Four Short Pieces About Four New Records
New Ones From Neil Finn, Weezer, Moby and Mark Eitzel

For various reasons, I’ve been needing some reassurance lately that my analytical nature hasn’t completely overridden my ability to react emotionally to stirring works of art. Star Wars helped a bit, but I was too personally invested in the saga to really take my giddiness as any sort of sign. A few people have told me lately that I think too much, that I need to feel more when it comes to music and art in general, and so I’ve been waiting and looking for something that can provoke a completely emotional response in me, just to prove to myself that it can still happen.

And then this morning, I saw the season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a friend tapes it for me when I can’t make the original airdates), and wept like a two year old girl. Just cried, uncontrollably, for something like 10 minutes. And I think about it now, hours later, and I realize that it’s just a television show, and that there are countless silly and illogical things about it, and it still gets me. God, was that terrific.

And God, do I feel silly typing it as the lead-in for this series of analytical reviews of recent CDs, but you know what? The fact that I can still feel something as distant as a TV show so deeply means to me that anything and everything artistic should be able to make that same connection, and the fact that most of it doesn’t is not my fault. That moment of release, where your whole being is enveloped in its reaction to someone else’s expression, is what all of this analysis is about. Nearly everything I see and hear fails to make that leap, and all of this sound and fury I pump into reviewing these things is geared towards finding out why. When art hits the mark with me, I know it, and when it doesn’t, I wonder.

Here are a few more wonderings:

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If you ever need proof that popularity is not based on merit, you need only look at the career of Neil Finn.

Here’s a guy who can justifiably be classed as one of the greatest living songwriters. He’s fronted a pair of great bands – first, the raucous and witty Split Enz, and then Crowded House, one of the finest pop ensembles since those four lads from Liverpool. There are four Crowded House albums, and every one of ’em is a masterpiece. Finn has gone on to a successful post-CH career across the pond (he’s a New Zealand native), first with his brother Tim in the Finn Brothers and then on his own with Try Whistling This, a twisty and complex pop album that signaled the end of his American record contract.

Finn’s follow-up to Try Whistling This is called One Nil, or at least it was when it came out last year in Europe and Australia. Nettwerk Records picked up both that album and a live record called 7 Worlds Collide and brought them to these shores, but One Nil (out this week here) didn’t survive intact. Two tracks have been dropped from the original, two more added and the running order has been completely reworked. The album has also been inexplicably retitled One All, ostensibly because Americans wouldn’t be familiar with the term “nil.” Never mind that the American translation would be more accurately One Zero

Anyway, forget all that, because the album is right up there with the best stuff Finn has released, no matter what it’s called. Like Try Whistling This, the new album takes some time to sink in. These are not the immediate, direct pop songs of the Crowded House era. Finn has matured, and his four-minute marvels have matured along with him. Each song slowly unfolds and reveals hidden depths. There are no hit singles here, but there are 12 dreamy and ultimately fulfilling journeys that lead down unexpected paths.

Three of the best songs appeared previously on 7 Worlds Collide, and the new arrangements take some getting used to. The soaring “Anytime,” an atmospheric affair live, is here propelled by strong backbeats and ornate piano fills. I’m glad I have both versions, as the live one suits the song better, even though the album rendition fits in with the record’s overall tone. “Turn and Run” is just as magnificent in its studio incarnation as in its live one, but opener “The Climber” suffers a bit from a minimalist arrangement.

No such comparisons can drag down the other nine tracks, however, and all are, if not home runs, then solid triples. “Driving Me Mad” is built around one of Finn’s best hooks, “Last to Know” meanders pleasantly until it settles on a monster of a bridge, “Wherever You Are” floats by like a soft breeze, and “Human Kindness” is simply this album’s trickiest and most invigorating moment. The U.S. version concludes with the European single, the rollicking “Rest of the Day Off,” and the elegiac “Into the Sunset,” a sweet farewell.

The biggest problem with One All is that it’s over rather quickly. There’s no sense of grandeur or importance in these songs. Rather, it’s a subdued and subtle affair that demands attention to its sublime details. This is an album that grows more affecting with repeated listens, which is a sure sign that it won’t win back the acclaim that Finn received for the first Crowded House album. And the artist likely has no hopes that it will, since One All is less an event, and more just another great Neil Finn album. He’s stopped chasing fame and just settled into the role of one of the best and least assuming singer/songwriters in the world, and it’s a role that suits him well.

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I paid $16 for the new Weezer CD, Maladroit. I wasn’t too surprised to find out that the 13-track CD clocks in at only 32 minutes, but come on, that’s 50 cents a minute. My phone bill is 40 cents a minute better than that.

I wouldn’t gripe so much, but Maladroit is not quite the one-two punch I was expecting after last year’s similarly brief Weezer (a.k.a The Green Album). That album was perfect – 10 simple, short songs that left you wanting more. Maladroit, on the other hand, might be the most sprawling and inconsistent 32-minute record ever made. In a way, it resembles 1992’s Pinkerton, which head nerd Rivers Cuomo has all but disowned. It covers a lot of similar ground.

For instance, there is deadpan emo sendup “Death and Destruction,” which takes a stab at a genre Weezer helped to create with Pinkerton. The entirety of the lyrics read: “I can’t say that you love me, so I cry and I’m hurting, and every time that I call you, you find some way to ditch me, so I learn to turn and look the other way.” “Slob” sees the return of Cuomo’s angsty voice, a la “No Other One,” and bemoans the life of a put-upon layabout. Both these songs are slow meanders, as is “Space Rock,” although that one’s just a mess.

Elsewhere, though, Weezer really strut their stuff effectively. The opening trilogy (if three songs adding up to six minutes can be called a trilogy) is classic stuff, including the single “Dope Nose,” with its straight-faced dumb-rock riff. “Slave” might be the finest two-minute slab of pop-punk these boys have come up with yet, and closer “December” is quite lovely. “Burndt Jamb” takes the place of “Island in the Sun” this time, but is less catchy.

I wouldn’t want to say Weezer rushed this album out, considering the five-year delay between their second and third records, but when you can seriously imagine 10 minutes being cut from a 32-minute album, some more work may have been beneficial. Maladroit is harsher in tone than their last effort as well, and the walls of guitar tend to grate after a while. It’s an overall less likable effort, which may have been the point, as Cuomo only seems happy when he’s miserable in some way. If history is any indication, Maladroit will be coolly received, and Cuomo will collapse back into another five years of self-loathing before re-emerging with something worth listening to more than twice.

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Moby titled his new album 18 because there are 18 songs on it.

That’s the level of creativity and inspiration you can expect from this new effort by the unlikeliest pop star in the history of unlikely pop stars. Moby started as a revered techno DJ, creating his own spins on the James Bond theme and music from Twin Peaks. He also dabbled in ambient soundscapes which were miles behind similar work by Aphex Twin, to name one. Later, he made a great album in Everything is Wrong, one that expanded the boundaries of techno to include rock and ambient trance, and followed it up with an utter disaster of a guitar noise album called Animal Rights before stumbling ass-backwards into a successful mix with Play.

“Successful” may be putting it mildly – Play stayed on the charts for two years, yielded four or five hit singles, and songs from it will likely keep appearing in commercials and on movie soundtracks until the earth grinds to a halt and turns to dust. It’s hard to gripe about that, though, because Play is a spectacular album, messy and inconsistent and spiritual and full of grace. On Play, Moby married old blues and gospel recordings to his trademark synthscapes, and the result was breathtakingly fresh. Looking back on his career, though, one thing seemed certain: Moby was completely unpredictable.

Well, scratch that theory. 18 has the dubious distinction of being the first Moby album that sounds almost exactly like its immediate predecessor. We’ve all heard “We Are All Made of Stars,” the limp single, and while it may seem to signal a departure from Play, the next track dispels that handily. “In This World” sets a wailing gospel vocal over a beat and a synth backdrop, as does “In My Heart,” “One of These Mornings,” “The Rafters” and “I’m Not Worried at All,” to name a few. Moby takes a few turns at vocals, just like last time, on “Signs of Love” and “Extreme Ways,” and invites a few female singers to step up to the mic, just like last time, on “At Least We Tried” and “Great Escape.” The music is all depressingly similar to Play‘s mix of ambient synths and trippy beats, and even a collaboration with Sinead O’Connor (“Harbour”) fails to breathe any originality into the mix.

Which shouldn’t hurt this album’s popularity at all. Often people are upset when an artist follows a successful release with a clone, but in this case it should suit Moby’s newfound legion of fans just fine. When the Play formula works, it really works, and even though the immediate effect of most of this album is diminished due to its familiarity, the basic appeal of Play is present throughout. For my money, the best of the lot is “Fireworks,” which captures the fragility of Play‘s quietest moments. For a guy who’s been pretty resolute in his artistry for more than a decade, though, 18 is disappointingly safe. If the next one is called 18 Again, I ain’t buying it.

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I was surprised when Mark Eitzel announced that his fifth album would be called Music for Courage and Confidence, because those words seem incongruous with his gorgeously sad catalog. Eitzel has always made lullabyes for the timid and the weary, the sad sacks who seem to live under a black cloud. He has an uncanny knack for bringing out the most depressing interpretation of any lyric and melody, even a romp like “Proclaim Your Joy” on his last album, the terrific The Invisible Man.

The mystery of the title became a lot clearer when I found out that Music for Courage and Confidence would be a covers album. It also seemed a good way to test the above theory, to see if Eitzel’s downhearted treatments of others’ songs would convey the same sense of hopelessness as his original works. Surprise, they do, and they do it beautifully.

Unlike a lot of covers albums, Courage and Confidence benefits from Eitzel’s choice of material. He croons some old standards, like Bill Withers’ inexhaustible “Ain’t No Sunshine,” but also graces some unique choices, like Anne Murray’s “Snowbird,” which opens the album, and Kris Kristofferson’s lovely “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Eitzel somehow turns “I Only Have Eyes for You” into a lonely lament. He strums his world-weary way through Phil Ochs’ anthem to resignation, “Rehearsals for Retirement,” and closes with a terrific rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” The album, no surprise, sticks to low-key arrangements and melancholy moods throughout, but there is one exception: the pulsing take on Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up.”

But perhaps the most surprising, and oddly the most effective, choice here is Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me,” here transformed into a plaintive plea. Herein lies the genius of Mark Eitzel – he can make even a fluffy pop trifle into a deeply emotional affair. Music for Courage and Confidence is another swell project from Eitzel, the patron saint of sad-eyed depressives everywhere. His gift for heartbreak is so great that he can find it in even the unlikeliest of places.

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Next week, that sarcastic genius, Eminem. Betcha can’t wait.

See you in line Tuesday morning.