Size Does Matter
Six Reviews, One Long, Hard Column

It’s a long, hard one this week, designed for your pleasure. Hi, and welcome to Bad Sex Puns R Us. How may we service you?

I won’t even try to connect these reviews thematically. Enjoy the scattered. Embrace the disjointed. Away we go…

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There are an awful lot of obscure bands.

I know that’s not really an insightful observation, but a lot of people don’t seem to realize that. An alarming number of folks believe that all the music that’s being created right now can be found in your local Sam Goody store, and can be heard on MTV. The truth is, those two companies actually showcase a depressingly small fraction of the music available, and even the most alternative-cool anti-corporate record store can only stock a slightly higher fraction of same. The definition of obscure changes according to your immersion level, of course – some people think Aphex Twin is overexposed, for example – but for most of the general public, it refers to the stuff they can’t hear on the radio. Basically, music that needs to be discovered, which means that most people will never hear it.

There are also an awful lot of bands that are obscure for a reason – they’re not very good. But then there are those acts who are obscure for no reason beyond fate’s cruel whim, bands that exist on the fringes for years, even decades, producing album after album of great stuff that most people would actually like if they ever got the chance to hear it. Starflyer 59 is one of those bands. Ten years, seven albums, six EPs, and through it all, they’ve steadfastly refused to suck. And still they remain on tiny northwestern label Tooth and Nail, selling thousands of CDs when they should be selling hundreds of thousands.

Starflyer 59 is the brainchild of Jason Martin, who was once in a band called Dance House Children with his brother Ronnie, who later went on to form long-running synth-rock outfit Joy Electric. The differences in approach between the Martins are fascinating. (Well, if you’re me, they are…) Ronnie has become increasingly insulated, eschewing collaborators in favor of producing every painstaking Joy Electric track himself. The music has progressed towards a complex (and, yes, insular) brand of synthetic pop unlike anything else out there. (I hope to get around to reviewing Joy E’s new one, The Tick Tock Treasury, in this space soon.)

Jason, on the other hand, has broadened Starflyer’s scope by opening himself up to contributions from a host of musical minds. His band has included members of the Prayer Chain and currently includes superstar drummer Frank Lenz, and his albums have been produced by masterminds like Gene Eugene and Terry Taylor. Every time, Martin has melded his vision with that of his collaborators, resulting in a constantly shifting sound that’s almost impossibly all-encompassing. In a sense, every Starflyer 59 album is the best Starflyer 59 album for different reasons, because they’re all so different from one another that they defy direct comparison.

For example, The Fashion Focus is the best Starflyer 59 album because Martin took the huge, heavy guitars of his early records off center stage, replacing them with textures and clean lines. Similarly, last year’s Leave Here a Stranger is the best Starflyer 59 album because Martin and producer Terry Taylor strove for Sgt. Pepper, augmenting Martin’s melancholy pop with bursts of pure pop psychedelia and ambient wonderama.

And the band’s new one, Old, is the best Starflyer 59 album because Martin has brought the guitars back front and center after a three-album absence, and made a superb, classic pop collection. The speaker-popping confections sprinkled throughout the last few albums are all but gone here, leaving a live band feel with minimal enhancements. Martin again worked with a star producer, this time Aaron Sprinkle of the band Poor Old Lu, and that band’s influence can be felt all over the disc.

Naturally, Martin has written another 10 great songs here. Old bursts out of the gate with “Underneath,” which contains a whiplash-inducing tempo shift about 30 seconds in. That songs contains the most production of any here, concluding with synth lines and a chorus of backing vocalists. It also contains a great chorus, delivered in Martin’s understated baritone. “Major Awards” bustles along like a steam train, and “The Lights On” alternately shimmies and struts like Starflyer rarely has. Most of the songs feature melodies played in Martin’s unmistakable clean guitar sound – half surf-rock and half Robert Smith – and it’s especially effective on “Unbelievers,” near the album’s end.

Old is a delight because Martin seems to have rediscovered the ’70s rock band he used to want to front. Closer “First Heart Attack” even contains an extended epic guitar solo, the kind David Gilmour used to play. Starflyer 59 is always kind of melancholy, but this time the album sounds like it was as much fun to make as it is to listen to, and it’s a lot of fun to listen to. It’s gimmick-free: these are 10 great songs, just waiting to be discovered.

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Strained credibility alert: I’m about to give a big thumbs-up to “Weird Al” Yankovic. If you’re one of those people that believe humor and music should stay as separate as church and state, skip to the next review.

Still with me? Cool. I love “Weird Al” Yankovic. Always have. I also think that those who dismiss him as a mere novelty act because he gets played on the Dr. Demento Show are missing the boat completely, and failing to give him proper credit as a master musician. The skill it takes to do what Yankovic does is rare, no matter where you look, and the greatest testament to his ability is that each of his albums can be enjoyed on musical terms, not just humorous ones.

The best weapon in his arsenal is his crack band, which is and has always been guitarist Jim West, bassist Steve Jay and drummer Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz. These guys are amazing because they have to sound like everybody – not like a band pretending to sound like everybody, but exactly like everybody. They’re the best cover band in the world, but even that sells them short. They have to be able to handle anything Yankovic throws at them, be it a polka medley of metal songs or a nine-minute tribute to Frank Zappa. Both of which, by the way, appear on Yankovic’s just-released eleventh album, Poodle Hat.

Okay, yes, there are parodies here, but increasingly, one gets the sense that Yankovic does parodies because that’s what’s expected of him. But hey, he’s incredibly good at it. Writing bad parodies is simple – even morning drive DJs can do it with ease. Writing good parodies is an art, one that Yankovic mastered a long time ago. He intrinsically understands the lyrical and melodic ebb and flow of the songs he’s skewering, and his joke lyrics actually ape the syllables and rhyme structure of the originals line for line.

That’s a neat trick when you’re aping, say, Eminem, who justifiably earned oodles of praise for his nontraditional, internal rhyme schemes. Yankovic here turns Em’s “Lose Yourself” into “Couch Potato,” another in a series of diatribes about how much TV sucks. The real joke is that he’s turned an anthem of self-reliance and bootstrap-pulling into a song about wasting your life in front of the tube, which is the more likely choice for most people these days anyway. He also packs three different parodies into Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated,” scoring some kind of bathroom-incest-mutilation humor hat trick.

None of the other parodies are that clever, but Yankovic’s fans know that the parodies really ain’t shit compared to the original tunes. It’s on his originals that Yankovic pulls no punches, and unleashes his biting social and pop culture criticism. “Hardware Store,” for example, is an insanely joyous song that embraces and pokes fun at small-town culture, places where the opening of a hardware store is an event analogous to a visit from the Pope. “Wanna B Ur Lovr” takes a swipe at cheesy soul sex songs by doling out bad pickup lines, one after another. (My fave: “I hope I’m not being too forward, but do you mind if I chew on your butt?”) Imagine Chef’s songs from South Park sung by Tim Meadows’ Ladies Man character and you’ve got the idea. The funny thing is, the song is no sillier than most of the stuff that appears on pop radio every day.

“Why Does This Always Happen to Me” is about misplaced priorities – the main character is upset that the network interrupts The Simpsons for a news brief about a devastating earthquake in Peru. It’s also about so-called “first world problems,” and doubles as a critique of American self-importance. Then there’s “Bob,” an incredibly clever two-fold joke. On the surface, it’s a letter-perfect slam of Bob Dylan’s singing and lyrical style, filled with florid images that go nowhere. A closer examination of the lyrics will show that it’s made up entirely of palndriomes, like the title, and it all rhymes. It also includes my favorite palindrome ever – “Oh no, Don Ho.” Really, though, couldn’t you just hear Dylan spouting out a line like, “Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog”?

And the closer, “Genius in France,” only illustrates Yankovic’s ability to assimilate musical styles perfectly. It’s a nine-minute epic that emulates Frank Zappa’s mid-’70s style, right down to the smallest details. As anyone who’s heard Roxy and Elsewhere can tell you, Zappa’s stuff from this period was typically impossible to play, but the Yankovic band pulls it off swimmingly. Honestly, the song gets everything right, including Zappa’s tendency to run one ethnically-inspired joke into the ground over nine minutes. It’s such an authentic tribute that Dweezil Zappa even lends a hand on guitar.

I haven’t even mentioned such winners as “Party at the Leper Colony” or “Angry White Boy Polka.” Suffice it to say that Yankovic has good and bad albums, like anyone else, but Poodle Hat is a very good one. It’s astounding that he’s managed to sustain a 20-year career, but I’m glad he has – we need someone like “Weird Al” Yankovic to take the air out of our blustery pop culture every now and then. Lately, the culture has needed the air taken out of it more and more, so welcome back, Al. We missed you.

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It surprises a lot of people that I’m such a big fan of Live, and I’m not sure why. They satisfy the two most important criteria for my affection – they write good songs, and they play them well. They can sometimes be a bit earnest, but they play with conviction, and singer Ed Kowalczyk knows how to deliver even the cheesiest of sentiments with heart to spare. After making their best record with The Distance to Here in 1999, Live stumbled a bit with 2001’s V, an overproduced and underbaked affair.

Happily, the band is back on track with Birds of Pray, their sixth album. In fact, the only thing bad about it is the atrocious pun in the title. Live has thankfully chosen to dispense with the keyboards and drum loops that weighed down V, and concentrate on writing massive hooks and buoying them with powerful guitars. It’s a winning combination that has worked for countless bands before them, but when it gels, you can’t beat it. There’s not a clunker among these 13 songs, and every one plays like an anthem, the kind of song U2 has only just remembered how to write.

Birds of Pray is also, as the title implies, Live’s most spiritual record. Opener “Heaven” could be a Delirious? song, so naked is its spiritual leaning: “I don’t need no one to tell me about heaven, I look at my daughter and I believe, I don’t need no proof when it comes to God and truth, I can see the sunset and I perceive.” Live has always swung this way, most notably on V‘s standout track “Overcome,” but they balance it with a healthy dose of social critique. Kowalczyk brings the two together on closer “What Are We Fighting For,” an anti-war anthem that calls all war “godless” and notes that “the crucifix ain’t no baseball bat.” But hey, it’s better than the pseudo-sexy crap he was spouting last time.

Really, the only major criticism I can level at Birds of Pray is that it’s too short. Like all the best skyward-looking pop-rock records, this one’s over before you know it. While it’s playing, however, it’s another in a series of winners from this overlooked band with the lousy name. Of all the guitar-rock bands that emerged in the mid-’90s, Live has carved its own place in the firmament most successfully, a place they keep earning with good records like this one.

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It’s time once again to review the new King’s X album, and again, I don’t know where to start.

King’s X is one of the best bands in the country, but you’d never know it listening to their recent output. Their first five albums are masterpieces, heavy yet melodic, and Gretchen Goes to Nebraska and Dogman are permanently entrenched in my pantheon of great records. But pretty much everything from Ear Candy forward is lousy. Not just kind of bad, but seriously lousy. They seemed to have hit an upswing with 2001’s Please Come Home…Mr. Bulbous, but shortly thereafter released the nadir of their downward spiral, the electronic groove experiment Manic Moonlight. It was pretty awful.

And now here’s Black Like Sunday, sonically the best thing they’ve done in ages. They sound like a live band again after Moonlight‘s Pro Tools-infected disaster, and Ty Tabor even whips out a bunch of awesome solos, just like the old days. Mentioning the old days is appropriate, sadly, because Black Like Sunday is a collection of unrecorded tunes from the ’80s, finally seeing the light of day via the King’s X of 2003. It’s an interesting idea, and anything that gets them sounding like they once did is a good thing. There’s just one eensy little problem.

The songs, for the most part, should have stayed on the shelf.

Take “Rock Pile,” for example. It’s a rock and roll song about being a rock and roll star, the kind of thing only written by exuberant, inept youths. Fun as a curiosity, not so much fun as the second track on a new King’s X album. It’s not as bad as the third song, “Danger Zone,” a hunk of crap about rebellious youngsters that fight with their parents a lot. There’s nothing even kind of original or redeeming about it, frankly. Most of the songs here take heavily from the first Rush album (there’s even one called “Working Man,” for pity’s sake), and it’s intriguing from a look-how-far-they’ve-come perspective. Problem is, they don’t seem to have come far at all in recent years.

Don’t get me wrong. There is good stuff here, and it’s almost indescribably wonderful to hear Ty Tabor, Jerry Gaskill and Doug Pinnick lock into a groove and play with abandon again. “Bad Luck,” “Screamer” and “Save Us” even overcome their dumbass lyrics with powerhouse licks and some, let me repeat, amazing solos by Tabor. Black Like Sunday even contains the best reason to buy a King’s X album since Dogman in the 11-minute jam-o-rama that is “Johnny.” It’s the one place on this or any of their recent albums where you can hear how great this band can be.

The thing is, this album comes nowhere near showcasing how great I know this band actually is. I’ve seen them live, only a couple of years ago, and they smoked onstage. They’re easily one of the best bands we have, so why have the members’ side projects (Pinnick’s Poundhound and Tabor’s Platypus, for example) produced better records than King’s X for so many years? This is the second time in a row the band has released an experiment in lieu of a new King’s X album that lives up to the legacy.

The upside is that they don’t sound nearly as tired and worn out on Black Like Sunday as they have since 1996. I can only hope that recording these old songs has somehow revitalized them – God knows that tearing through a thrasher like “Won’t Turn Back” sounds like it would be revitalizing – and that the songwriting will come full circle next time. Black Like Sunday is not even close to the best that King’s X can do, but it’s the best they’ve done in a while, and I guess that will have to be enough.

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I was going to try to review the Thorns without mentioning Crosby, Stills and Nash, but it’s no use.

CS&N formed as a “supergroup” when David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash left their respective bands (The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Hollies) to form a folk trio resplendent with gorgeous harmonies. CS&N is the obvious touchstone for any group of three rockers who leave the world of electric guitars to form a harmony-laden folk group, and since the similarities don’t really end there, I have to mention them. But just this once.

The Thorns are Matthew Sweet, Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins, all suffering mid-career crises simultaneously. Sweet has been the most artistically successful, producing a string of terrific power-pop records throughout the ’90s, and he tasted commercial success briefly with “Girlfriend.” Droge as well had one hit with the catchy “If You Don’t Love Me (I’ll Kill Myself),” off his first album Necktie Second, but subsequent records fizzled, even though they were just as good as the debut. Mullins had the most success at radio with his ubiquitous smash “Lullaby” several years ago, from his major-label debut Soul’s Core, but the follow-up, Beneath the Velvet Sun, failed to make a dent.

So here they all are, sporting acoustic guitars and co-writing sweet, simple songs as the Thorns on their self-titled debut. Projects like this have the tendency to feel like desperate acts, but this one feels like coming home. Sweet, Mullins and Droge harmonize like angels, naturally, and the album has an easygoing vibe that likely reflects the mood in the studio. Sweet’s beautiful melodies haven’t had settings this unforced in ages, especially on “I Can’t Remember” and the perfectly sad “Now I Know.” “Think It Over” brings CS&N to mind immediately, with its delightful harmony and mid-’70s folk sound, and the gorgeous “Among the Living” might be the prettiest non-Lost Dogs song I’ve heard yet this year.

The boys do crank up the electrics once, on their theme song “Thorns,” but it’s just so much fun. It’s a simple, carefree stomp that recalls Sweet’s “Time Capsule” – two chords, that’s it. Most of the album is melodic and melancholy, however, giving the feeling of having been recorded around a series of campfires on summer nights. They even cover the Jayhawks’ “Blue” faithfully, like they just remembered that they all know it and like it seconds before they hit the record button. Producer Brendan O’Brien keeps things as minimal as he is able, for the most part – there’s a string section on “No Blue Sky” and “Now I Know” that adds some drama – and the natural sound is warm and comfortable.

Truly, this could have gone either way, and it’s a wonderful thing that it turned out so well. The Thorns sounds much less like a side project and more like a perfect union. These three musicians haven’t sounded this at ease with just playing and singing in a long time, and hopefully they’ll make a career of it, like that other folksy trio. The Thorns is proof that when the pressure of financial success is removed, great musicians can make great music. This is a sweet little album, no pun intended, one that gently envelops and lifts like the best folksy pop out there.

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Only Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio would follow up his solo debut with a two-hour live album from his first solo tour. And only he would be able to pull it off this successfully.

Plasma is a two-disc collection of performances from Anastasio’s 10-piece band during their North American tour last year. He breaks with Phish tradition here, releasing a live compilation instead of the complete shows his band has been putting out lately, and I can’t help but think the record may have been better as a single show document, but why bicker when the results are this engaging?

The first thing you’ll notice on Plasma is how huge and expansive the sound of the Anastasio band is. He’s got percussionists, a horn section and a sultry female vocalist, and the sonic colors are breathtaking, especially when compared to the relatively stolid Phish lineup of guitars-bass-drums-piano. Their 10-minute take on “Mozambique” is by itself worth the price of the disc, showcasing the jazzy, exploratory side of Anastasio’s guitar playing and the powerful percussion of Cyro Baptista and Russ Lawton. They cover Bob Marley’s “Small Axe” beautifully as well.

The second thing you’ll notice, especially on the jam-heavy second disc, is that this band doesn’t really jam at all, and that’s sort of unfortunate. The thrill of a Phish show comes from the nearly telepathic way the four musicians connect with and anticipate each other, the way Mike Gordon’s bass plays an integral role in determining the harmonic direction of Anastasio’s guitar and Page McConnell’s piano. By contrast, the Anastasio band tends to groove repetitively while someone (usually Anastasio on the second disc) solos. It’s not necessarily bad, but it is less interesting than hearing Phish at their peak.

Still, the 22-minute read of “Night Speaks to a Woman” manages to visit numerous melodic places along the way, and the delightful improv “Inner Tube” skirts by so engagingly that you won’t even notice where your 19 minutes went. What’s fascinating about Plasma is how much better it is than Phish’s latest album, the depressingly simple and rushed Round Room. While reports from the road have been positive, it can’t be a good sign when your side project is making more vital music than your main band. Here’s hoping Anastasio brings some of the expansive nature of his own band back with him to the Phab Phour when next they return to the studio.

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And that will do it for me. Next week is my birthday, and the tradition has been that I take a week off to celebrate. Of course, I’ve never actually done that, so we’ll see if I stick to it this year. Anyway, next time, I’ll be 29, and I’ll be discussing the Violet Burning, Wayne Everett, the Eels, 6gig, Metallica, Radiohead, and/or Grandaddy. Bet you can’t wait. But you have to.

See you in line Tuesday morning.