984. Bruce Springsteen overcame it on “Born in the USA” and Prince released “Purple Rain” that year. Even albums well out of my wheelhouse like Howard Jones’ “Human’s Lib” managed to win me over.

Don Henley did not win me over. Mostly, he sounded like a schmaltzy old guy, trying to be soulful, and while he approaches his sound from a lot of different angles, few of them are good ones.

Having said all this, “Boys of Summer” finally appealed to me after many years. This song was horribly overplayed back in the eighties, and as a teenage metal head, I loathed it with a fathomless fury. With a bit of distance and perspective, I now see it is a pretty solid song, which captures the memory of a romantic summer fling (the best of flings) with sincerity and style. I don’t love it like a lot of people, but at least I can now admit it is a good song.

The rest of this album mostly annoyed me. The other hits range from the saccharine but inoffensive “Not Enough Love in the World” to “All She Wants to Do Is Dance” which remains to this day one of my most hated songs. From its drum-machine beats, to the synthesizer that sounds like someone forcing a fart, nothing about this song is pleasant. Every other line is “all she wants to do is dance” balanced against what I think is Henley’s attempt at political commentary. It is supposed to provide juxtaposition, but the only position it elicited from me was one where my hands were covering my ears.

Rounding out the singles we have “Down at the Sunset Grill,” a bloated six minute monster filled with random bells and a piano piece that sounded like it was being played by an angry drunk who’s commandeered the hotel lounge’s baby grand. There is also a never-ending solo of what I think is a trumpet. Turning to the liner notes, it turns out I was right to be confused, as it was played by something called a “synthesizer guitar (horn)”. It chills my blood that such a monstrosity ever existed.

As for the deep cuts, there isn’t much on offer here either. Henley loves to turn a phrase, but he tends to think they are cleverer than they actually are. “You Can’t Make Love” and “You’re Not Drinking Enough” are both songs filled with examples of these, where the lyrics feel stilted and the songs aren’t interesting enough to overcome it.

The one nice surprise was “A Month of Sundays,” which is a Springsteen-esque song about a man who worked building farm equipment, then became a farmer himself, only to find himself squeezed out by large corporations and tough economic times. The song is driven by a restrained piano piece (played ably by Heartbreaker Benmont Tench). While there is way too much atmospheric synth going on, Henley makes the most of it with heartfelt lyrics and an honest delivery.

Despite this late-album success, there wasn’t much else to recommend on “Building the Perfect Beast” and plenty of songs that downright annoyed me. I give this album two synthesizer farts, played on a ‘synthesizer guitar (horn)’.

Best tracks: The Boys of Summer, A Month of Sundays