Michael Roe’s Acoustic Live Album
Trust Me, It's For You

Let’s do the Oscar wrap-up first.

I predicted most of the top awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and both Best Screenplay awards. I was, of course, most surprised and elated that Cameron Crowe came away with the Best Original Screenplay award. It’s about time one of the best writer-directors working today gets recognized, at least for half of his talents.

I was also surprised that Soderbergh won Best Director for Traffic, and that led me to a few moments’ faint hope that Gladiator wouldn’t claim Best Picture. Both Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Traffic were far superior films, I thought, and Traffic should have walked away with the top prize.

Steve Martin’s best line: “If Tom Hanks wins tonight, that means between the two of us, we’ll have a combined three Oscars!”

Of course, these awards don’t mean anything, but as it’s the last major awards show of the year, and I get off on awards shows for some reason, I had to touch on it. I’m done now. Really.

There have been a few really cool CD releases over the past few weeks, like Sepultura’s Nation and Shawn Colvin’s Whole New You. I’m not going to discuss them yet. I also finally got my hands on Amy Ray’s solo album, Stag, and it’s terrific, in its small and surprising way. I’m not going to talk about that, either. Instead, I’m going to use this platform I have to hopefully shine the light of exposure on a disc (two, actually) that hasn’t been more than two feet away from my CD player since I got it two weeks ago. It’s not exactly new, but it may as well be, and it’s probably unavailable in your local record store. Hence, I hope, with the following words, to inspire you all to hunt it down and check it out.

It’s called It’s For You, and it’s a live album by Michael Roe.

In order for me to tell you about Michael Roe, I’m going to have to tell you about his band, the Seventy Sevens. These guys rock. They have nine albums, counting the new collection, Late, and their tenth, A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows, should be released sometime in May. The Seventy Sevens have languished on small labels for their entire terrific career, a career that spans almost 20 years. They were once thought of as the Next Big Thing, and signed to Island in 1987. Their self-titled third album, known to fans as the Island album, came out mere weeks before U2’s The Joshua Tree, and since U2 was also on Island, you can guess what happened.

The Island album was just the beginning of the band’s artistic ascent, though. In 1992 they put out a mostly acoustic stunner called Pray Naked (a title the label forced them to remove), and they really haven’t looked back since. The follow-ups, Drowning With Land in Sight and Tom Tom Blues, were equally magnificent. Drowning was heavy and dark, and Blues had the feel of one of the greatest bands on Earth just jamming for a weekend.

Not that the Seventy Sevens are one of the greatest bands on Earth. They’re just one of the most consistent, and the driving force behind their sometimes progressive, sometimes acoustic, sometimes bluesy rock is lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Michael Roe. First off, the man can sing. He’s got a great range, and he invests everything with a genuine feeling that can’t be faked. (Bruce Springsteen, for example, tries to fake it.) Second, the man can play guitar. Acoustic, electric, whatever, the man can play, and in a variety of styles. On Pray Naked, for example, he slips from the Led Zeppelin-esque power of “Woody” to the acoustic pop of “Phony Eyes,” and it sounds like you’ve just changed channels on your radio dial. Third, the man can write a song. If you’re a Seventy Sevens fan, you’ve probably tried to stop humming “Happy Roy” or “The Jig is Up” or any number of other great pop songs Roe’s penned. Roe has also had two great solo albums, Safe as Milk and the cheekily titled The Boat Ashore. (Say his name, then the album title.)

In 1998, while on one of his many solo breaks from the Seventy Sevens (and his other band, the great Lost Dogs, but that’s a whole other column), Roe, broke and desperate, came up with a novel idea. He’d contact his small yet loyal network of fans and do an acoustic tour. He’d play wherever people wanted him to, as long as they could pay his miniscule fee and put him and the band up for the night. Plus, he’d let the fans pick the songs on the night of the show. He booked enough of these things to call it a tour, called Seventy Sevens guitarist David Leonhardt, bassist Mark Harmon and drummer Brian Meyers, and hit the road.

The result is captured on It’s For You, named after a song on Safe as Milk. If you’ve never tried Michael Roe’s music before, this 140-minute set is a near-perfect introduction. The songs really shine in these acoustic renditions, and there’s a lot of them (29 in all), from every phase of the man’s career. Plus, the laid-back atmosphere of the disc makes this one of the most enjoyable of Roe’s projects. He finishes the second song, “MT,” and then announces, “That’s the prepared portion of our program,” and he’s not kidding. Just about every song on disc one is preceded by an audible request from the audience.

The first disc is the more spontaneous of the two, filled with covers and off-the-cuff renditions of favorites. Roe’s version of “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” shies away from the Led Zeppelin rewrite and instead recalls the original Blind Willie Johnson blues version. A fan asks for “King of the Road,” for some reason, and a game Roe spins the first verse, commenting, “No request will go unconsidered.” He does a heartrending take on “The Jig is Up,” one of his best love songs, and two songs later he’s mocking himself mercilessly, fumbling through an acoustic re-arrangement of the Ozzy-esque “Snake.” (Trust me, even if you’ve never heard the original, this new take is a gas.)

Disc two is the superior one, though, centering more on performance and musicianship. The thing with acoustic shows is that there’s nowhere to hide if you suck. That’s why the best performers shine acoustically. Roe definitely doesn’t need to hide, and this second disc proves it indisputably with a stretch of seven pure acoustic readings of some of his best works.

First, though, you’re treated to a trio of awe-inspiring electric blues pieces – “Perfect Blues,” “Nuts for You” and “John Lee’s Blues.” Roe’s extended solo on “Nuts” is breathtaking, and it helps that it’s a great song as well. It has nothing, however, on the sweet seven tunes that close out It’s For You. Most notably, Roe’s voice takes on new dimension in “I Need God,” a soaring gospel number. “Do It For Love” is soulful and invigorating, and the closer, “Ache Beautiful,” is simply lovely.

As I said earlier, this hasn’t left the vicinity of my CD player in two weeks. To get similarly afflicted, you should log onto www.77s.com. There’s info there on each Seventy Sevens release, including the new one, and links to purchase each album directly from the band. It’s For You is highly recommended, of course, as is Pray Naked, Tom Tom Blues, Safe as Milk… hell, anything Roe’s done. I sing this song a lot, but it’s a shame he isn’t more well-known.

One last thing I want to mention. Roland Orzabal, he of Tears for Fears fame, has a solo album called Tomcats Screaming Outside. You can’t get it in American record stores, and you most likely will never be able to. There is hope, though. If you log onto www.rolandorzabal.co.uk, you can order it. Shipping overseas takes a while, but probably less time than waiting for Orzabal’s U.S. record deal to materialize.

Next time… well, if you still have last week’s column, you can cut and paste the last paragraph to the end of this week’s missive and it’ll still be true.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

40 Years in 50 Minutes
All About Chemistry is Semisonic's Homage to Pop

Ladies and gentlemen…

Announcing the grand opening of the big ol’ website that houses this here column. It’s up and running (which doesn’t necessarily mean up to date) at www.tm3am.com. The site will get updated very soon, but for now everything from February 14 backward is online. Check it out, and then e-mail Mike Ferrier and tell him what a great job he did. His address is at the bottom of the “New Readers” page.

This doesn’t mean I won’t continue to e-mail the column to all of you. Once a week, this beast should show up in your e-mailbox, unless I suddenly die or something. So fear not.

Anywho, last week, if you remember, I mentioned that I wanted to take some time and collect my thoughts on Semisonic’s All About Chemistry. Well, I’m glad I waited a week. Buckle up…

One of 1998’s biggest surprises was the quality of Semisonic’s second album, Feeling Strangely Fine. This trio rose from the ashes of rightly-ignored pop group Trip Shakespeare in 1996 to release Great Divide, a trite mess of an album that bombed like Nagasaki. The strange thing about Great Divide was that it was obvious how much the record company was behind this group. The album was a production, with big guitars and a multi-hundred-thousand-dollar sound. It spawned a semi-hit (“Delicious”) and died on the vine.

A second album seemed iffy, but somehow Semisonic put one together. The strange thing about Feeling Strangely Fine was that it was also obvious how little the record company was behind them. This little record was made for, like, a hundred bucks, and it often sounds that way. Miraculously, though, the lack of production brought out the honesty in Dan Wilson’s songs. Feeling Strangely Fine was a modern pop album that played like a confessional folk album, with resonant songs that won you over in spite of themselves. Oddly, it spawned two huge hits, “Closing Time” and “Singing in My Sleep,” and sold like naked pictures of Jeri Ryan at a Star Trek convention.

There seemed to be a pattern forming, and a disturbing one at that. When Semisonic has no money, they make great records. When they have a big budget, they overindulge and make poo-poo. Does the third album bear this out?

Sort of.

It’s important to note that All About Chemistry is the biggest-sounding album these guys have ever made, both as Semisonic and as Trip Shakespeare. This thing is huge, layered, and sonically massive. I was all set to pan the hell out of it last week, but a few more listens tipped me off to what they were doing. I think All About Chemistry is Semisonic’s attempt at a tribute album to the last 40 years of pop music.

And believe me, brother, this thing is pure pop. I haven’t heard an album this purely pop in many a moon. It reminds me, in its multiple-personality way, of nothing so much as a latter-period Queen album. The Works springs immediately to mind, as does The Game. Wilson, John Munson and Jacob Slichter have too much love for all forms of pop to confine themselves to one style, or even a couple of styles. Every song is utterly different from every other song. Oh, and none of the songs sound anything like Feeling Strangely Fine.

Queen made a career out of albums that sound like mix tapes, so there is a decent precedent. For Semisonic, this feels like expensive career suicide. What saves the album is the group’s obvious joy at producing this stuff. My first couple of stabs at a review tried to sum it all up, to take it all in as a whole. Can’t be done. I’ve decided the only way I can accurately describe All About Chemistry is one song at a time. Besides, the band put so much work into each tune here that they all deserve their own review anyway. Here goes:

Track one – “Chemistry.”

I’ve had the longest amount of time to deal with this one. I first downloaded it from Napster more than a month ago. It’s been described by others as a great lost Hall & Oates single, but I think it’s better than that. To me, this tune sounds like Todd Rundgren at his cheeky best. The rhythm is carried by lovely repeating piano chords, the guitar has a nifty melody that rests atop them, and the lyrics tread that fine line between stupid and clever that Nigel Tufnel was talking about. It even contains a great “Oh-oh-oh-o-o-ooh” lead-out from the chorus. This is a quintessential pop song, but then, there’s a lot of those on here.

Track two – “Bed.”

Now, this one sounds like Hall & Oates, but only if they were complete assholes. Wilson gets in touch with his inner bastard in this paean to physical relationships. “If you think I’m asking too much, we can stay in touch and I’ll find someone else to bed.” That’s right, it’s “bed” in its rarely-used verb form. Musically, it’s pure ‘80s blue-eyed soul. This may as well be the backing track to “Maneater.”

Track three – “Act Naturally.”

From Hall & Oates to Chris DeBurgh. “Act Naturally” is a synth ballad that sounds an awful lot like DeBurgh’s “The Lady in Red,” or, for that matter, any one of a number of Phil Collins songs that also sound like “The Lady in Red.” There are no guitars in this song, the drums are minimalist and programmed, and the synth washes are the instrumentation. That’s not to say this doesn’t work. As a keyboard-driven pop ballad, it’s great. Wilson’s lyrics here start to show signs of the same multiple personality disorder that affects the album. Coming right off the harsh “Bed,” “Act Naturally” is a plea for his lover to keep their troubled relationship hidden from the public. “’Till we get it figured out, don’t give them anything that they can doubt…” It’s hard to feel sorry for him after his turn as an ass in the last song.

Track four – “She’s Got My Number.”

The pop epic. All the trappings are here, from the cascading pianos to the lovely minor chords to the huge orchestrated finale. Like the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” it manages to be gigantic in scope and yet under six minutes in length. This is one of my favorites.

Track five – “Follow.”

If you have an aversion to pop cliches, I’d get out now. Dig the chorus lyrics: “Take me wherever you go, make me forget tomorrow, love me the best that you know, all of the rest will follow.” In the wrong hands, that smells like week-old limburger. It’s a good thing, then, that it didn’t fall into the wrong hands. Wilson sets this sentimental claptrap against a breezy, James Taylor-in-a-good-mood guitar line that’s no less cliched, but together the lyrics and music seem to click. This is another quintessential pop song, the kind the Gin Blossoms tried to write 20-some-odd times.

Track six – “Sunshine and Chocolate.”

I hope Jeff Lynne hears this, and I hope he’s amused enough not to sue. “Sunshine and Chocolate” may as well be one of the hundreds of songs Lynne has produced, both with Electric Light Orchestra and otherwise. They even got the chirpy lead guitar sound down perfectly. The song isn’t too bad either.

Track seven – “Who’s Stopping You.”

Another mean-sounding one, but when you’re trying to sound like Steely Dan, mean comes with the territory. Adding to the disassociated feel is John Munson’s one turn at lead vocals. (He does one an album, usually.) This one has hints of the Beatles in it as well, but the lyrics (about a man kicking his dependent lover out) are pure Becker and Fagen.

Track eight – “I Wish.”

This monster is the group’s homage to garage-pop. It’s bare compared to the rest of the album – just guitars, bass, drums and vocals – and it sounds an awful lot like Aimee Mann’s “Par for the Course.” This tune is also Wilson’s opportunity to trot out the most durable of pop cliches, the “highest-mountain-deepest-sea” lyric. No kidding, it goes like this: “I’d swim the high seas for you, get down on my knees for you, swing from the trees for you…” They pull out of this tailspin by appending a three-minute searing guitar solo to the ending, which is really worth it.

Track nine – “One True Love.”

Get this. “One True Love” is not only a perfect sad-sack lonely-in-love ballad, it’s also a collaboration with Carole King, who co-wrote, sings and plays piano. Carole King! She’s almost a pop cliche by herself, but the tune is sweet, and her voice fits right in. Where has she been?

Track ten – “Get a Grip.”

Ah, the pop novelty song. This is, of course, a long-standing tradition dating back before the Chipmunks, and one that survives to this day. (See Eiffel 65’s “Blue,” or the A*Teens’ cover of “Dancing Queen.”) “Get a Grip” is, of course, about masturbation: “Get a grip on yourself, you know you should/Get a grip on yourself, it sure feels good.” It’s set to a bouncy pop-punk backbeat, and it’s three minutes of fluffy fun. Its message, as well, cannot be overstated…

Track eleven – “Surprise.”

The album’s one tip of the hat to modern pop-rock, a la Everclear (especially volume one of Songs from an American Movie). They turn the genre on its ear, though, by infusing “Surprise” with winningly optimistic lyrics: “I’m gonna surprise them all when they look and I’m gone, gone, gone…” This is the one tune here that might be a hit.

Track twelve – “El Matador.”

Elton John has always ended his albums with a simple, big-sounding epic that serves as a curtain call. (He even called one of them “Curtains,” from Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.) “El Matador” is one of those, an absurdly simple pop song that builds in orchestration and intensity until its crescendo of a conclusion. It’s a plaintive plea for someone to “stay a while,” which makes for a fitting last song. It’s all piano, acoustic guitar and orchestra.

I’ve spent an awful lot of time on this effervescent little creation, but then, the band spent an awful lot more time on it than I did. All About Chemistry is surprisingly ambitious for an album that’s as disposable as a paper towel, and for all its hugeness, it fails to connect in even the simplest ways. Semisonic’s traded emotional resonance for sonic resonance, and even though I like them both in different ways, I’d have to recommend Feeling Strangely Fine over this one. There’s something so direct about that album that gets lost here in layers of sound.

Still, All About Chemistry isn’t bad for what it is. If you were a Queen fan, you might even find it suits you perfectly. Me, I’m sort of looking forward to it falling off the sales charts, so that Semisonic can go back to miniscule budgets, smaller concepts and the simple, perfect music they did so well last time out.

Next week, depending on how I feel, either Sepultura or Shawn Colvin. Also on the horizon is Celtic prog band Iona’s new Open Sky. I might listen to all three in a row. It’s neat being me.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Our Lady Typical
Our Lady Peace's Spiritual Machines Doesn't Rise to its Own Challenge

Almost Famous is out on video and DVD. Go rent it if you haven’t seen it. If you don’t like it, I mean really don’t like it, e-mail me and I will personally go to your house and give you 50 bucks.

Hello. How are you? I know you, I knew you, I think I can remember your name. I’ve had a pretty eventful seven days, and I’m slowly remembering the unfortunate side-effect of writing for a living. Put simply, you just don’t feel like coming home and writing some more. This is take two of the column for this week as well. I got two new albums on Tuesday, and I thought I’d split them up over this week and next week, so I picked one – Semisonic’s All About Chemistry – to write about this time. It was a good plan, but it hit a sizeable snag.

I have nothing whatsoever to say about Semisonic’s All About Chemistry.

Oh, it’s not a bad record, it just doesn’t seem to inspire the flowing verbiage. Hence, I’ve scrapped take one with the intention of ruminating all this week on Semisonic and getting back to it. This leaves the second of the two records, Our Lady Peace’s Spiritual Machines. Nothing else even remotely interesting has come out or has happened in the world of music lately to fill this column, so here we go…

Our Lady Peace is one of the only bands I know that I like immensely for almost no reason. Ninety percent of their charm comes from lead singer Raine Maida, and I can’t really put my finger on why I dig him, either. His voice is an odd combination of Billy Corgan, Alice Cooper, Jonathan Davis and Rufus Wainwright, yet somehow it works. His whining, acrobatic warble is completely idiosyncratic and yet totally appealing in an indescribable way. This is a good thing, since it’s his band’s one remarkable strength.

Our Lady Peace has never felt the smiling gaze of fame, and for once there’s a pretty good reason for that. The band is sturdy, steady, tight and utterly faceless. They’ve always hawked the brand of heavy-guitar alt-pop that made bands like Everclear famous, and their songwriting has always been just this side of really good. They had a pair of pseudo-hits from their second album, Clumsy, namely the title tune and “Superman’s Dead,” and I’m betting that’s as close as they’ll ever come to mass exposure.

Thing is, I can’t pan them, either. There was nothing wrong with their third album, Happiness Is Not a Fish That You Can Catch, except the asinine title. They play with textures that augment their typical crunchy rock well, and of course, they have Maida singing for them. I can’t say that I haven’t liked anything they’ve done, even though I’d never recommend them as a sterling group of musicians. They’re too typical.

That typicality has plagued this band from the start, and on their fourth album, they’ve taken some steps to shake it. Spiritual Machines is a futuristic concept album based loosely on Ray Kurzweil’s book The Age of Spiritual Machines, and it concerns mechanical beings developing emotions and fighting for basic human rights. (At least, that’s what the book’s about.) The songs are segued together with excerpts from Kurzweil, and the cover art is decidedly futuristic.

If all this is reminding you of Radiohead’s OK Computer, go to the head of the class. That album serves as the inspirational base for Spiritual Machines, and one could certainly do worse than to try to emulate the best record of the last eleven years. There’s just one tiny problem. Our Lady Peace are not even in Radiohead’s league. It would be impossible (and believe me, I’ve tried) to categorize Radiohead, or even succinctly describe their work. Our Lady Peace is an alternative rock band. Period.

Spiritual Machines doesn’t quite benefit from the space-age concept the band has forced upon it, but the theme doesn’t hinder the record, either. Honestly, you can just ignore it. The songs are only marginally connected to Kurzweil’s work. It feels like the band tried to shoehorn the concept onto a group of songs they’d already written. Sure, it works – “In Repair,” for example, could easily be about both emotional and mechanical breakdowns – but it’s not necessary.

Stripped of its pretensions, Our Lady Peace’s album is nothing more than another strong set of decent alt-rock. And again, there’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s nothing remarkable about it either. You’ll hum “Made to Heal” for about 10 minutes, and then you’ll forget it entirely. I’m looking at the track listing right now, and despite the fact that I’ve heard Spiritual Machines six times, I can’t remember anything about either “Middle of Yesterday” or “Everyone’s a Junkie,” except that I liked them while they were playing.

At times on this album, Our Lady Peace make small attempts to transcend their sound, most successfully on the concluding three tracks. “All My Friends” builds admirably over a suspended chord pattern, “If You Believe” stands out as the most memorable track with its piano-based chorus, and “The Wonderful Future” is a pleasant clean-guitar closer. None of them really rise above the alt-rock stigma, but the effort is appreciated.

As I said at the beginning of this review, the real reason to listen to Our Lady Peace is Raine Maida. Like Jon Davis (of Korn), Maida is completely unafraid of his own voice. He wields it, sending it to stratospheric heights with stunning confidence. He also extends that confidence like a forcefield, covering the rest of the band. With any other singer, Our Lady Peace might be intolerably boring, but Maida makes it almost impossible to dislike them.

For example, take “Are You Sad,” one of the album’s best tracks. The chorus lyrics are the epitome of trite: “Are you sad? Are you holding yourself? Are you locked in your room? You shouldn’t be…” The music is sweet and textured, but it’s Maida’s falsetto delivery that carries the tune. Try to imagine, say, the guy from Bush trying to sell that song, and when you’re done laughing, you’ll appreciate Maida’s contribution. Our Lady Peace is lucky to have him.

There’s very little to set Spiritual Machines apart from a slew of alt-rock albums available in your local record store. (As a quick side note, the one wretched song, “Life,” is naturally the first single.) Still, the last three songs hold out some hope that, record company willing, they might one day release something that rises above the guitar-drenched mire they’ve been in since the beginning. While it’s not a bad effort, Spiritual Machines isn’t it.

Next week, I’ll try to coalesce my thoughts on All About Chemistry. Now shut the computer off and go rent Almost Famous. There could be 50 bucks in it for you. But I doubt it.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Beyond Beautiful
Duncan Sheik's Phantom Moon is a Quiet Wonder

Thought I wouldn’t make it, didn’t you? It’s still Wednesday by about 20 minutes…

Okay, first up, some random notes about album titles. Everyone seems to be changing their minds lately. First Radiohead decided to give up on that Kid A Kid B thing and call their new one Amnesiac. (It hits on my birthday, June 5, and would make an ideal gift, hint hint…) Now word has come down that Tool’s new one, slated for April 17 and originally titled Systema Encephale, is now called Lateralus. (I liked the old title better. It was like getting two non-words for the price of one.)

Also changed is Bjork’s album, ready to come out on May 22. It was Domestika, and now it’s called Vespertine. Either way, it should be excellent. Finally, even though it’s not a change, I wanted to mention that John Mellencamp, who stubbornly refuses to die, has wonderfully titled his new one Kiss My Mule. It’s between that and Amy Ray’s Stag for best album title of the year so far.

The title can tell you a lot about a record. For instance, from the name of Aerosmith’s new one, Just Push Play, you might expect some generic pop-rock without a lot of imagination, and you’d be right. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on it, because it’s a huge backslide from their last one, Nine Lives. Still, for a band whose collective age is right around 250, it ain’t all bad.

On the other hand, from the title of Duncan Sheik’s third album, Phantom Moon, you wouldn’t be remiss in expecting a hushed, acoustic album reminiscent of Nick Drake, and again you’d be right. This is the one I want to spent time on this week, though, because Phantom Moon is a lot more than a knockoff of Drake’s style. In fact, it’s my favorite album of 2001 so far.

Sheik’s always been more than the sum of his hits. His first album soared on the pop hooks of “She Runs Away” and “Barely Breathing,” which typed Sheik as a writer of literate yet accessible radio tunes. If one delved deeper on that album, though, one could hear the first tentative steps of a wunderkind. Even “She Runs Away” is a nearly perfect pop number, combining a finger-picked acoustic style with a great melody. The album, though, decried the singles, remaining a somber affair throughout. It was a genuine mood album, and the singles didn’t seem to fit.

His second effort, Humming, attempted to inject more momentum. In fact, the first three songs on Humming (“In Between,” “Rubbed Out” and “Bite Your Tongue”) were the most rhythmically rocking tunes he’d produced. Sheik’s voice is a somewhat unsteady tenor that never seemed to sit well with his more rollicking material, and hence most of the second album is an ill fit. Humming also showcased his burgeoning talents as a songsmith, however, and hiding behind the hits on this one were meditations like the Jeff Buckley tribute, “A Body Goes Down.” It was a delicate balancing act between pop sensation and serious artist, and Sheik seemed to be growing more adept at it.

Until now.

Phantom Moon is full-on artistry. It’s a gorgeous, accomplished work that makes no concessions to AOR format radio programmers or sales figures. It’s such a hit-free collection that Atlantic refused to release it. Hence it’s out on Nonesuch Records, a tiny subsidiary of Warner Bros. (Isn’t everything a tiny subsidiary of Warner Bros., though?) It’s a disc that makes that rare leap from merely a set of songs to a complete album, one that is best listened to straight through. Preferably, in this case, by a roaring fire on a snowy Saturday evening with all the lights off.

Yeah, Phantom Moon sounds like Nick Drake. More than that, though, it captures the very essence of Nick Drake: that deep chill that begins at the base of your spine, the goosebumps that appear on the back of your neck when an artist decides to be so intimate with you, the listener, that you feel like you’re in the same room. Phantom Moon is hushed, somber, willowy and lighter than air, all at once. It takes more than a passing mimicry of Nick Drake’s acoustic style to get that mixture of emotions right. Duncan Sheik has finally got it right.

With one important exception, every instrument on Phantom Moon is acoustic. The guitar, of course, provides the web that holds it all together, but the sweet thump of acoustic bass is unmistakable, and the organic quality of a piano is impossible to emulate electronically. The album is structured in a wave, beginning with just a voice and a piano on “The Wilderness (Prelude),” which leads into “Longing Town,” one of the sparest songs here. Slowly, over the course of 25 minutes or so, Sheik adds instruments – piano on “Mr. Chess,” drums on “The Winds that Blow,” the full power of the London Session Orchestra on the amazing “Mouth on Fire” – until the buildup reaches full flower with “Far Away.” This song introduces the one plugged-in instrument, Bill Frisell’s terrific electric guitar, and though it remains subdued, it feels huge in context.

Then, slowly again, Sheik starts removing instruments. The last percussion on the album appears four tracks from the end, on the great “Mirror in the Heart.” He wraps it up with “The Wilderness” again, just piano and voice with subtle strings. The effect is like a journey. He starts off alone, meeting people one by one as he continues. One by one, though, they all disappear, and he reaches his destination alone once again.

The most striking aspect of Phantom Moon is the vocal work. Sheik, always more comfortable with the moodier material in his catalog, has chosen to go for intimacy at all costs here. He’s recorded his own vocals close and high, making one feel like he’s standing three feet away. The gutsiest move here is “Lo and Behold,” which Sheik sings almost entirely in a lovely falsetto. The unsteadiness that plagued his earlier vocals is all but gone, and even though he’s never tried something like this, he’s so dedicated to a particular sound that you can’t help falling in love with the effort. Sheik gets you so on his side that you’re rooting for him to perform the song flawlessly, and he comes through. It’s exhilarating.

Lyrics have always been Duncan Sheik’s Achilles heel, marring perfect melodies with banal sentiments. His smartest move on Phantom Moon was to turn the lyrical side over entirely to novelist Steven Sater. His poetry suits the music perfectly, and even though the subject matter remains familiar, the phrasing adds depth. Take this passage from “This is How My Heart Heard”: “I forgot the taste of fears, and how they haunt the lips you’re kissing, and how love’s just a waste of tears on someone who is missing.” It’s a vast improvement over “Oh, darling, don’t you know, the darkness comes and the darkness goes,” if nothing else. Plus, the hushed production makes even the sweetest lines melancholy and adds weight to even the slightest turn of phrase.

This is an important album for Duncan Sheik in a lot of ways. For one, he’s grown and matured as an artist here immeasurably. I can’t imagine the Duncan Sheik of five years ago producing anything like this. More importantly, though, he’s forsworn the simple pop life on this album, digging deeper in a real way for the first time. Phantom Moon is a glorious statement of purpose and the announcement of a serious musician. It’s an album that brings its own atmosphere into every room in which it’s played, and one that is instantly timeless.

There’s no doubt that Duncan Sheik is a fan of Nick Drake. Phantom Moon borrows the style and substance of Drake’s best work. Its true achievement, though, is in reflecting the soul and spirit of Drake, something that even the best imitators can’t do unless they really feel it. After spending a solid week with Phantom Moon, I feel confident in saying that were he alive today, Nick Drake would probably be just as big a fan of Duncan Sheik in return. That is an amazing thing, but Phantom Moon is an amazing record.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Isn’t He Famous Enough?
Dave Matthews Sells Out With Everyday

Fuck the Grammys, man.

The first part of this week’s column will upset Josh Rogers, my friend in England. He writes, “I enjoy your columns more when you’re not wasting your breath on things that will never be less stupid than they are.” That’s a fair point. The Grammys, and in fact most awards shows, will never be less stupid than they are. It’s a failing of my character, I guess, that ignorance makes me mad, and supposedly authoritative ignorance makes me self-righteous. The next few paragraphs are a full-on bitch session, and if you don’t feel like reading someone raging against something that will never be less stupid than it is, you can join Mr. Rogers in skipping about 400 words. (Sorry for the unintentional children’s television joke there…)

So, as I said, fuck the Grammys, man.

The Academy made a few major mistakes along with the usual slew of minor ones. First, it was insulting enough to Shelby Lynne to nominate her for Best New Artist after six albums and 13 years in the biz, but to actually award it to her was just silly. She handled it well, and doubtless she’ll never get this much nationwide attention again, but really. That’s like naming John Glenn Best New Astronaut.

Of course, I’m most upset about Steely Freakin’ Dan. Even if you disagree with my assessment of Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP as album of the year, you had to be surprised at the Academy’s conclusion. Two Against Nature was the weakest album of the lot, exhibiting zero artistic growth from the duo’s last album in 1979. Even Radiohead’s Kid A showed more daring and musicianship than Steely Dan’s effort. Sadly, Dan had the safest album of the lot as well. Leaving Eminem’s foul-mouthed role-playing aside for a second, both Radiohead and Beck made culturally warping works aimed at the fringe, and Paul Simon presented a sparkling, mature record that taxed those with limited attention spans. Two Against Nature was the easy-listening, soft-rock cop-out that the Academy seems to need every year.

But then they went and made a huge deal about Eminem’s performance on the show, going so far as to have the president of the RIAA introduce him with a stirring speech about freedom and artistry. That speech alone made the three-hour broadcast worth watching, and the performance that followed was simple and understated, a refreshing change for the Grammys. All the press marveled at Eminem’s restraint. What did they think he was going to do, step to the mike and say, “Thanks for the fuckin’ Grammy, and by the way, I hate gays?” What the hell are they so afraid of? Awarding The Marshall Mathers LP Album of the Year wouldn’t be an endorsement of its content, just of the artistry that went into crafting it. Or something like that, since I’m paraphrasing, of course, from the RIAA president’s speech. The Academy’s learned to talk the talk, and now they need to learn the other half of the cliche.

Okay, Josh, you can start reading again.

I first heard the Dave Matthews Band in a record store. I was browsing, and every once in a while my ear would be drawn to some snatch of melody or tone color from the speakers. I didn’t think much of it until “Jimi Thing,” track nine on DMB’s studio debut, Under the Table and Dreaming, started up. I’d never heard anything quite like it, and I bought the record at once. This was two months before “What Would You Say” burned up the airwaves, and until that happened, I never imagined the Dave Matthews Band would be stars. They were too quirky, too organic, too musical to make a dent in the charts.

Silly, silly me.

Eight years into a decidedly unorthodox superstar career, I still don’t see the Dave Matthews Band as your typical popular act. Their lineup has always been acoustic guitar, bass, drums, sax and violin. Their songs have often twisted into 10-minute workouts that made you sweat just listening to them. Three years ago they put out the second-best album of 1998 with Before These Crowded Streets, a huge, sprawling mess that showcased just how good these musicians really are. In fact, it’s been my experience that the Dave Matthews Band has spent most of their career being underrated because of their chart success. Streets was like a mission statement – “Yeah, we’ve had four top 10 hits, and all the women love us, but listen to this.”

Three years later, and DMB has just released Everyday, the album on which they’ve decided to start playing down to expectations. They’ve hooked up with human hit factory Glen Ballard, the guy who made Alanis Morissette into a household name, and they’ve discovered the electric guitar. The result is a fuzzed-out short pop album chock full o’ number one singles. The unfortunate side result is that it sounds anonymous. While there are only a few groups on the planet who could have played the songs on Streets, on Everyday they sound like just another band.

Ballard co-wrote all the songs with Matthews, and you can hear his touch all over this thing. The arrangements are thick and oversaturated, especially when Ballard piles on the synths and drum programs. (Yeah, electronic drum patterns, the current alt-rock rage. My feeling is, if you have Carter Beauford for a drummer and you use a drum machine, that’s an incredible waste of resources. That’s like landing John Coltrane for your jazz ensemble and having him play the triangle.) The songs all revolve around verse-chorus-verse flowchart patterns, and almost every track ends abruptly, as if the band kept playing for three or four minutes after Ballard chose to stop the tape. No song breaks the five-minute mark, which by itself isn’t a bad thing, but many of the songs are too weak to even sustain five minutes.

“Sleep to Dream Her,” for example, is the first DMB song I’ve ever found myself fast-forwarding through. It’s one part reggae and two parts crap. I never again want to hear a song called “Angel,” especially one this trite and boring. I also never want to hear another song sung from the point of view of a child asking his parents why the world is a mess, like “Mother Father.”

There are some good moments on Everyday, though when I first heard “I Did It,” the now-ubiquitous single, I never thought it would be one of my favorites. Sadly, it is, even though it bores me to tears. The second single is supposed to be “The Space Between,” an infinitely better song. I’d have preferred the stripped-down arrangement the band played on Saturday Night Live to the over-produced version on the album, but it’s a nice tune. So is “If I Had It All,” the album’s one moment of musical and lyrical depth. “Fool to Think” allows the band to strut their stuff, if only for four minutes, and its time signatures are pretty cool. (Standard four-four cuts to a chorus in nine-eight without missing a beat.) The closing title track is hummable and pleasant as well.

Still, most of Everyday is only one or two steps removed from later-period Sting. The tragedy is that there’s another DMB album, one they had completed before scrapping it to revamp their image and work with Ballard. One hopes that the unreleased effort holds all the musicianship and energy that Everyday is missing. Chances are this album will do very, very well sales-wise. It’s just discouraging that after eight years of outplaying their chart brethren, the Dave Matthews Band has chosen to prove all their detractors right.

I’ll be back in praise mode next week, with a surprisingly good disc that just came out. At least, I was surprised. Thanks to everyone who’s written me, and I’ll try to send replies by the end of the week. Honest, I’m just really busy.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

In English, It Goes Verb, Preposition, Then Noun
Alanis Morissette's Frustrating Under Rug Swept

It’s the 2/27 column, on 2/27! How do you like them apples?

Computer’s back, my health is strong, and it should be smooth sailing until another unforeseen disaster derails everything. I even have a choice of topics this week. I’ve recently picked up three really cool albums (Midnight Oil’s Capricornia, Neil Finn’s live album 7 Worlds Collide and Cerberus Shoal’s Mr. Boy Dog), but I’m not going to deal with any of them this week. I also have to write a massive review of the Alarm 2000 box set, which just arrived from Wales this week, but I’m not quite done absorbing that yet, so it won’t be this week.

No, I’ve chosen to write about the most annoying and frustrating of this week’s new releases, Alanis Morissette’s Under Rug Swept. This is simply because I relate to the second track, “Narcissus,” and enjoy causing myself great pain.

I first heard Morissette’s 15-quadrillion-googolplex-selling debut Jagged Little Pill on a bet. It wasn’t the first time I’d head the distinctive caterwaul of Ms. Morissette, though – like everyone else on the planet, I was unable to escape her trio of breakout singles in 1995. As people who knew me then can attest, her singular inability to even approximate the right notes on “All I Really Want” nearly caused me to burst both my eardrums with a sharp pointy stick. As each day wore on, I prayed that the general public would start to notice how brain-splittingly awful those singles were and come to its senses.

Because they’re the general public, however, they did the exact opposite and made Morissette a superstar and a poster child for whiny anger. “You Oughtta Know” basically boils down to, “My boyfriend left me and I’m REALLY MAD,” and apparently this sort of surface-level soul-baring struck a chord with most of America, and began the onslaught of one-hit ready-made confrontational females with not an iota of talent between them. (Remember Meredith Brooks? Didn’t think so.)

And then my old friend Jeff Maxwell, writer of e-column Twitch, bet me that I’d like the rest of the album. He in fact offered to pay for my copy of Jagged Little Pill if I didn’t dig it. As I said before, I like causing myself pain for some reason, so I bought it and prepared for 55 minutes of sheer sonic agony.

But it wasn’t like that at all.

Oh, the singles still grated, but Jeff was right. The rest of Jagged Little Pill pointed towards happiness instead of dwelling in miserable rage, and the songs were well-constructed enough that I could see the mature songwriter Morissette might one day become. Maxwell even predicted the phenomenal hit potential of “Ironic,” which incidentally contains almost no irony whatsoever. He was right. Morissette was worth my attention.

Had Pill not been a 60-times-platinum icon of suppressed fury, it might have been considered a decent start. The production is a bit too slick sometimes (except on the vocals, of course), the songs all have that “here comes the chorus” feeling that producer Glen Ballard brings to all of his work, and the lyrics occasionally slip into the silly, but it’s not bad. Regardless of the quality of her album, though, Morissette had to be dreading the eventual, inevitable backlash. Even though she had it all over people like Brooks and Tracy Bonham and Natalie Imbruglia, the originator of the trend found herself grouped in with it.

The harshest critics called her a product of her record company (Maverick Records, owned by the best manipulator of public taste around, Madonna), and postulated that without Ballard to co-write and produce her work, she’d fall on her face. She didn’t even need to ditch Ballard to prove them right with her follow-up album, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. An extremely long and stream-of-consciousness effort, Junkie took several steps forward in every area but popularity. Thing is, it was considerably more sophisticated than its predecessor. It was risky and confident and occasionally mangled, but it was undoubtedly not the work of a record company product.

All of which brings us to the syntax-impaired Under Rug Swept. Morissette has finally left Ballard behind, electing to produce 11 new songs herself. And surprise, she’s actually better at capturing her own sound than Ballard was. If Pill was a mission statement to millions and Junkie was an overreaction to its popularity, then Swept is just a pop album, and that’s the way it ought to be. If you strip away the hype from her first two efforts and listen to them as pop albums, Swept is her most balanced and concise collection.

You’ll have to trust me on that and just bear with the first three songs, though, because they suck. “21 Things I Want in a Lover” is just a list put to boring and repetitive music, “Narcissus” tries to spice things up with a megaphone and fails miserably, and “Hands Clean” is just godawful. (As a quick side note, it doesn’t quite surprise me that “Hands Clean” is her most successful single in ages, because it copies almost everything I hated about her big hits. In fact, it almost seems like she got in a time machine and visited her 1995 self to ask for another chart smash.)

Ah, but starting with track four, Swept turns into the mature, almost satisfying album it thinks it is. “Flinch” is perhaps the most flat-out lovely song she’s penned, with “That Particular Time” in the running as well. Also noteworthy is “You Owe Me Nothing In Return,” a spooky number that revisits some of the lyrical themes of “Still,” which remains the best song in her catalog. For six straight tracks, Morissette stays afloat, eschewing her typical wail in favor of subtle singing and occasionally surprising songcraft. That the album crashes and burns with its last two tracks, especially the all-too-earnest “Utopia,” is a shame, but with my luck they’ll be the two next hit singles.

The only other sticking point, and it’s a big one, is Morissette’s tongue-twisting lyrics. Too often the words seem disassociated from the music, like they were two separate thoughts. It’s kind of amazing that music was written to “21 Things I Want in a Lover” at all. A sample stanza: “Do you derive joy from diving in, and seeing that loving someone can actually feel like freedom? Are you funny? A la self-deprecating? Like adventure? And have many formed opinions?” It feels like she composed a want-ad for her local newspaper, and then grabbed the wrong piece of paper on her way to the studio.

Even the best songs on Swept suffer from overlocution, which is actually a good example of a word she might try to shoehorn into a song one day. “That Particular Time” is a somber piano piece reminiscent of Counting Crows’ “Colorblind,” but when she gets to the line, “That particular month we needed to marinate in what ‘us’ meant,” it nearly sinks the mood, not to mention the fact that it doesn’t fit the melody very well. If there’s anything Morissette needs to work on, it’s sculpting the lyrics to complement the music.

The sad part is, she’s getting there. She’s starting to break her cocoon and stretch her wings, but because of the success of Pill, her fans are expecting another angry testimony that speaks to their own so-called pain. Swept speaks to no one’s pain but Morissette’s, which may be its downfall in the sales department. By the end of it, you feel more like her therapist than her comrade in arms, and though it’s obvious that Morissette considers herself a bit of a modern-day Joni Mitchell, even Mitchell gazed outward every now and then. Swept, though musically far better than its predecessors, remains self-obsessed, effectively closing Jagged Little Pill‘s audience out.

That’s too bad, because the fun of following someone like Morissette lies in watching her develop. She’s obviously taking baby steps on a long-term path, and if she can escape the blandness of half of this new album, she may get there. The question is, will our short-term-memory culture let her get there, or have they already moved on to the next singer willing to speak with their voice instead of her own?

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Jonatha Brooke’s Steady Pull
Independence Never Sounded So Sweet

I’m almost ready for the Oscars.

This year I had the worst ratio of seen to unseen films (two films out of five for Best Picture) in many a moon, because I deemed most of what the studios lobbed my way in 2000 crap. The Best Picture category this year is the most random-seeming selection I can remember – a Roman gladiator epic, a Chinese-language martial arts picture, a bio-pic about a woman on a crusade, a grungy drug saga and a simple, sweet love story. Before last week, I’d seen only Gladiator and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Gladiator is inspiring drama on the big screen and murky melodrama on the small one. Crouching Tiger is a sweeping film that will probably suffer the same problem, but it’s leagues better than its main competition.

I still haven’t seen Chocolat, but I plan to remedy that this weekend. Last week, though, I saw the Steven Soderbergh pictures, Erin Brockovich and Traffic. If he keeps up this standard, Soderbergh could easily find himself with a body of work to rival that other filmmaking Steven. Brockovich is serviceable and entertaining, with even Julia Roberts coming off well. (Usually, she’s the deal-breaker with me.) It has no business being nominated for Best Picture, especially over Almost Famous, but it doesn’t make a false move.

Traffic, now, that’s a wonder to behold. This film currently holds the spot The Insider occupied last year for me: it’s a terrific film that will most likely get robbed of its deserving award. Unlike The Insider, there are no bold, sweeping strokes in Traffic. It’s two and a half hours of moments, subtlety and character that combine to form a comprehensive and damning argument against the so-called war on drugs. Even the form the film takes is part of that argument. By its conclusion, Soderbergh has shown that bold, sweeping strokes will not make a difference. You can only fight this war one person at a time. This film should win Best Picture, and when it doesn’t, I’ll be upset, but I won’t be surprised.

Geez, look how I’ve rambled on. And I even have an honest-to-gosh new CD to review this time as well. Special thanks again to Bull Moose in Portland, Maine. My package containing Jonatha Brooke’s new album, Steady Pull, arrived today, and it was worth the wait.

Brooke started off as one half of the Story, with Jennifer Kimball. The duo made lovely, complex acoustic pop music, but the best songs were Brooke’s, so it was no surprise that when she went solo with Plumb, she made a perfect pop record. (To be fair, Kimball’s solo album, Veering From the Wave, is quite good in its own right.) It was her fourth album, 10 Cent Wings, however, that truly established her as a formidable songwriting voice. It’s one of those records on which each song, as it’s playing, is your favorite. It takes retrospection to find a standout track. For my money, though, that standout is “Because I Told You So,” a simple, elegant acoustic number that should have sent Brooke’s career into the stratosphere.

Instead, because MCA Records had no idea what to do with an album this good, the song wasn’t even released as a single. 10 Cent Wings languished unpromoted, a common story with an increasingly common result: Brooke bailed on major labels all together. Last year she followed Aimee Mann, another literate pop songwriter with a history of uncooperative record companies, into the realm of independent distribution. Brooke’s personal label is called Bad Dog, and her first release was Live, a collection of… well, live tracks.

Now, when an album is as good as 10 Cent Wings is, I don’t usually expect much from the follow-up. Oh, sure, I hope that an artist can recreate previous creative success, but it usually doesn’t happen. I call it the Sarah McLachlan Effect: two good albums followed by a stunner, and then a return to making merely good albums. McLachlan will most likely never make a record as good as Fumbling Towards Ecstasy again. I expected a similar pattern with Brooke (who, by the way, deserves McLachlan’s success more than McLachlan does), so it’s a pleasure to report that Steady Pull is just as good, if not better than, 10 Cent Wings.

For the first time, Brooke has produced herself here, and the creative freedom shows. The first single and leadoff track, “Linger,” is decent if uninspired, but from there the record soars. Brooke excels at crafting lush pop music that never goes where you expect it to. Following the twists and turns of a song like “Walking” is a constantly engaging surprise. The 12 songs on Steady Pull actually sound like they sprang from the pen of Neil Finn, a songwriter Brooke has obviously learned a great deal from. I’d accept any of these tunes (even “Linger”) from Finn, which from me is a high compliment.

Finn himself shows up on “New Dress,” which is about as delicate as this album gets. Brooke has expanded her sonic range here, which might upset some fans of her older, more acoustic material. She’s never recorded a full electric rave-up like “Out of Your Mind” before, and on 10 Cent Wings, she reserved the acoustic-to-electric dynamic for the epic “Crumbs.” Here that dynamic appears all over the place, most effectively on “Digging,” whose chorus makes better use of just two chords than any in recent memory. Elsewhere, Brooke sets up grooves and slips lovely melodies on top of them, like she does on the title track and “How Deep Is Your Love.” These tunes find her stretching her voice farther than she’s taken it before, to great effect.

And again, I have a favorite, but only on retrospection. It’s a statement of purpose buried near the end called “I’ll Take It From Here.” For all her righteous indignation, Aimee Mann has never written a declaration of independence this clear: “I’ll take it from here, I’ll succeed or I will fail but I will decide, Catch my breath and count to 10 and open my eyes again…” It’s brief, but it all but defines this set of songs. Despite how difficult it must have been to watch an album like 10 Cent Wings wither on the vine, Jonatha Brooke has delivered on her own confidence. She’s proven throughout her career that if one group of songs doesn’t bring her the recognition she deserves, she can always write more that are just as good. That’s something no label executive could ever do.

Oh, and I am going to make two copies of this album and deliver them to the managers of the record stores in my town that refused to stock it, just so they can hear what they’re missing. It’s a silly hope, I know, but maybe hearing how good Steady Pull is will change their minds. If not, well, at least two more people got to hear it. It’s the least I can do.

Hey, if your local record store doesn’t carry copies of this disc, you can always go to jonathabrooke.com and order them directly. I hear Brooke will even sign ‘em for you.

Let’s hope this is a portent of the year to come. We’ve got Dave Matthews, Duncan Sheik, Amy Ray, Semisonic, Our Lady Peace and Sepultura coming up, and if they’re as good as Jonatha Brooke’s album, I’ll be a happy boy.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Piss and Moan
Death to Corporate Record Stores

Yeah, I know, I’m late. You should see the first draft.

I’m a bit angry this week, and I feel that it’s important to get these feelings out while they’re still fresh. I find that if you let these little frustrations bottle up without spewing them out in some (hopefully) harmless way, then they fester inside and cause bleeding ulcers and painful, early death. It’s crucial, I feel, that one finds an outlet (like, say, a weekly column) through which to vent these venomous, bitter emotions.

Like I said, you should see the first draft.

What’s got me upset? At the risk of sounding like Michael Moore, corporate America. Here’s my stupid story.

As I promised last week, the new Jonatha Brooke album, Steady Pull, came out yesterday. I live in a town with two music stores, so I thought I’d call both of them a week in advance and ask, quite nicely, if they’d order me a copy of the album. Both stores (corporate-owned mall-type stores, by the way) said they’d have it on the release date. Neither of them did.

A trifling annoyance, you may say. To me, though, this is indicative of a larger problem, one that I don’t want to overstate, but which seems like a big deal to me. People talk about the increasing availability of music these days, what with MP3s and Napster, but the truth is that most people still go to the record store to buy CDs. Like most things, the record shops are becoming more and more corporate, with larger chains overtaking the smaller stores and driving them out of business. This is bad because the corporate owners don’t give two rat’s butt cheeks about music, just the financial bottom line.

This attitude extends beyond the ordering process. One thing that I’ve always loved about small music stores is that the owner(s) almost always work in the shops themselves. You don’t start your own record store unless you really like music. Just as you’d expect the staff at a car dealership to know more than a little bit about cars, I expect the staff at a music store to have more than a passing interest in music. In smaller stores, the owner(s) do the hiring, and they base their decisions partially on knowledge of music. That just makes sense. If a customer has a question about an artist or an album, the customer service rep should be able to answer it.

Not so in huge corporate chain stores. If you have a pulse and can work a cash register, you can work in a huge corporate chain store. This is because, if a particular title doesn’t sell eight million copies in its first week and get three-times-an-hour rotation on MTV, the huge corporate chain store doesn’t care about it. Not only did neither corporate store have the disc I specifically requested, not a single staff member of the four total that I talked to knew who Jonatha Brooke is. Now, while I wouldn’t call Brooke mainstream, I certainly wouldn’t call her underground either. She has six albums, two with the Story, and four of those are major-label releases. If you know who Aimee Mann is, you probably know who Jonatha Brooke is.

I should mention that I finally tracked down the album. I called Bull Moose in Portland, Maine, a small chain that’s privately owned (and where I worked for a few months). I spoke to Katie, who not only knew who Jonatha Brooke is, but knew her whole history. Bull Moose had several copies of the album on their hit wall, and sold me one over the phone. I patronized Bull Moose for eight years while I lived in Maine, and I’m afraid they’ve spoiled me against other music stores. If I wanted something, they ordered it. If I had a question, they could answer it. If more stores were like Bull Moose, Amazon.com wouldn’t be nearly as profitable.

The truth behind corporate conglomerates is that quality of service doesn’t matter as much as quantity of profits. There are people, believe it or not, who don’t care about Jennifer Lopez’s ass or which Backstreet Boy has the best-primped hair. There are albums, believe it or not, that are still incredible works, regardless of how miniscule their sales figures turn out. There are artists, believe it or not, who go 30 years without selling what Britney Spears does in an afternoon, and yet have the ability to change the world with one note and one turn of phrase.

There’s no doubt that I get too worked up over this stuff. I just wish the good stuff was more readily available. Ah well. Let’s see how hard it’ll be for me to get the new Orb album in two weeks.

I wanted to mention the Oscars, because I’m terribly disappointed. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Best Picture nomination was a welcome surprise, and even though I haven’t seen Traffic (my town’s one multiplex hasn’t opened it yet, even though they’re still wasting theater space on What Women Want), I’m glad it got nominated. No, I’m disappointed that the best movie I saw this year, Almost Famous, didn’t get a nod. That means it won’t get a re-release, and those of you that haven’t seen it will have to make do with the video and DVD release in March. I highly, highly recommend it.

There was one nomination I heard about this week that gave me a warm feeling all over, though, and it had nothing to do with the Oscars. One of the best comic book novels I’ve ever read, Judd Winick’s Pedro and Me, got nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Literature. (The only comic ever to win was Art Spiegelman’s Maus.)

Pedro and Me is Winick’s examination of his time on The Real World in San Francisco, focusing on the life of AIDS educator Pedro Zamora. This has left him open to charges of exploitation in crafting this book, and if he needs any vindication (which those who’ve read the book can attest that he certainly does not), the Pulitzer nomination provides it many times over. Pedro and Me is one of the warmest, most human, and most accomplished graphic novels ever published. It’s hard to believe it’s Winick’s first novel. You can get Pedro and Me at any bookstore (or comic book store), and of course, I recommend that you do.

This is gonna sound familiar, but next week, it’ll either be Jonatha or controversy.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Miscellaneous
I Refuse to Use the Word "Miscellaney"

I had this great dream the other night.

I dreamed that there were five (count ‘em, five) new flavors of Trix, and that they were these indescribable, intergalactic-sounding fruity flavors, and that I could try each one, and the world was a much better place. Then I woke up to find that I was still stuck with generic, boring old one-variety Trix. Life has just been like that lately.

I had two things to talk about this time, and each feels like a large enough topic to fill a column by itself. One is controversial, one is not, and as much as I’d like to think I’ll get to one this week and one next week, I know that the new Jonatha Brooke album is coming out next Tuesday (2/13), and I’m sure I’ll want to wax something or other on that. For some reason, I’m not feeling all that controversial tonight, so I’m going to discuss VH-1’s latest exercise in debate-starting, the 100 Greatest Albums of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

As I’ve said previously, I like lists. I like the idea of rating one artist against another, and I also like seeing how people view their art. Everything’s subjective, and no one’s opinion matters any more than anyone else’s. (In fact, one could make a strong case that in matters of art, no one’s opinion matters at all, but for obvious reasons, I’m not going down that road.) When a semi-official source claims to have ranked the top 100 anything, though, a certain weight is added to that opinion. Take, for instance, the American Film Institute’s naming of Citizen Kane as the best film ever made. That film is 60 years old at this point, and the idea that no one’s topped it is debatable, but people for some reason paid attention to the AFI list as if it were gospel.

Here’s something I learned in Dr. Kasper’s religion class: even the Gospel is debatable.

These lists, nifty as they are, should in no way substitute for your own opinion based on your experience. If you watch Citizen Kane and all you see is murky black-and-white images acting out a boring plot about some newspaper guy, you’re entitled to that. If you think Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo is a finer film overall, you’re entitled to that, too. Many people (myself included) would tell you that you don’t know shit, but if that’s what you like, you shouldn’t let us culture snobs sway you.

That said, we culture snobs love artistic debate. An argument over music, film or any other form of artistic expression usually consists of one-upmanship in terms of knowledge and ideas. For instance, if you know that Citizen Kane was the first film to use deep-angle lenses to keep the foreground and the background in focus at the same time, you’ll likely be off to a decent start in the above debate. The merits of any given art form are, at this very moment, being dissected and argued relentlessly by lovers of that art form everywhere, right now, and will continue to be dissected and argued about until art is banned by the government, and even then we’ll do it in whispers in back alleys where they can’t find us.

There’s nothing like an “official” list of the best of anything to start such debate, and the first step down that road is realizing that VH-1’s opinion is worth no more than yours. Or, for that matter, mine. To prove that, I have a few issues with their list. Feel free to jump in at any time with your own gripes. (If you haven’t seen the list, it’s available at vh1.com, and can be seen, oh, like ALL THE TIME on their channel.)

Gripe number one is obvious, but glaring: OK Computer deserved to be higher on the list. In fact, any slot below 40 or so is too low for the best album produced in the last 20 years. Yeah, I mean that. The ‘80s and ‘90s have been surprisingly low on the creativity meter, except for Radiohead’s masterpiece. It’s a compositional and emotional stunner that pisses on everything after 1979. If we’re rating the absolute best, as opposed to the most popular or the highest selling, Radiohead needs to be ranked higher.

All in all, VH-1 did a decent job of not falling into the popularity trap. You’ll see no Elvis Presley on their list, thank Jesus, and some critical favorites made the list that on some lists get overlooked. The Velvet Underground and Nico is a good example, as is the Stooges’ Raw Power. They even did the service of including Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, the first jazz album to incorporate rock styles and to acknowledge rock ‘n’ roll as a musical force.

It’s also telling that the Beatles don’t show up until the top 10. I can’t exactly argue with Revolver’s place at number one. It’s a terrific album, and every song on it can still be heard regularly on radio stations everywhere. I think they’re wrong, though. In my humble opinion, the best album of rock ‘n’ roll can be found six slots down on their list: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Here’s my argument. Revolver is a great group of songs, no question. In fact, up until that point, albums were just that: groups of songs. Even the wonderland of brilliance that’s at number three, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, is just a group of songs. Sgt. Pepper, released in 1967, was the first album of the rock era that was meant to be heard from beginning to end. Sgt. Pepper introduced the album concept, songs linked thematically and sonically to form something greater than the sum of its parts. The Beatles not only rewrote the rules of pop and rock songwriting, they also created the rulebook for album sequencing, a book that people are still stealing from to this day.

With Sgt. Pepper, the Fab Four presented the studio record as a work of art to the general public for the first time, refusing to tour and release singles so that the focus would be squarely on the album as a whole. If Citizen Kane is the best film ever made because filmmakers have been pinching ideas from it for 60 years, then Sgt. Pepper more than deserves top honors in the rock album category. Not only have artists been stealing from it for more than 30 years, they still have yet to catch up to it. Revolver is marvelous, but it’s definitely a prelude to the three albums that came after it, starting with Sgt. Pepper. (The other two, by the way, are also on the list: the “white album” and Abbey Road.)

Still, I can’t really complain about Revolver hitting the top spot. No, my big (and I mean big) complaint lies with the number two choice. If you’re gonna call your list the Top 100 Albums of Rock ‘n’ Roll, people are going to assume you mean the 100 best. By “best,” people are also going to assume you mean the albums that stand out in terms of composition, delivery and production. In fact, most of VH-1’s list bears this out. So what the bloody blue hell is Nirvana’s Nevermind doing at second-best?

Nirvana was a sensation, no doubt. They threw the doors open for heavy, guitar-based music on the charts, no question. At best, though, they were a typical three-piece grunge-pop group, and one that fell far behind their peers (Soundgarden, Alice in Chains) in terms of ability. Nevermind is largely accepted (even by the band members) as the group’s worst effort, it being far glossier than Bleach and far less musically advanced than In Utero. No, it just happened to be the most popular. Listen up, folks: the voice of a generation can’t necessarily carry a tune.

Its presence on the list would be bad enough, but at number two? Think about that. VH-1’s panel of judges thinks Nevermind is a better album than Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds, Abbey Road, Electric Ladyland, Exile on Main Street, and (yes, I have to say it again) OK Computer. As John Travolta says in Pulp Fiction, that’s a bold statement. If eight million of you hadn’t bought the album and Saint Cobain hadn’t ventilated his own head, I promise you, you would not see Nevermind on this list. That’s a lot like the above example of rating Deuce Bigalow above Citizen Kane. Sure, you’re entitled to that opinion, but good luck backing it up.

Of course, that’s just what I think.

I love these debates, and I love the big, stupid lists that often spark them. Kudos to VH-1 for even undertaking this project, and for doing a decent job at it all around. Of course, they forgot Frank Zappa entirely…

Okay, I’m all out. Next week, Jonatha or controversy, depending on how I feel.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Nevermind? Bollocks! Where’s the Beatles?
The Dangers of Doing a Top 100 Anything

Funerals are weird.

Especially if they’re the funerals of family members. I feel as though I just spent a week away from my own life, in a strange parallel dimension where time remained in motion, yet suspended. The wake and funeral of a close family member means a week or so in an odd sort of haze, where you’re not expected to do anything but grieve, nor be anything but a griever. The odd part is, you still are the same multitude of things you’ve always been, and you still do the multitude of things you always do. If you happen, however, to collapse in the middle of a room and cry, for that one week, no one will hold it against you. You’re not expected to do or be anything else.

My Nana was 91 years old, which is pretty damn amazing, considering she wasn’t supposed to live past 50 or so. She contracted polio at 14 months, and had it her whole life. (The vaccine hadn’t been discovered yet in 1909.) She never grew past four-foot-one, and she never walked without the assistance of crutches, but that never stopped her from doing anything she wanted. I found it hard to feel sorry for Nana, because she never once felt sorry for herself. Sure, her passing was sad, but that was tempered with the joy that was her life, and the feeling shared by all present at her funeral that somewhere, right now, she’s dancing on the strong pair of legs she never had down here.

My sincerest thanks to everyone who sent condolences via e-mail, and to those who came to her wake. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have made friends with all of you.

We’re still in the post-Christmas dry spell, even though I thought we’d be out of it by now. Both Duncan Sheik’s Phantom Moon and the Orb’s Cydonia were pushed back to mid-March, and it looks like the first big release of the new year will be Dave Matthews Band’s Everyday on February 27.

Two weeks before that, though, is a release that I’m looking forward to more: Jonatha Brooke’s new Steady Pull. Brooke’s the latest artist to go the Aimee Mann route and start her own label up, which she did in reaction to MCA’s unbelievable bungling of her second solo album, 10 Cent Wings. I’m telling you, I haven’t seen a bigger case of a label not knowing what they had in a long time. There were four (at least) top 10 singles on this thing that no one ever got a chance to hear. “Because I Told You So” is the most criminally underpromoted song of the last five years. No kidding. Just a tiny marketing push behind this moving tune and Brooke would have been on her way to a very promising major label career. But no.

I’ve heard a bit of Steady Pull online, and it doesn’t sound as promising as 10 Cent Wings, but I don’t want to sell it short before I hear the whole thing. You can check both albums out at jonathabrooke.com, where you can also pre-order an autographed copy of the new record for no extra charge. If you’re into that sort of thing.

2001 might very well be the year that female performers drag the industry back to the heights of 1999 and before. There’s that new Bjork (called Domestika) coming in May, Amy Ray’s Stag hitting on March 6, and a new Shawn Colvin (she of “Sunny Came Home” fame) on March 27. That one’s called Whole New You. I’m most excited, though, by this bit of news that I picked up last weekend. For those of you (like me) who found it somewhat odd that Ani DiFranco remained uncharacteristically silent throughout 2000, especially after releasing a record three full-length discs in 1999, get ready. On April 24 the little folksinger that could releases a 28-song double disc called Reveling/Reckoning. Naturally, the songs are divided into those two categories and separated on two CDs. Still, each of her albums has been remarkably cohesive, especially lately, and even her bad ones (Up Up Up etc.) are fascinating. She’s evolved from a minimalist acoustic artist into a studio wizard, and Reveling/Reckoning should be the biggest-sounding thing she’s done.

In other scattered news:

I had the privilege of watching Aerosmith shame themselves on national television, appearing with musical talents the stature of ‘N Sync, Britney Spears and Nelly. (Tick, 14:58… tick, 14:59… I’m sorry, that’s your 15 minutes, Mr. Nelly, now go the fuck away.) The new single, “Jaded,” rips off David Bowie in both sound and stutter, and I have very few hopes for the quality of the album, Just Push Play, out on March 20. As for the Super Bowl haftime show, to quote Ben Stiller, it ‘N Sucked.

There are rumblings that this year could see the release of The Soular Return of Terence Trent D’Arby. The album’s reportedly been done for more than two years, and has been sitting about in a warehouse somewhere. You remember Terence Trent D’Arby, right? Heir apparent to Prince’s throne, equally funky one-man band, soul machine, strange cat? Come on, sure you do…

Tears for Fears fans (meaning you, Liz), rejoice, because Roland Orzabal’s solo album, Tomcats Screaming Outside, will be released on March 19. Hopefully it’ll sound nothing like its title. TFF has been, for all intents and purposes, an Orzabal solo project for three albums anyway, so the solo thing shouldn’t be a major change. Incidentally, I dug out my copy of Tears’ 1995 album Raoul and the Kings of Spain recently, and was surprised at how much I liked it. “Sketches of Pain” is a terrific song.

In other solo album news, Glen Philips, vocalist/guitarist/lyricist for Toad the Wet Sprocket, will release Abulum (not a misspelling) on April 10. Reportedly, the album returns to Toad’s acoustic roots, which they sadly abandoned on their ho-hum final album, Coil.

Rumor control: We finally have a release date for the new Rufus Wainwright album, the long-awaited Poses. It’ll be in stores on April 17. Naturally, that’s as subject to change as the last four release dates we’ve been given for that album. Also on April 17 comes the new Tool studio disc. Despite what you may have heard elsewhere, I have it on good authority that the album will be called Systema Encephale. I think that’s bastard Latin for “the workings of the brain,” but don’t quote me.

Oh, and one more bit of info: the new R.E.M., slated for May, is called Reveal.

I wanted to mention one more thing before I go. There’s a movie coming out on February 9 directed by Ridley Scott and starring Sir Anthony Hopkins in a reprise of his most famous role. I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about. Well, in preparation, I spent five hours reading Thomas Harris’ book, and all I can say is that I want my five hours back. Hannibal is a piece of feces. I took some time to think of ways the book could have been a bigger betrayal of Harris’ readers, and I couldn’t come up with a single one. There are frequent posters to Hannibal Lecter message boards (what a strange thought) that seem to know Harris’ characters better than he does. The final 50 pages are a backhanded stab to the kidneys of not just his characters, but everyone that made his characters famous. I’m not sure how much they paid Stephen King to call it “one of the two most frightening popular novels of our time, the other being The Exorcist,” but it was probably less than the 10 million Harris got to spew this thing out.

Let me try to approximate how poorly written, poorly researched and all-around sad this thing is:

We see a man, covered in shadows. Smell of oranges. Dripping cavern somewhere. Dare we move closer? It is Dr. Lecter. He ate a brain from a llama. Dr. Lecter has always liked the brains of llamas. Did you know that llamas are indigenous to the island of Crete, located off the shores of Italy? Slurp. A sound from somewhere else. Dr. Lecter turned his head, and sees… but no. Let us move on to another chapter. They are only four paragraphs each. Slobber.

I’m serious, it’s that bad. If the movie sucks as much as the book, the stink factor will be HUGE. As for those of you who already suffered through Harris’ mangled prose, I say we march on his house and demand our rightful share of that 10 million.

Next time, I’ll probably have something to say about that 100 Greatest Albums of Rock ‘n’ Roll nonsense. Yeah, it’s good to be back.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles