Friday, July 25, 2008

365 Albums - Week 5

29. Joss Stone, Introducing Joss Stone - I remember the first time I heard Joss Stone. It was on some VH1 concert show paying tribute to female artists, and she did a cover of The White Stripe's "Fell in Love with a Girl" (except she'd altered "girl" to "boy") in a '60s/'70s R&B style. I think she was only 17 or so when that happened, but she had some powerful pipes and knew how to carry herself. I liked her style. This is her third album, filled with that same R&B/soul sound that I'd heard in that first listen.

The music, first off, is probably what I like the most. There's a certain modernization of the classic sounds she's obviously inspired by, with almost a hip-hop feel to some of these songs. Common appears on "Tell Me What We're Gonna Do Now," celebrating a relationship and wondering what more they can do together. "Bruised But Not Broken" was inspired by the death of a friend, reflecting that even through the pain of grief, one needs to carry on. The lead single, "Tell Me 'Bout It," asks a loved one to share what he's thinking.

As I said, I like the music and the overall style, including Stone's voice. But while I've tried to back off on overanalyzing lyrics for this thing, there sure are a lot of "ooh baby"s and "I wanna be with you/love you/can't live without you/fill-in-the-blank you"s and other lovey-dovey stuff that we've heard a million times. They're crafted to fit the style, but it's still a lot of the same in that department.

30. Wilco, Summerteeth - I didn't know what to expect from Wilco, as I'd only heard of them, not actually heard their music. For some reason, I went ahead and assumed that it'd be a basic indie/alternative kind of sound. That'll teach me to assume things. On Summerteeth, I hear a little Radiohead (only even less radio-friendly) and a little Beatles (I was thinking McCartney in particular, but they cite Lennon as an influence) and a little Beach Boys (yes...Beach Boys). They can be spacey, country, moody, driven, light, name it, it probably shows up somewhere. I loved that about this album.

I didn't like what sounded like a cheap Casio keyboard on a few of their songs. I quickly learned to expect quirky, but this element was just silly. For me, it took away from their otherwise excellent and diverse experimental sound. That was the only thing that I really didn't like on this CD. Having said that...

31. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - I ended up with two of their albums this week, setting myself up for a crash course in Wilco. I like this one even better. The music is stronger, though no less creative and variant. I'm guessing that not everyone will "get" Wilco. That may already be evidenced by their record sales. Not that commercial success is any true indicator of what constitutes good music...if that were the case, then Britney Spears is an artistic genius.

Both musically and lyrically, Wilco is a more "heady" band. I just let the whole package wash over me, especially with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot...I didn't even look at the lyrics until after the fact. By doing that, I could truly hear "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" as the story of a conflicted relationship that it was. I could truly hear "Radio Cure" as the story of two depressed people. I couldn't have done that just by reading the lyrics or if each song had been more typical of what gets played on the radio.

32. Death Cab for Cutie, Plans - I think I'd heard maybe two songs from this band before picking up this album. The first, "I Will Follow You into the Dark," is on this album...I think I saw the video on VH1 a couple times. The second, "I Will Possess Your Heart," is their latest single that has been playing on the radio. "I Will Follow You into the Dark" in particular reminded me a little of The Decemberists: the song, acoustic and melancholy, is very similar to what you'll hear on a Decemberists album. That, and Ben Gibbard kind of looks like Colin Meloy, right down to the thick-rimmed glasses.

I am now a full-fledged fan of Death Cab for Cutie. The stories that Ben Gibbard tells in this album are amazing. Just listen to "What Sarah Said," chronicling that agonizing final wait in a hospital waiting room before he remembers what Sarah said: "love is watching someone die." Think about it. "Brothers on a Hotel Bed" uses a great metaphor to describe the growing distance between people losing their feelings for each other. "Summer Skin" is about a romance that only lasts as long as the season. The music besides is a softer rock many songs are driven by piano or acoustic guitar as a slightly harder electric arrangement. Maybe it struck me in just the right way on a particular morning, but I think it was simply the right combination of lyrical imagery and music.

33. Black Sabbath, Paranoid - Black Sabbath is frequently credited as being one of the pioneers of what would become known as heavy metal. Formerly more of a blues band, one can still hear hints of that sound on this, one of their most heralded albums. Most will probably be familiar with "War Pigs," "Paranoid," and "Iron Man." They may not know that those are the names of the songs ("Iron Man" excepted), but they've probably heard them on many a classic rock station, because classic rock stations only really play three songs from each band that was popular in the '70s ad nauseum. Seriously. Would it kill classic rock DJs to play a Led Zeppelin song other than "Black Dog" or "The Ocean?" Maybe a Pink Floyd song besides "The Wall Part 2" or "Money?"

It's actually due to hearing some of these Sabbath songs so many times that I sort of dreaded listening to this album. In fact, I'll own up to the belief that "Iron Man" is one of the most overplayed, overrated classic rock songs ever. How many times do I have to hear that riff in commercials, TV shows, or movies wherever a cheap allusion can be made? And the way that Ozzy's singing is just laid overtop of that riff just grates my ears.

The rest of the album--both the stuff that gets played constantly and the stuff that never gets played--actually shows why this album deserves the accolades that it gets. To sit down and truly listen to "War Pigs" and give full attention to all eight minutes of the guitar work, the lyrics critical of those who send people off to war, the way the band doesn't cut corners, was something I greatly appreciated. Then you have "Planet Caravan," a softer, subtler piece featuring congas and eerie voice effects that turned out to be my favorite of the album, and "Rat Salad," featuring an extended drum solo. Of course, neither of these are played on the radio. We have to listen to "Iron Man" a few hundred more times instead.

34. Beck, The Information - This is typical Beck: hip-hop drum tracks, his vocals alternating between rapping and singing, and a variety of instruments interwoven through all of it. It's certainly not a bad album by any means - it's actually quite good. "Think I'm in Love" stands out with the line, "I think I'm in love, but it makes me kind of nervous to say so." "Landslide/Exoskeleton" starts out well, but then degenerates into some kind of conversation that I wasn't especially interested in and that I found annoying.

Beck always delivers. I enjoy his creativity and the way he seems to say, "Yeah, I'm doing some hip-hop, but I'm not taking myself too seriously." But I'll need a few more listens to properly absorb this one and to differentiate it from some of his other stuff.

35. Isaac Green and the Skalars, Skoolin' With the Skalars - I was a huge fan of ska in college: Five Iron Frenzy, Reel Big Fish, Save Ferris, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Mustard Plug, The Aquabats, The Supertones (when they were still ska). I loved the upbeat tempo, the horns, the punk attitude. I remember learning how to skank at my first ska concert (skank (v.) to dance to ska). Those were good times. Then, for one reason or another, my tastes began to change. I'd still pick up the occasional album, but not with the same frequency, abundance, or enthusiasm. In more recent years, I've only really retained my interest in the now defunct Five Iron, Reel Big Fish, and a few compilations. In retrospect, the years that I was most into ska, 1997-2001, were also years when ska enjoyed a lot of mainstream success. Realizing that makes me even more ashamed that I've let it fall by the wayside so much.

This Skalars album, a gift from a friend, has sat in my collection for years and has only been enjoyed a couple times. When I popped it in this past week, it made me wonder why exactly my musical interests have shifted the way that they have. They've broadened, but perhaps a little too much at the expense of such a fun, irreverent, uptempo genre. On "Spoiled Brat," singer Jessica Butler sings about how she really doesn't care about anyone else but herself. On "Puppet Lover," she sings of her desire for a man that she can control. In "High School," she sings of certain aspects of her life feeling oddly like past days.

This album helped remind me why I once loved this type of music so much. Maybe this will be the start of revisiting other albums and bands that once saw endless play on my stereo.

Album of the Week:
Death Cab for Cutie, Plans
Song of the Week: Black Sabbath, "Planet Caravan"
Lyric of the Week: "Distance has no way of making love understandable." - Wilco, "Radio Cure"