This is Fifty Second Week.
But before we get to that, I want to mention something. I just found out that Mike Peters, founding member and singer for the Alarm, has cancer.
He announced it on his website on December 17. He has chronic lymphocytic leukemia, which has no cure. It turns out, what Peters thought was a miraculous recovery from non-Hodgkins lymphoma 10 years ago was actually a decade-long remission. He’s undergoing chemotherapy now, and his doctors tell him that if he responds well, he could put it back into remission for another 10 years, or longer. Which is good. But it’s still cancer.
The Alarm was among my favorite bands when I was in high school, and they still flip my particular switch today. Peters himself is one of the most passionate and dedicated musicians I have ever encountered, too, always embarking on these insane projects for his fans – day-long concerts, individualized recordings with personal greetings, things like that. Peters and his music are forever etched into my formative memories. The Alarm is responsible for a huge chunk of my artistic tastes, and my respect for Peters has never wavered.
So in many ways, this is like being told a childhood friend is dying. Peters himself seems optimistic and ready to fight, and I wish him well. Hopefully this isn’t another Warren Zevon situation, and we have many more years of Alarm goodness (like their soon-to-be-released album, Under Attack) to look forward to. I’m kind of babbling here, but I’m still a little stunned by the news. Between that and John Spencer dying, the last few weeks of 2005 have taken on a weird little pall.
Anyway, I hope you pull through this, Mike. Looking forward to the new record, and to the next 10 new records after that.
* * * * *
Where was I?
Okay, right. This is Fifty Second Week.
So last year, I ended up with a pile of unreviewed CDs – something like 40 of them, I think. And I thought, seriously, that I would do a big round-up column at the end of the year, and just get to them all. I started writing it, trying to keep my thoughts to a reasonable minimum, and ended up with a monster. I think I only got through about half of the stack, and it turned out at more than 4,000 words.
Worse than that, it was godawful boring. One thing I discovered while sloughing through that failed experiment is that when I don’t review something, it’s rarely because it’s bad. If an album is terrible, I generally will rake it over the coals, like I did with Weezer’s Make Believe this year. Especially if an album is epically, colossally bad, like Weezer’s was.
No, if I don’t get to something, it’s because I’m not moved either way, usually. Roughly 90 percent of the music I hear just floats in one ear and out the other, without even upsetting the furniture or ruffling the drapes on its way through. Most of what I hear is utterly forgettable. So this year, I went through the stack of unreviewed discs, and culled the ones I could remember liking, even a little. It’s a shorter pile – 25 or so – but it’s still too large, too long, to make a comprehensive review column that isn’t a chore to plow through.
And that’s where the Fifty Second Week idea comes in.
This being the 52nd week of the year, I couldn’t resist the pun. I’m going to take the stack, right now, and give myself 50 seconds to review each one. Once the 50 seconds are up, I stop, even if it’s mid-sentence. I have no idea how this is going to work, but it should allow me to wrap up 2005 in less than an hour, if I do it right. And hopefully, it’ll be more fun to read than a straight analysis would be. On that score, I hope you’ll let me know. Of course you will, right?
Right. One more thing – in revisiting the stack of candidates for this column, I’ve already decided that a couple of this year’s releases deserve a more thorough review, which they’ll get during the January doldrums. So if you don’t see your favorite album of the year in the snippets that follow (and here I’m talking to you, Lucas Beeley), don’t fret. And stay tuned.
All right. Fifty Second Week starts… now.
* * * * *
…And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Worlds Apart.
This is the second Trail of Dead album I have heard and ignored, for some reason. It’s not bad, but it is kind of typical. This one is more ambitious than the last one, with pianos and strings and things and wow, those 50 seconds run out pretty quickly.
Devendra Banhart, Cripple Crow.
I bought this on a recommendation from Erin Kennedy, and I think I listened to it twice. It’s a longer, more complex work from this folkie hippie nutjob, but it still needs a good edit. It probably would have made a much better 40-minute disc than its current 70-some-minute…
Jimmy Chamberlin Complex, Life Begins Again.
This is actually really good. The Smashing Pumpkins drummer does some neat jazz-influenced instrumental stuff, and you can’t fault his choice in vocalists for a couple of the tracks, including Rob Dickinson of Catherine Wheel. I like this, don’t know why I didn’t review it.
Tracy Chapman, Where You Live.
I have tried and tried to be a Tracy Chapman fan, but she keeps on putting out albums that bore me silly. This one is no better or worse than her last four or five, in that it’s repetitive, low-key folk that doesn’t do it for me at all. I used to like her stuff, but now it just barely registers.
Harry Connick Jr., Occasion.
Now this is what I want from Harry. It’s an instrumental workout, with Branford Marsalis on saxophone, that’s down and dirty, sometimes dissonant, and always pretty cool. I have been disillusioned with his vocal works (Only You, 30, Songs I Heard) in the past few years, but this is the real deal.
Jamie Cullum, Catching Tales.
I liked Cullum’s first one, with its jazzy takes on alt-rock songs, but this one is a mess, with really slick pop production and some awful vocal moments. The best thing here is, again, a take on an alt-rock track, the Doves’ “Catch the Sun.” Otherwise, bleh.
Dream Theater, Octavarium.
Never thought this would end up here. This is good, yet standard Dream Theater, except for the 20-minute title track, performed with an orchestra. But of course they used an orchestra – where else could this band go? They are already the most complex, pompous prog band on earth. Of course they went with an orchestra.
Dredg, Catch Without Arms.
If you’re expecting something as nifty as their last one, El Cielo, well, keep looking, This is a pop-rock record, designed for airplay, with some boring song structures. It’s okay for what it is, but if this hadn’t been Dredg, I wouldn’t have bought it.
Explosions in the Sky, The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place.
The one thing in this list that I think is brilliant. This is expansive instrumental rock, with guitars that pierce at times and caress at others. I really like this record, I just heard it too late to do anything good with it. And what else can you say about a record like this, anyway?
Mitchell Froom, A Thousand Days.
A surprise from producer Froom – this is a low-key collection of piano ditties, instrumental, with little connecting interludes. I like it, but it doesn’t stick with me. It’s kind of a curiosity instead of a genuine work, but as a curiosity, it’s pretty good.
This is David Bazan of Pedro the Lion, going all electro-pop. It’s a very depressing, bitter work, but the synth sounds compliment his hangdog voice well. “Gas and Matches” is a little masterpiece, but nothing else here is as good. Another curiosity.
The Magic Numbers.
This was recommended to me by a reader, and while I’m not sad I bought it, it’s nothing amazing, It’s a British band playing American heartlland music, kind of, and everything here is too long and too simplistic for me to really get into it. But it’s not bad.
Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill Acoustic.
The defining soundtrack of my senior year of college, all grown up and calmed down. What’s amazing about this is how much better Morissette has become as a vocalist. There are songs on here she couldn’t handle 10 years ago, and now they sound like she was born to sing them. Still, this is what it is, and if you didn’t like her before…
My Morning Jacket, Z.
Every year there’s an overhyped record that the critics fawn over and I just don’t get. This year, it’s this one, a decent slab of rock with synth colorings, but nothing to go nutty over. I don’t understand the acclaim, really, but they’re better than their American Radiohead rep.
Meshell Ndegeocello, The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel.
She’s always had jazz-funk in her soul, but now Meshell goes full bore with this mostly instrumental jam record. She’s awesome on bass, as always, but this thing just drags in places, and it should soar.
Pelican, The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw.
Like Explosions in the Sky with amps on 11. This is massive, monolithic riff-rock with no words, which means it’s pummeling, punishing stuff that offers no reprieve. But it is very well played. I’m just not sure how often I’ll reach for it.
Robert Plant and the Strange Sensation, Mighty Rearranger.
The best Robert Plant album in ages, and it still ain’t all that good. This is spooky low rock, with some neat grooves and some synthetic drums where there ought to be real ones. But Shaman Robert really shines here, especially on the quieter tracks. This is good, but not Zep good.
Soulfly, Dark Ages.
More than just a metal band, Max Cavalera’s Soulfly is one of the most experimental heavy music units on the planet. Here they do the same old thing, but it’s quite a thing, mixing metal with exotic percussion and even some mariachi influences. This is really good stuff.
Stream of Passion, Embrace the Storm.
Lousy band name, but it’s the only bad thing about it. This is Arjen Lucassen’s new project, he of the crazy Ayreon albums, and here he shows Evanescence how to do their schtick right. Huge guitar epics with a lovely female voice atop them. This is pretty much wonderful, if you like this sort of thing.
Steve Vai, Real Illusions: Reflections.
I think I might be over Steve Vai. This is another breathtakingly complex slab of guitar wankery and instrumental arrangements, but it all goes nowhere and means nothing, and I can’t remember a note of it 30 seconds after it ends. Empty virtuosity.
I bought this because she’s Rufus’ sister, and I wish I hadn’t. It’s sometimes pleasantly ignorable, but often her voice takes on Rickie Lee Jones proportions, and becomes actively annoying. I think one Wainwright sibling will be enough for me.
Waking Ashland, Composure.
Another pretty good Tooth and Nail band that I just didn’t get to. This is piano-pop with hooks, and it’s shiny and sweet stuff. I especially like the epic closer “Sing Me to Sleep.” I probably should have given this one a little more attention during the year, come to think of it.
Roger Waters, Ca Ira.
I only bought this ‘cause Waters’ name is on it. It’s a full-length opera, and if you’re expecting a Wall-type rock opera, I hate to disappoint you. This is a Pavarotti-style opera about the French revolution, and it’s good for what it is, but not something I’d have bought if not for the former Floyd’s participation.
* * * * *
And that’s that. I don’t know, what did you think? I did manage the whole thing in just over an hour, and now I have at least rudimentary thoughts out there on 23 ignored records, so on my end it was a success. It’s kind of an anticlimactic way to see out the year, especially after my mammoth Top 10 List column. I await your comments – should this be a regular thing?
January is pretty barren, as I mentioned, so I saved some of the more deserving records for next month. I also plan to check out a band I’ve been avoiding, now that they qualify for my Third Album Test, which I’ll explain when we get there. The last weeks in January begin 2006 in earnest, with new ones by Ester Drang, Robert Pollard, Richard Julian, Duncan Sheik, Sepultura and the Devin Townsend Band. After that, there’s something pretty cool scheduled for release every week through April.
Year six, here we come. Thanks again for reading.
Happy new year.
See you in line Tuesday morning.