The coming months are reason enough to go on living. We have new records from the likes of Moby, Strapping Young Lad, Over the Rhine, Beck, Glen Phillips, Amy Ray, Starflyer 59, Garbage, The Choir, Eels, Ben Folds, Porcupine Tree, Aimee Mann, Ryan Adams, Nine Inch Nails, Dave Matthews Band, Robert Plant and Spoon. And we get the last ever Star Wars movie. I saw the new trailer, and I have to say that my inner six-year-old had a geek orgasm. And he doesn’t even know what an orgasm is yet.
Anyway, for an art and culture junkie like me, life is going to be sweet.
But all that starts next week, and this week I have to make do with a few albums I like, but don’t love. Yes, it’s the dreaded return of the Little Reviews of Mediocre Records Filler Column. I’ll try not to bore you too much.
* * * * *
Up until two years ago, to say that Adam Schlesinger was “best known” for anything was kind of laughable. He had his fans, but still his most widely disseminated work was his theme song for The Howard Stern Show.
All that changed in 2003 with a little ditty called “Stacy’s Mom.” Thousands of CD sales and a couple of Grammy nominations later, Schlesinger is now “best known” for his band Fountains of Wayne, which he masterminds with fellow songwriter Chris Collingwood. Their ’03 album, Welcome Interstate Managers, was not only wildly popular, but also very good – the closest I have heard to pop perfection since the heyday of Jellyfish.
But Fountains fans know that for more than a decade, Schlesinger has been pulling double duty. It would be tempting to call his other band, Ivy, a side project or a moonlighting gig, but it just ain’t true. For one thing, Ivy came first, releasing their debut EP Lately in 1994, but for another, it’s just obvious that Schlesinger is equally committed to both bands. My guess is that the two gigs fulfill disparate sides of his musical personality, because they’re quite different.
As varied as my musical taste is, I have to admit that I like Fountains better, but that’s because they press the classic pop buttons so brilliantly. Ivy is a different beast altogether, sweet and supple and often dreamlike in its textures. Their sixth album, In the Clear, goes even further in the float music direction, with simpler songs and more ringing tones than before. It’s nice and pleasant, but it kind of drifts by without leaving much mark.
Parisian-born singer Dominique Durand has emphasized the breathier aspects of her voice here, which fits in with the Euro-pop of tracks like “I’ve Got You Memorized,” but just wafts above lighter fare like “Clear My Head.” The record is immaculately produced, with layers of pianos and synths atop subtle guitars – it sounds beautiful, it’s just insubstantial. Even a delightful little pop song like “Tess Don’t Tell” doesn’t stick. The record sounds coated in Teflon.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a bad album, just a forgettable one. As with most Ivy records, more time was spent on the sound than on the substance, and it sounds great. Durand’s lovely backing vocals on “Ocean City Girl” are a treat, for instance, and the synths that cover these songs caress without drowning them. It’s a good production. I just wish it were a better group of songs, but that’s never been Ivy’s strong suit. It’s interesting that with his other band, Schlesinger plays with styles that most people dismiss as disposable, but Fountains always makes more of an impression than Ivy’s classy art-pop does.
* * * * *
It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Eric Matthews.
In 1995, he was poised to be another Pop Genius-Slash-Savior, one who would lead us out of the clutches of mopey Seattle rock with his Beatlesque songwriting and baroque chamber-style arrangements. His big hit, “Fanfare,” was described as the “Penny Lane” of the ‘90s, and while I’d bet that most of you reading this couldn’t hum it on cue, you’d probably recognize the signature trumpet line if you heard it. Matthews’ ’95 debut album, It’s Heavy in Here, was a kind of low-key terrific that just didn’t make the radio in the Whiny Decade.
One more album followed in 1997 (the slightly less terrific The Lateness of the Hour), and then nothing. I scrawled Matthews’ name down on my ever-growing list of lost artists, made a note to keep an eye out for his work in the future, and thought no more about it. But surprise! Matthews is back, eight years later, with a new disc called Six Kinds of Passion Looking for an Exit, on little Empyrean Records. If I hadn’t been looking for this, however unconsciously, I never would have found it.
But find it I did, and unfortunately, it’s less a grand return and more an earnest curiosity. The most obvious issue is its brevity – the title is almost longer than the record, with its seven songs in 33 minutes. Additionally, this is more of a well-produced demo than a new album. Matthews played almost all of the instruments, and the result is much more stripped-down and confessional than his first two efforts. This is not an immediately rewarding collection. The songs take some digging into.
The layers of production on his first two albums also masked Matthews’ vocal shortcomings, but there’s no hiding them here – his breathy tenor wavers on occasion, especially on the harmonized backing vocal tracks. His songwriting remains strong, but less instantly memorable, too – only “Do You Really Want It,” with its up-and-down chorus, hits on first listen, but its cheesy computer drums and bass make it sound like more of a sketch than a finished piece.
The rest is deep and meandering, like the hushed “You Will Be Happy,” which finds Matthews reaching for that high falsetto and nailing it most of the time. “Underground Song” is similarly quiet and acoustic, and contains a melody line strangely reminiscent of the Rascals hit “How Can I Be Sure.” The apologetic “Cardinal is More,” addressed to his former collaborator Richard Davies, is the record’s emotional high point, and I give Matthews credit for stretching his range. He closes with a “Fanfare”-esque, brassy Beatles homage, “Black to Light Brown,” that’s so brief and abrupt that it sounds unfinished.
Six Kinds of Passion is either an epilogue to his career, or a prologue to its second phase. It’s much less an entity of its own, which means that the value of tracking it down is in direct proportion to your love of Matthews’ first two albums. I liked them a lot, and I hope he makes more of them, but after eight years, Six Kinds of Passion is vaguely disappointing.
* * * * *
My friend Lee was all excited last time I reviewed a children’s album, and since that was three years ago, I think it’s about time I spun another.
Of course, the only reason I reviewed a kids’ record at all is that it was by They Might Be Giants, one of the silliest and most underrated pop bands around. They called it No!, and even though it was aimed at youngsters, it could easily have been just another TMBG album, so witty and well-crafted was it. It seems that John and John are going to make a second career out of this kiddie-pop thing, because now we have their second collection of educational fun, Here Come the ABCs.
This one is just slightly less wonderful than No!, for a couple of reasons. First, its subject matter is confined to the alphabet – these are all songs about letters and words. Second, it seems like this set is more dependent on its visual component, available in a separate DVD. Something like “Letter/Not a Letter” is obviously interactive, and the CD doesn’t quite deliver the whole picture.
But you’ll notice I said it’s “just slightly” less wonderful. This is great stuff, loaded with songs (23 of them) that slide right in to the TMBG catalog. “E Eats Everything” is funky and bouncy, “Flying V” is another one of those tricky pop songs that John Linnell pulls off so effortlessly, and “Pictures of Pandas Painting” is so cool it could have been on The Spine. (What are the pandas painting? Why, penguins, of course…)
This is educational music that doesn’t insult the intelligence, which is a rare thing. “Go for G,” for example, points out that G is for glue and grapes, but also for gyroscopes, which should send your average four-year-old to the dictionary. This is the kind of album on which D and W have a conversation about why D hasn’t been around much – “I got this new television set. I like to watch the sports.” It’s the kind of album which poses the philosophical question, “Who Put the Alphabet in Alphabetical Order?” In short, it’s exactly the kind of children’s album I would want to play for my kids, should I ever have any.
I can’t forget to mention my favorite thing here, “I C U.” John and John managed to find a way to write a sad love song, in which the lyrics are nothing but letters. Picture it – a dingy country bar, with twangy music playing from the broken-down jukebox in the corner. Two divorcees meet, and one says to the other, in a weepy drawl, “I M N X, N U R N X, N I C U, N U R O K.”
I hope TMBG keeps this up, because as I said when I reviewed No!, the field of children’s music could use a regular infusion of intelligence and wit. Here Come the ABCs is clever, it’s fun, and it’s delightful for all ages. If the kids of today remember this stuff in the same way my generation remembers Schoolhouse Rock, then I will be a happy man.
* * * * *
The cover of the new Choir album is beautiful. Go here and take a look.
Next week, Moby.
See you in line Tuesday morning.