Welcome to the longest column…EVER.
The idea here is to play catch-up on new releases over the past few weeks. Even though I’m planning to use several thousand words this time, I’m pretty sure I’m not even going to get to roughly half of the discs I’ve picked up in the last month. You probably won’t see reviews of Jude, Curve, Suzanne Vega or the Verve Pipe this time – in fact, no “probably” about it. I’m drawing the line at four reviews, maybe five. You’ll just have to wait for my scintillating comments on the rest of September.
But damn, this month was packed with tunes. I’m probably going to set up a completely separate page for an ongoing Phish live series review – I have the first two volumes, which adds up to about five hours of material that I’m still digesting. For this column alone, I have my pick of 14 albums to review. As the Pope said to the astronaut, no fucking way, kemosabe. Just four or five. Then I’m going to bed.
But first, a small digression. I went to see Bandits this weekend, which was mildly amusing. Like half his oeuvre, this film wasn’t quite worthy of director Barry Levinson. He’s made the stunning Diner, the half-baked Sleepers and the unwatchable An Everlasting Piece. This movie falls somewhere near the upper half of his output – not great, but amusing.
Anyway, Billy Bob Thornton is absolutely hysterical throughout, playing a hypochondriac bank robber who is, amazingly, the brains of the operation. Levinson really let Thornton have free rein, resulting in some gut-busting straight-faced line deliveries and sight gags. The moment that has stayed with me, for some reason, comes about an hour in, when Thornton is startled from his sleep. He lunges awake, but before he comes to completely, he half-shouts, “Beavers and ducks!” Why I find this so amusing is utterly beyond me, but I’ve been cracking myself up with the line ever since.
Anyway. Thought I’d share that.
Beavers and ducks!
Some regular readers will find this surprising, but if I were to be money on any one band surviving the alt-rock revolution, that band would be Live. For four steadily improving albums, they’ve mixed equal parts accessibility and inscrutability, delivering it with a sly pretentiousness that hints at importance. That impression doesn’t quite stand up under close inspection, but every record Live has delivered has been solid and epic in sound and scope.
Also in their favor is the fact that every album they’ve done has been substantially different from the one before. Secret Samahdi, for example, presented a three-ton wall of sound, which contrasted with its successor, The Distance to Here, a gentle, melodic work. Holding the catalog together is the incontrovertible voice of Ed Kowalczyk, who makes you believe in every nonsensical string of lyric he utters.
Despite everything, they’re almost faceless, a band the world at large takes for granted. In that regard, they’re lumped in with Collective Soul, another successful group that doesn’t get recognized on the streets, finds a notable lack of teenage groupies surrounding their bus, and probably has to reintroduce themselves to their record company reps each time they deliver an album. Naturally, under these circumstances, the sellout just beckons – Live has so far missed out on that one enormous hit that defines their career. Their biggest smashes were “I Alone” and “Lightning Crashes,” off their second album, Throwing Copper, and if you can sing either one from memory, you’re likely a fan of the band. The casual radio listener wouldn’t know them from Adam Ant.
In Collective Soul’s case, there’s just nowhere to go, sellout-wise. They’re already as bland and homogenized as they can get without going completely Hootie on us. Live, on the other hand, have always had a sense of integrity about them, and a refreshing lack of commercial intentions. Plus, they wrote good songs, ones that practically reek of earnest effort and craft. Long story short, there’s a plunge there waiting to be taken, and take it they have with V, their just-released fifth album.
It speaks volumes about the staying power of this band, though, that even their sellout record isn’t half bad. It starts off quite strong, in fact, with “Simple Creed,” a typically preachy and huge-sounding anthem. This could be the hit (it is the first single), but I don’t think so – further radio-ready gems await later on in the running order.
Alas, the record quickly falls apart, stringing petrified rock-like chunks next to stale fluff, like the cranberries and popcorn that adorned your Christmas tree. Sure, they look nice from a distance, but bite into them and you’ll find an appalling lack of flavor. (And the award for most strained metaphor goes to…)
It’s a steady downward slope from the repetitive psycho-sex of “Deep Enough” to the faux-rebellion of “People Like You” to the utter forgettability of “Transmit Your Love.” The record absolutely bottoms out with “Forever May Not Be Long Enough,” which sounds vaguely like Iron Maiden mixed with Enigma. Naturally, that’s the song on which the band received outside songwriting assistance for the first time, turning to Alanis Morisette’s best friend Glen Ballard. The band really tries to sell this overproduced pile of schlock, but it’s no use.
This seems like a good time to mention that one of the most disappointing elements of V is Kowalczyk’s lyrics. The man’s trademark impenetrability is nowhere to be found, replaced by a lame series of sub-Bryan Adams cliches. I’ve already mentioned “Forever May Not Be Long Enough,” but how about some of these howlers: “I’m one with the fools of love,” “Here I come again, playin’ the hero of love,” “You don’t need no money to truly fly away,” and “Tell your leaders that love is in town, to turn this whole thing upside down.” Sheesh, huh? I don’t believe there’s a song here that doesn’t make use of the word “love.” This is an unfortunate first for this band.
Thankfully, the album pulls its disparate pieces together by the eighth track or so and ends up as a halfway decent alt-rock collection. The Middle-Eastern elements in “The Ride” somehow work to the song’s advantage, while the earnest emotionalism of “Call Me a Fool” actually comes off well. They experiment constantly with the sonic palette, and end up delivering the first Live song with no guitars at all, the plaintive “Overcome.” This song will be the hit, mark my words. The sugary keyboards and schmaltzy strings come together in epic fashion through Kowalczyk’s awe-inspiring voice, so the effect is more R.E.M.’s “Nighswimming” than Motley Crue‘s “Home Sweet Home.” Thank Christ.
V is Live’s first major misstep, and even so, it’s at least halfway acceptable. There have been far worse sellout records, and if “Overcome” hits huge, well then, so much the better. The only thing worse than a sellout record is a sellout record no one buys, because then it’s a lose-lose situation all around. Hopefully this is a temporary aberration, but I also hope it sells enough copies to make it worth the band’s while. If you’re all humming “Overcome” around Christmastime, then I’ll consider V a success.
It’s appalling that people still consider They Might Be Giants a novelty band. Here’s an example to illustrate my point: Right Said Fred were a novelty band. They showed up, desperate for attention, waving their silly hit single in everyone’s faces for a month or two, and then they went away. You look back on Right Said Fred and think, “Oh right, them. They were funny. I can’t remember why.”
They Might Be Giants, on the other hand, have been plying their trade for more than 15 years. Yeah, they’re clever, witty and often downright silly, but a novelty band? Never. There’s real songcraft in evidence all over their 10-album catalog, a fact that’s sometimes overshadowed by John Linnell’s quirky voice and lyrics. Just their 1994 album John Henry puts most horn-driven rock bands to shame.
TMBG is two Johns, Linnell and Flansburgh, accompanied by the Band of Dans, three guys named Dan. Casual radio listeners know them from their 1991 hit “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” but they might also recall “Don’t Let’s Start” and “She Was a Hotel Detective.” Lately, you may recognize the Giants from their catchy theme song to Malcolm in the Middle, called “You’re Not the Boss of Me.” While they’re not quite an institution, the Massachusetts duo has had enough successes to be considered established.
Anyway, not counting their slew of EPs, the new Mink Car is the Giants’ 10th album. Unfortunately for the technophobes among us, TMBG have gone almost entirely ‘net-based, releasing MP3s of new tracks and even an entire album (Long Tall Weekend) online. As with many bands that have taken this route, the process of compiling and releasing CDs to record stores has become almost an afterthought. The CDs themselves are often made up of tracks the netheads have had for months, and almost always have a mix tape quality to them.
Mink Car is no exception, but TMBG records have always had that mix tape quality anyway. It’s an inconsistent recording, but then, they all are, and that’s part of their charm. There are odds and ends sprinkled throughout Mink Car, but if you weed through those, you’ll find some of the most engaging witty pop around. In short, it’s another They Might Be Giants album.
Mink Car opens with “Bangs,” one of the brightest spots. It’s actually about the hair that hangs in his girlfriend’s eyes. “I’m only holding your hand so I can look at your bangs,” Linnell sings, and somehow he makes the line romantic. You’re then jolted into the clanging “Cyclops Rock,” a monstrous love song which contains the line, “It was sweet like lead paint was sweet, but the after-effects left me paralyzed.” The concluding sentiment is my favorite – “There’s a whole new generation waiting to be wrecked by you.” Mink Car yanks you about both musically and emotionally, rarely settling for the easy laugh.
Sure, those easy laughs are there – dig “I’ve Got a Fang,” about a guy who… well, has a fang: “Glistening white triangular tooth, open up a can of tomato soup…” Also on the merely clever side is “Older,” whose lyrics read, “You’re older than you’ve ever been, and now you’re even older, and now you’re even older, and now you’re even older.”
TMBG is at their best, however, when they’re aiming for subtle wit. Observe “Hopeless Bleak Despair,” which concerns a fellow who finally finds a way to rid himself of the black cloud that’s surrounded his life. Then there’s “She Thinks She’s Edith Head,” a track culled from Long Tall Weekend. “She thinks she’s Edith Head,” Linnell sings with disgust, “or Helen Gurley Brown, or some other cultural figure we don’t know a lot about.” It’s a great recursive equation of a lyric, pointing out the singer’s hypocrisy while never wavering from the song’s self-righteous tone.
Other highlights include “Man, It’s So Loud in Here,” a great Pet Shop Boys imitation concerning nightculb conversation, and “Mr. Xcitement,” a collaboration with M. Doughty of Soul Coughing. (It’s worth pointing out that superior versions of this song exist online.) When all is said and done, though, the Giants have written at least one absolute gem here, a sweet number called “Another First Kiss.” Completely original love songs are the hardest things to write, but Linnell and Flansburgh carry it off perfectly. Why this won’t be a hit is unfathomable, but of course it won’t.
Mink Car is another satisfying They Might Be Giants release, well-made and constantly surprising. For a more complete picture of modern TMBG, you should log onto www.tmbg.com. Regardless, if you can get through all 17 tracks of Mink Car and still think of them as a throwaway novelty band, I’ll be stunned.
Ah, King’s X. Where do I start?
How about this: the only other band I can think of who has lost their own plot so completely is Radiohead. King’s X bowed in 1988 with a sound that was completely their own. The Texas trio laid down foundations of heavy, thudding riffs and layered gorgeous harmonies and atmospheres on top of them to spectacular effect. Their first three albums (Out of the Silent Planet, Gretchen Goes to Nebraska and Faith Hope Love) are all masterpieces, each outdistancing the last in ambition and execution. They were blazing a new sound, years before the melodic metal thing caught on. King’s X albums were labors of love, retaining their freshness even as the arrangements got more complex and impossible to play. Faith Hope Love still stands as their most musically baffling album, challenging young guitarists the way Rush’s 2112 had a decade and a half before.
And then… I don’t know what happened. Their last great album, 1992’s Dogman, eschewed the harmonies for a louder, harsher sound that towered over most of the albums that outsold it that year. In its wake, King’s X have floundered, releasing four half-assed efforts. Sadly, they sound resigned, as if they’ve convinced themselves that the brass ring will always remain tantalizingly out of reach, so why even try for it?
I saw this band live last year in Maine, and though all three (bassist/vocalist Doug Pinnick, guitarist Ty Tabor and drummer Jerry Gaskill) looked weathered and worn, they played like a machine, still knocking the assembled dozens out with skillful, emotional playing. The band I saw is nowhere in evidence on King’s X’s ninth album, Manic Moonlight. Once again, the trio has decided to forego challenging themselves and have made an album unworthy of their raw talent.
Manic Moonlight is a bad weekend jam session, a collection of repetitive one-note riffs and pseudo-funk. Each song starts out with a snatch of looped electronic drums, a first for the band. However, they don’t do anything with them – they’re just lazy sonic coloring. You could mix them right out and the songs would remain unchanged. As for the songs themselves, they exhibit the barest degree of composition, content to repeat themselves for five minutes and fade out. Yeah, the harmonies are back, but they don’t have anything to do either – there are almost no melodies to augment.
The King’s X sound still raises goose bumps, though, and its that residual feeling that carries Manic Moonlight. Ty Tabor has an unmistakable guitar tone, thick and airy at the same time, and though he doesn’t get off as many great leads or haunting atmospherics here as he has in the past, the pure sound of his six-string is breathtaking. When the band finds a suitable melodic line, as they do on “False Alarm” and “The Other Side,” they spin a masterful web of sound. When they stick in a redundant groove like the half-rap “Skeptical Winds,” however, they can deliver a tedious seven minutes.
One of the hallmarks of early King’s X that’s been sadly missing of late is Pinnick’s commanding vocals. The man used to scream his little heart out, and I know he can still do it because I heard him on stage last year. You have to wade through to track eight, “Vegetable,” to hear even a hint of the passion that used to burst from the speakers. That song isn’t half bad – it might have even made the cut on Dogman, but I doubt it. That it’s the undeniable high point on this album is a shame.
It’s even more depressing, though, when you consider that Manic Moonlight follows the best of their recent albums, Please Come Home…Mr. Bulbous. That disc found both the harmonies and the complex song structures making a comeback, and while it was nowhere near the brilliance of the first three, it was a step in the right direction. If you’ve never heard King’s X before, then Manic Moonlight may strike you as something entirely new and fascinating. If you’re a longtime fan, however, it merely represents the proverbial two steps back.
Beavers and ducks!
So before even spinning Roland Orzabal’s debut solo album, Tomcats Screaming Outside, I checked the list of thanks to see if he acknowledged Curt Smith, his former partner in Tears for Fears. I do this whenever a member of a long-running band goes solo – it’s kind of a gauge on how amicable the breakup was. Well, he didn’t, but that’s no real surprise, since Orzabal has been the sole member of Tears for Fears for just about a decade now.
As Tears for Fears, Orzabal released what amounts to two previous solo albums. These came on the heels of three critically-acclaimed TFF records with Smith. The twosome imprinted themselves on the cultural consciousness with the ubiquitous hits “Shout,” “Head Over Heels,” “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” (now the theme song to Dennis Miller Live) and “The Seeds of Love.” Occasionally, you’ll hear other semi-hits from this period, like “Advice for the Young at Heart,” “The Working Hour” or “Woman in Chains.” They were thoughtful when music at large was empty, and they were sonic innovators when musicians at large gave in to empty synth production.
The Orzabal-alone incarnation of TFF wasn’t quite as lucky, which is a shame. Both solo TFF works (Elemental and the great Raoul and the Kings of Spain) can hold their own with the classic Tears discs, and 1995’s Raoul is actually quite a bit better than any of them. Alas, with his contract up, Orzabal is free to put the Tears for Fears name to bed and sign his own to his new work. Unfortunately, not many people outside the TFF circle of fans could match that name up with the voice.
But what a voice it is. Roland Orzabal’s commanding tenor is his chief asset, capable of gentle reflection and anguished bellows within the same stanza. He gives that voice quite a workout on Tomcats, an engaging tonal waterfall that completely leaves behind the commercial impulses of his old band. While the songs don’t quite match up to the bounty of riches he delivered on Raoul, they do make for a challenging and worthwhile listen.
Tomcats starts organically and gradually becomes more electronic as it goes along. The opener, “Ticket to the World,” is a brash, loud, guitar-driven assault that comes out swinging. While the screaming tone of this tune somewhat belies the rest of the disc, it’s an awesome opener, and it displays the full range of that superb voice. “Low Life,” the first single, is reminiscent of Tears, but after that, the similarities pretty much end.
In light of current events, any song that calls for peace and an end to violent means would seem particularly poignant. The chilling pop song “Bullets for Brains” could have been written after September 11, so neatly does it address the world situation. (In truth, Orzabal’s record company has been sitting on this for a year, releasing it across the Atlantic a few months ago and finally getting around to a stateside release early last month. September 11, in fact.)
The final half of Tomcats is a swirling wonderama of programmed beats and celestial melodies. “Kill Love,” in particular, seems to float from the speakers in waves, each supercharged beat disintegrating to make room for the thousands behind it. Atop all this flutter, Roland Orzabal wields that voice, hammering the ether into the most grounded float music in some time. Tears for Fears fans will be excited to hear that Tomcats is, by far, Orzabal’s most sonically perfect recording. The two gorgeous closers, “Snowdrop” and “Maybe Our Days are Numbered,” grab hold of European techno and spin ambient-pop gold.
Tomcats won’t win Roland Orzabal his fame back, but for fans of his singing and songwriting, it offers a difficult, beautiful work of art that’s the equal of most of his Tears work. If you lost track of Orzabal after “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” this is a great way to find out what you’ve been missing. If you’ve been following this idiosyncratic artist all along, this album is just as good as you likely expect, and maybe even a bit better.
You may recall reading in this column about Dream Theater’s ill-fated live album Live Scenes From New York. Released on September 11, the three-disc set boasted a cover image (crafted months previous) that depicted the World Trade Center, as well as the rest of the New York skyline, in flames. Being sensitive lads, the band immediately recalled the album and quickly re-released it with altered artwork – a big gold Dream Theater logo in place of the fiery image.
So I was quite surprised when I wandered into my local store to buy the re-release and the owner, apparently having determined my sensitivity level from my unshaven, unkempt appearance, offered me the original cover art. “Sure,” I said before I knew what I was uttering, and so now I have a Dream Theater live album that, to me at least, stands as a memorial to the events of the 11th. I also have a Dream Theater live album that I can never show anyone, for fear of giving great offense. Ah well…
Live Scenes From New York documents a mammoth show at the Roseland Ballroom last August. This was near the end of their tour supporting their latest studio album, Scenes From a Memory, a huge concept piece that they performed in its entirety at every show. That album makes up the first disc and three tracks of the second on this album, or just about 75 minutes. The remaining 110 minutes are filled with songs from every phase of DT’s career.
Why release such a thing, especially since the double-disc Once in a Livetime covered much of the same ground only two years ago? Two words: Jordan Rudess. He’s the new keyboard player, a virtuoso genius who once played with the Dixie Dregs. Rudess has energized this band to an inestimable degree – hearing the previous live album and this one side by side is like finally seeing one of those magic pictures of sailboats come into focus. (You know the ones – “Relax your eyes!”) Dream Theater were an amazing band before, but Rudess has provided the missing link. Now they’re unbelievable.
A Dream Theater live album is much more than a recitation of studio versions anyway. Simply reproducing this band’s mind-bendingly complex prog-rock on stage would be difficult enough, but DT is so tight and talented that they constantly improve upon the studio versions in a live setting. Most groups would be hard-pressed to keep all the sections of a song like “Just Let Me Breathe” straight, never mind adding whole new bits and tacking it onto a fiery new instrumental called “Acid Rain.”
Which brings us back to Rudess. The keyboard spot in Dream Theater has had a higher turnover rate than the drum position in Spinal Tap, and each of Rudess’ predecessors merely played atop the rest of the group, adding color and occasional solos. Rudess is the first to match his bandmates’ skill level, and he incorporates the keyboard as an essential part of the sound. He can take over rhythms and lead lines with equal grace and can harmonize with guitarist John Petrucci, no matter how complex the melodic line he’s playing.
And some of these melodic lines are pretty damn complex. Scenes From a Memory, which is tracks one through 13, is a classic rock opera, weaving melodies in and out of its running time. The band was smart not to break it up – it plays like a 75-minute symphony, albeit one with bone-crushingly heavy guitars. They even wrote a brand-new, complicated coda to the last tune, “Finally Free,” that brings it all together and closes it in fine fashion.
Dream Theater doesn’t leave you hanging after that, though. They burn through five classics, including “The Mirror” and “Metropolis Part One,” each song energized and improved by Rudess’ contributions. They finally slow it down with “Another Day,” featuring Spyro Gyra’s Jay Beckenstein on saxophone. Disc three consists of three songs, each right around 20 minutes and each breathtakingly complex. The three-part “A Mind Beside Itself” concludes with a full-band jam version of “The Silent Man,” “Learning to Live” breaks into reggae for the keyboard solo, and the complete “A Change of Seasons” handily outshines its studio version, even breaking into the Simpsons theme at one point.
Occasionally, vocalist James LaBrie reaches a bit beyond his range, but that’s the only weakness here. DT slams through three hours and 10 minutes of the most difficult yet melodic music you’re likely to hear. The real stunner is that this set is culled from one show – the band played all of this technically demanding and physically draining material straight through, no breaks. You’d think they might miss a note or two by the end, but the only acknowledgement the band makes to the marathon length of the concert is LaBrie’s wry comment at the end: “Sorry for playing such a short set.”
There’s a reason there aren’t any Dream Theater cover bands – only these five musicians can adequately play this material. With the addition of Jordan Rudess, they’re playing it better than they ever have before. Live Scenes From New York is an exhausting listen, but sure proof of the indomitable skill of this band. Their next studio album, the double-disc Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, ought to be worth watching out for.
There are 4,273 words in my document at the moment, so I don’t see the point in adding any more, do you? Next week, Sloan. The week after, Aphex Twin. You’ve wasted enough time reading this mess – go outside, throw a frisbee around or something. Talk to you again in seven.
See you in line Tuesday morning.