Friday, July 11, 2008

365 Albums - Week 3

15. Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind - After being pleasantly surprised by Blonde on Blonde, I thought I'd give Dylan another go. And again, I was quite taken by his work. Released as recently as 1997, many critics consider this album one of his best. His voice is noticeably raspier, taking away some of the nasal half-talking style that I like imitating in my spare time. It's also very melancholy. However, Dylan has this way of constructing his songs that showcase his poetry and arrangements without making his own voice the center of everything. If one is able to focus on the words and music without distracting themselves with preconceived notions about this or that, I think there's a good chance that they can better appreciate Dylan...just as I have been able to do.

"Love Sick" carries a double meaning as Dylan sings, "
I'm sick of love; I wish I'd never met you/I'm sick of love; I'm trying to forget you." The singer is simultaneously sick with feelings for someone, and sick of feelings for someone - he wants to forget how much he wants to be with her. The title of "Standing in the Doorway" alludes to the moment when the singer was left alone by the one he loves, and he spends the rest of the song wrestling with how he feels about her after she's gone. On "' Til I Fell in Love with You," he sings, "I was all right, 'til I fell in love with you," implying that he thought he had life all figured out until she came along. This album is a celebration of love almost as much as it is a lament of love lost.

With every album and every song, I grow to like Dylan more and more.

16. Sarah McLachlan, Afterglow - I liked Sarah McLachlan before most others did. Yeah, that's right. I saw the video for "Possession" a couple times on VH1, and liked the song immediately. In fact, I kept waiting for them to show it again so I could remember the title and artist and find the album. As it turned out, they didn't seem to show it very much at all, but I nevertheless tracked down Fumbling Toward Ecstasy. Shortly after, I tracked down Solace and Touch as well, though I never enjoyed them as much as Fumbling. I only knew one other person with knowledge of McLachlan's existence at that point. Then she organized Lilith Fair and suddenly everyone else liked her, too. After that, her music wasn't the same for me. "Angel" was played constantly to my annoyance, although I did like a few other singles off of her big breakthrough, Surfacing. All things considered, I should have tracked that one down instead of this one.

Don't get me wrong. McLachlan is a talented songwriter and musician. And I did enjoy the first half of Afterglow. "Fallen" is the song people will probably recognize from this CD, and is about dealing with past regrets. I'd actually heard a different, more ethereal version of "World on Fire" on a Chillout compilation, but the original is good, too. "Drifting" is all about someone who has achieved fame, and tries to use it to hide the emptiness at their core.

It was around track six that I thought, "Ah, another piano ballad. Fantastic." And sure enough, at least four of the five remaining tracks are slower, piano-driven songs. And I became bored. I don't listen to Fumbling Towards Ecstasy that much any more, but I'm sure that revisiting it now that I'm not as into her music will reveal that, indeed, there are a bunch more piano ballads on that one as well. Again, McLachlan is talented, but I'm just not into her stuff nowadays. It's no longer her popularity that is to blame. It's just that her music, like it probably has been all along, is slower, softer fare that I can only tolerate for so long. Had there been more variety on this album, I probably wouldn't have much to complain about.

17. The Roots, Things Fall Apart - The Roots are a critically-acclaimed hip-hop "band" that I've never heard before. I'd been meaning to for some time, and this was as good a time as any. I was fascinated to read the album insert as I listened, not because it contains the lyrics, but because it contains explanations and backstory for every song. The album as a whole is solid: strong MCs with guests such as Eve, Mos Def, and Erykah Badu against a backdrop of drum loops and live musicians playing a jazz-soul style. I've read that this is a more laid-back album than some of their others, so I'll be interested to find those. This, however, is considered their break-through release.

On "Act Won (Things Fall Apart)," we hear sample dialogue from the movie Mo Better Blues (which I admittedly have never seen) where Denzel Washington is critiquing black culture and music. We then hear Wesley Snipes...ahem...snipe back, saying, "If we just put out strong material, everything will take care of itself." On the insert, it is explained that this is the basic argument heard about a lot of traditionally black music: one side says that they create it and excel at it, then allow white culture to take it over, while the other side argues that if they give people what they want, it'll just work out. The insert blurb concludes by asking, "But what would happen if we gave 'em what they need? Hmmmmm..."

That's how I experienced this album. It seems to be a more cerebral style of hip-hop than a lot of the stuff that is popular today. As one listens and reads along in the insert, it becomes apparent that that's what they were going for.

18. The Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way - Before this album came out, the Dixie Chicks had become the poster children for the "entertainers should keep their opinions to themselves unless you're Toby Keith" crowd when feisty lead singer Natalie Maines told a British audience that she was ashamed of Dubya. In fact, this one comment produced such a backlash that it was hard for a while to find their CDs in some stores or hear their music on the radio - corporations worried that guilt by association would hurt their bottom line. I was even somewhat surprised to find this one at my local library.

I'm not a big country music person, but after hearing "Not Ready to Make Nice" a while back I figured I'd make an exception. "Not Ready..." is all about the backlash the group experienced, where they wonder out loud how their comments could possibly invite death threats and whether they'll be able to forgive and/or forget. The Chicks even crank it up a notch on "Lubbock or Leave It" where they sing of the hypocrisy of the Bible Belt ("Throwin' stones from the top of your rock thinkin' no one can see/The secrets you hide behind your Southern hospitality"). Of course, the Chicks aren't angry through the entire album. Consider "Silent House," a song written to a relative with Alzheimer's and the memories they shared. "Voice Inside My Head" wonders out loud about the "what-if" guy. "Baby Hold On" is an assurance that a married couple can still enjoy each other as they get older and begin to raise children.

All in all, the Dixie Chicks are still very much a country group. They just don't do what country groups are expected to do, and that drives a lot of people nuts.

19. Relient K, Five Score and Seven Years Ago - I owned a Relient K t-shirt before I ever heard one note of their music. Coffeewife and her sister went to a big Christian festival that they hold every summer at King's Island, and she meant to get me a Five Iron Frenzy shirt. Alas, they were out of FIF shirts, so she arbitrarily got me a Relient K shirt instead. Meanwhile, she got her picture taken with FIF lead singer Reese Roper. This shirt of a band that I had never heard was my consolation prize.

A few years later, at my brother's urging, we went to a more local Christian music festival specifically to see Relient K, as he had really gotten into them. In preparation, I was finally able to listen to one of their CDs (I want to say Two Lefts Don't Make a Right). The show itself was excellent as well. I could finally call myself a fan...and I already had the shirt.

Now that you have the backstory, this CD was good in some places and caused me to raise an eyebrow in others. Relient K plays a flavor of pop-punk that, while it is quite commercial, doesn't cater solely to teenage girls (*coughPlainWhiteT'scough*). Songs like "Come Right Out and Say It," "The Best Thing," and "Bite My Tongue" are vintage Relient K: fast-paced, guitar-grinding, and the lyrics can actually be interpreted in more than one way depending on how much stock you want to put into their Christian-ness. A few other songs are more sappy and obviously about relationships: "I Must Have Done Something Right" has the vomit-inducing line, "We should get jerseys 'cause we make a great team," while "I'm Taking You With Me" has the equally syrupy "If home is where the heart is then my home is where you are."

Then there are the more blatant Christian songs which, if nothing else, could be good conversation-starters. On "Forgiven," we get this line: "'Cause we're all guilty of the same things/We think the thoughts whether or not we see them through." It's an interesting take on human nature and sin, if not an outright interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount.

I had more problems with "Deathbed," sung from the point of view of someone who has smoked and drank himself nearly to death and is now reflecting on his bad choices. Then Jesus comes to him and reminds him of the night he asked for forgiveness, and while he still dies he lives happily ever after. The theology in this song is the simplistic take on Christology, salvation, and forgiveness typical in many corners of Christianity. The act of acceptingJesusChristasyourpersonalLordandSavior is portrayed as a one-shot, cover-all type of moment that instantly transports you from God's "Naughty" to "Nice" list instead of a life-long transformational process. The song mentions that the night this guy prayed, he was contrite. Okay, what happened the next morning? Did he seek help, pick up another bottle, ask Jesus to stay with him and help him get better? Was there any follow-up or growth process after that? There's no indication of that here...Jesus just reminds him of some night a while back when he did this, so everything's A-OK. This sounds like I'm arguing one form of "getting saved" over another, but my bigger concern is what role faith and forgiveness truly play in this theological viewpoint. It doesn't seem very transformational to me; like there's no lasting change or growth other than somebody's "Get Out of Hell Free" card got stamped. Bonhoeffer called it cheap grace. I'll call it that, too.

All right, enough of that. Most of the album is fine.

20. The Black Keys, Attack & Release - The Black Keys are from Akron, in case you didn't know (one of their albums, Rubber Factory, was recorded in a rubber factory in Akron, which has a few to spare). But they've built enough of a reputation with their blues-stomp sound. Previous albums have had a pretty straightforward way about them: dirty guitar riffs over heavy drums. On this one, they're branching out a little. First, they've employed the production skills of Danger Mouse. The result is the presence of synthesizers and voice effects, among other things. After so long with the same formula, it was time to explore new avenues. The basics are still there. Now there's just more added.

The album is more polished than previous ones, that's for sure. "Strange Times" may be the song people recognize if they listen to the right radio stations (read: something other than pop/rock and their 12-song playlists), reflecting on what mobs will follow and worrying about what comes next. One effect on "Psychotic Girl" sounds like when Pac-Man gets eaten by a ghost, which is out of place on a Black Keys album. Other songs feature some instrumental additions that work better, such as the banjo on "I Got Mine" or the flute on "Same Old Thing." But when Danger Mouse gets a little too electronics-happy, that's when the Keys' sound suffers the most. I'm all for branching out and all that, but freaking Pac-Man, dude? Save it for your next Gnarls Barkley project.

21. Zero7, When It Falls - When I first heard "This World" a few years ago, I rushed out and found Zero7's album Simple Things. This is their 2004 follow-up, with more of the same: airy melodies, the slow rhythm of a drum machine, and soulful singing, all of which blend a classic jazz sound with more modern chillout sensibilities. I found this one to be even more laid-back than Simple Things, if that's even possible.

I really don't have much more to write about this one, honestly. I think I used up most of my words for previous albums that I heard this week. I find Zero7 in general to be a group that I turn to when I'm feeling mellow. The difference between them and McLachlan's ballads is that the former employs enough variant tricks that every song doesn't sound the same.

Album of the Week: Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind
Song of the Week: Zero7, "The Space Between"
Lyric of the Week:
" When you think that you've lost everything, you find out you can always lose a little more." - Bob Dylan, "Trying to Get to Heaven"