Four Albums, A Movie and a Bunch of Tangents

I just tried red licorice soda. You know, for the hell of it.

It’s terrible. Been rinsing the taste out of my mouth for about 20 minutes now, and it’s not going away. I do things like this all the time. I have a natural and inescapable curiosity for anything that seems, by all outward appearances, as if the experience of it would be horrible. Particularly beverages – I’ve tried practically every flavor of beverage, no matter how putrid, including that grandpappy of all bad sodas, Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray. It’s celery flavored, in case you didn’t know.

It’s a disease. I can’t help it. When I heard that one of the tie-ins from the second Harry Potter movie was honest-to-God Every Flavor Jellybeans, including those that apparently taste like snot and bile, I was instantly filled with a desire to run out and buy them. So far, only the prohibitive cost has prevented me from doing so. My problem is that I’m constantly asking how bad something like snot-flavored jellybeans could possibly be, and then really wanting to know the answer.

Naturally, this is the kind of impulse that leads to buying Limp Bizkit albums. I got a lot of emails (quite a bit more than usual) questioning my sanity in forking over 10 bucks for Results May Vary, some noting that just being in proximity to that disc could likely give me a nasty infection of some sort. A few wondered if I was not, in fact, sick, either physically or mentally. While this won’t ease anyone’s mind about my mental health, I just wanted to point out that my buying albums I know will be bad, specifically to find out just how bad they are, is nothing new.

Case in point. A couple of years ago, I saw VH-1’s Behind the Music episode on Styx. When they got to Kilroy Was Here, the band’s infamous 1982 album that included “Mr. Roboto,” the producers made a point to edit together a succession of experts who all agreed that this was the worst album ever made. At that time, I had never heard Kilroy, having never been much of a Styx fan. But rather than thank my lucky stars that I’d been spared the worst album ever made, I immediately ran out and bought it. Because I had to hear it. How bad could it be?

And lo, it was very, very bad. Certainly in the running for the worst album I’ve ever heard. I remain glad, however, that I had the experience of torturing myself with it, because now I know exactly how bad it is, and my overpowering curiosity is sated. Don’t worry – I’m not tempted by 99 percent of the bad music I hear, because most of what people call bad is really just inoffensively boring to me. For me to want to hear a bad record, it has to have a reputation of being actively, painfully, laughably bad. I mean, the artist in question has to move heaven and earth to make every note worse than the last, to make an epic work of awfulness. Then I’m in.

I know. I need serious help. You’ll be glad to know, though, that this week I’m tired of talking about bad music. There’s been so much good stuff lately that I haven’t reviewed yet, and I hope to play catch-up this time. (I keep hearing Henry Rollins’ voice, yelling at me: “Review or don’t, but you can’t catch up!”) Looking back on 2003 thus far, it’s been surprisingly excellent in terms of new music, and with buzz-heavy records by Travis, Meshell Ndegeocello, Basement Jaxx and Ryan Adams coming to round the year off, I think it’s time to get cracking on the good stuff. Don’t you?

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The best word to describe the new Rufus Wainwright album, Want One, is “fabulous.” And I don’t just mean fabulous the way music critics might say it, but fabulous the way Bryan Katt’s character from Jeffrey might. Or Sean Hayes’ Jack from Will and Grace.

You have to go back to early Queen albums like Sheer Heart Attack to find one this opulent and melodramatic. This record is full to bursting with strings, horns, pianos, banjos, layers of guitars and oceans of swooping backing vocals. It’s difficult, on first few listens, to get beyond just how huge this album is, how ornately decorated. This is exactly the sort of acceleration one expected in the wake of Wainwright’s delightful sophomore effort, Poses, and it’s just the sort of production that could easily slip from tonal coloring into excessive mess. Want One is practically an advertisement for how to do this kind of album right.

Step one, of course, is to write good songs on which to hang the production, and as usual, Wainwright has excelled in that department. There are 14 songs on Want One, and each one is a stunner, a marvel of craftsmanship. Wainwright takes equally from Broadway, the Beatles, and his father, folk singer Loudon Wainwright III. The result is songs that feel like classics, show tunes with unbeatable pop melodies and an epic sensibility, but which retain a grounded and human heart. Each of these songs would remain fascinating even if stripped of everything but piano or acoustic guitar. (In fact, “Pretty Things” is performed with just piano and voice, and is gorgeous.) Any list of the year’s best compositions would be dominated by this record.

And yet, each was written with an ear towards the massive production Wainwright loves. Take “Oh What a World,” the opening track. It wafts in on a choir of humming voices, which gives way to bleating tuba. As the song progresses, a full orchestra enters, swirling about the melody and occasionally blaring out lines from Ravel’s “Bolero.” At the center of all of this is Wainwright’s lovely voice, singing something worthy of London’s West End theatrical district. It’s huge and soaring, and one can scarcely imagine the track having the same impact without the production.

Or take “Beautiful Child,” a layered masterpiece that heralds the album’s final stretch. It’s all guitars and dazzling percussion for its first minute or so, but then the horn sections come in, augmenting the invigorating melody, and then – and then! – the backing vocals lift off, surrounding the action like a swarm of bees. And they’re all Wainwright, multi-tracked what sounds like dozens of times. When, at a crucial moment, all the instruments drop out except the acoustic guitar and the army of Rufus clones wailing away in the background, it’s a moment of genuine drama, and you don’t get those very often in pop music.

No two songs here sound alike, which could have been a detriment, but each is so well crafted, and the album as a whole sounds designed to fit together. This album, for all its sprawl, flows better than either of Wainwright’s previous efforts, and it’s his diversity that does the trick. A grand pop number like “I Don’t Know What It Is” segues into a (relatively) subdued electric piano piece like “Vicious World,” which then blends into an electric guitar stomper like “Movies Of Myself.” With “Go Or Go Ahead” he’s composed a real rock epic, one that breaks the six-minute mark, and he’s followed it up with a two-minute harp-driven ditty (“Vibrate”) and a jazz-pop shuffle (“14th Street”). And it all flows.

What links these songs is Wainwright’s voice, which he has developed over time from a pinched, nasal whine into an instrument of startling power. He wields it well on Want One, infusing his dramatic melodies with a stratospheric grace. He has the control of a classically trained tenor – check the ascending and descending melodies in fantastic closer “Dinner at Eight” for evidence. He stretches sometimes here – he almost, but not quite, pulls off the 16-second note in “Vibrate,” and “Harvester of Hearts” teeters in and out of his range – but he has a voice like no one else on the pop scene these days.

Want One is just about an hour long, and way too short – which makes sense, considering it’s one half of the double album Wainwright recorded. Want Two is scheduled for early next year, following the recent trend of halving lengthy works for easier public consumption. (See Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill or Ryan Adams’ Love Is Hell – now broken into two EPs – for further examples.) I say hell with anyone who couldn’t sit through two hours of this wonderful stuff. Whether Want Two will measure up to the standard of Want One is anyone’s guess. (It reportedly contains the “weird stuff,” like a nine-minute song and a Latin number, which, with Wainwright, could mean one with a Latin beat or one whose lyrics are in Latin. Or both.) My bet, based on his track record, is that it will.

But for now, we only have part one, and if the other reviews this time seem less considered than this one, it’s only because Want One has taken control of my stereo and will not relinquish it. It is, no question, one of the very best albums of the year – it’s battling Bruce Cockburn in my mind for the top spot, and often winning. It was obvious from his debut that Rufus Wainwright would one day make a great album, and if you thought he’d done it with Poses, wait until you hear this.

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There’s an old adage that says that an artist has a lifetime to write his or her first album, and then just a few years at most to write a second one. That’s why the second album is considered to be so important – it’s proof that a particular artist can strike twice, that he or she is not just a one-trick pony, a one-hit wonder. When an artist fails, for whatever reason, to meet expectations on the second album, there’s an industry term for it. You may have heard it before, and it’s a term no artist likes to see in the same sentence with his or her name, and I’m about to do it twice.

John Mayer, meet the Sophomore Slump. Sophomore Slump, this is John Mayer.

Okay, it’s not that bad, but Mayer’s recently released Heavier Things is a bit of a letdown. Mayer, as you all know, burst onto the scene with Room for Squares, propelled by a first single called “No Such Thing.” It’s the kind of song that can only be written by someone under 25, with all of life unfolding ahead, and I’m glad Mayer captured that song when he could. It’s an infectious folk-pop anthem, and astoundingly, Room for Squares lived up to it. The album was full of equally memorable songs like “Why Georgia” and “3×5,” led by Mayer’s fleet-fingered acoustic guitar and warm voice. It’s not an album designed to change the world, but it stands as a pretty impressive debut.

There’s a particular skill that those hoping for a long recording career need to master fairly early on, and that’s the ability to write memorable songs quickly. Mayer’s not quite there, unfortunately, and about half of Heavier Things is given over to tunes without, well, tunes. If, after one time through, you can hum “New Deep,” or “Split Screen Sadness,” or “Home Life,” you’re a better John Mayer fan than I am. That there are only 10 songs, and of those five or so don’t stick in the brain like just about every song on the debut did, speaks of a creative crisis in the studio.

That crisis extends to the sound as well. Where Room for Squares practically leapt from the speakers with enthusiasm, Heavier Things is smoothed out and ready for adult contemporary radio. Mayer promised a more guitar-heavy work this time, and it’s a shame that he didn’t deliver – only a few songs contain guitar solos, and most rest on pleasantly strummed acoustics. There’s nothing here that would be out of place on a John Waite album, for example, and that’s depressing.

There are bright spots. The single, “Bigger Than My Body,” is impressive, even if it does try to capture the same emotions as “No Such Thing” with lesser results. The pseudo-bluesy “Come Back to Bed” is a highlight, with one of the aforementioned guitar solos. “Daughters” is a small gem, despite treacly lyrics. And closer “Wheel” hits all the right notes. Mayer’s lyrics, too, remain insightful, full of lines like this one from “Split Screen Sadness”: “I can’t wait to figure out what’s wrong with me, so I can say this is the way I used to be.”

Still, it’s unfortunate that such a talented new songwriter has made such an uninspired album. It’s nice, it’s a pleasant listen, but it takes a step back from his opening salvo. It’s good that the sophomore slump is out of the way, though. The proof of John Mayer’s artistic merit will likely lie with his third effort, and I hope he takes his time and makes it something special.

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Forthwith, proof that I can relate anything to the Beatles.

The lads from Liverpool, whether they knew it or not, laid the blueprint for most successful and ambitious acts’ careers. Take this, for example: after perfecting their orchestral pop-rock on Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the group felt emboldened to be artistically excessive. Hence, the messy, sprawling, self-titled white album, an elaborate and disjointed affair that takes more than 90 minutes to cram in all its ideas. The white album has very little filler, but the band defiantly refused to link the 30 songs they had written, and they all just come fast and furious, one after another, seemingly at random.

It’s the kind of album that only bands who have already made their masterpiece could create. And time after time, the pattern re-emerges. After a band makes its strongest single statement, you can bet they will return, after an extended studio stay, with a huge, unedited thud of a record that mimics the white album’s structure. Led Zeppelin did it, releasing Physical Graffiti after Houses of the Holy. Guns ‘n’ Roses famously created the gi-normous Use Your Illusion albums after Appetite for Destruction. Even Ani DiFranco came out with Up Up Up Up Up Up after the unqualified success of Little Plastic Castle. Prince has done it, like, five times. And how about Radiohead’s two follow-ups to OK Computer?

So when Georgia-based rap duo OutKast made the best and furthest-reaching album of their career in 2000 with Stankonia, itself a marvel of production and precision, there was no doubt that their next outing would be a massive, excessive thing. But few could have predicted what they actually did – the two members of OutKast, Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and Andre “3000” Benjamin, separated and recorded two distinct solo albums, with the intention of releasing them together as the fifth OutKast album. It goes by two names, Speakerboxxx and The Love Below, and all together it’s more than two hours long.

The secret to OutKast has always been the duo’s dance of influences – Big Boi is the hip hop guy, and Andre is the soul crooner, most of the time, and when they bring both to bear, as they did on their smash single “Ms. Jackson,” the results are often extraordinary. One would be forgiven for thinking that separating those influences, compartmentalizing them, would leave them with two inferior records. It’s striking, then, just how impressive this set is, and while I won’t say that it might have been better if they had chosen to integrate these 39 tracks, what’s here is the most eccentric, ambitious hip-hop soul album in ages.

Again, with their respective influences, you’d probably guess that Big Boi would make the more traditional of the two discs, and you’d be right, but only because Andre has gone into orbit on his half. On its own, Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx is a consistently enjoyable rap record, full of interesting, innovative production and a touch of southern soul. “Bowtie,” “The Way You Move” and “The Rooster” form an unofficial trilogy of horn-inflected pop, kind of a southern rap manifesto. Patton incorporates gospel on “Church” to surprisingly non-MC Hammer effect. Speakerboxxx weakens as it goes on and Big Boi brings out guest star after guest star, but it never runs out of gas.

And it’s good that Big Boi has made a rap record, because rap is all but absent from The Love Below, Andre’s vast landscape of wacky funk. At 78 minutes, this disc takes up the lion’s share of the set’s running time, and to call it sprawling is definitely an understatement. The whole thing glides on a spiritual-sexual vibe that recalls Minneapolis’ favorite son – this is, in many ways, Andre’s attempt at making a great Prince album.

One of the hallmarks of any Prince album, of course, is inconsistency, and that’s one trait Andre has mimicked perfectly on The Love Below. The album spirals from the perfect, hilarious slam of “Happy Valentine’s Day” to minimal chants like “Behold a Lady” to orchestral interludes like “Pink and Blue.” By the time he gets to an unlisted techno recasting of “My Favorite Things,” there’s little doubt that Andre has just thrown everything against the wall here. That so much of it sticks is impressive, and the sprawl is part of The Love Below‘s charm.

All in all, it’s a nifty concept, but Speakerboxxx and The Love Below would have been better served as one long, integrated whole. The two discs do give insight into the OutKast creative process, however, and put their previous achievements into new lights. (Much like McCartney and Lennon after the white album – it became obvious from that point on who brought what to the table.) The pair insist the two solo albums do not indicate a straining of the seams, and that the next one will be a group effort.

Even McCartney and Lennon split Abbey Road down the middle, though, so it remains to be seen if OutKast remains as unified next time out. This time, they’ve created a remarkable achievement, one that goes beyond just about anyone else doing hip-hop these days. It’s a long trip, and it probably could have been a shorter one, but it’s fascinating.

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I am late enough with this column that I have already seen volume one of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. It’s a big, dumb, excessive, incredibly cool samurai movie, at least so far, and it’s that last bit I have the most trouble with. Kill Bill, as mentioned earlier, has been cleaved in two by Miramax, and delivered to theaters in installments – one now, one in February. Problem is, there’s no reason for the hack job. Or rather, no artistic reason – I do understand that Miramax will make more money on two films (and likely three DVD releases) than they would have on one, and it’s better for them to have two R-rated films than one long NC-17 one.

But those are money reasons, and have nothing to do with the film itself, which suffers horribly from this wound. The movie is told in traditional Tarantino style, with sections out of order and snippets from past and future scenes cutting in at what seems like random. The chronology always makes sense by the end of his pictures, however – remember how Pulp Fiction looped on itself masterfully. By hacking off the second half, however, we don’t get to see Tarantino’s method, and all we’re left with at the moment is fractured storytelling and what we hope is foreshadowing.

I’m a sucker for lengthy works. I left Kill Bill itching for the second half, which plays right into Miramax’s hands, of course. But I also left believing that watching the second half, after a four-month break, will not be as effective as watching the whole thing all at once. It’s going to lose a lot. I often wonder where our attention span, our patience for longer works, has gone. Was it really only four years ago that Magnolia hit theaters with a 190-minute running time? Imagine if that film had ended right after the game show, and you get the idea here. Kill Bill will just plain work better all at once, all three hours and 20 minutes of it.

We’re seeing it more and more lately – longer works chopped into pieces for easier digestion. I guess my affinity for longer stories came from comic books. It’s not uncommon for a single story to be spread out over dozens of issues – or, in the case of the soon-to-be-completed Cerebus, 300 of them, totaling 6000 pages. It takes a long time to read these works, but it’s always rewarding. Similarly, it takes a time commitment to listen to huge albums, like The Wall or Frank Zappa’s Civilization Phaze III, but the rewards are great.

Of course, I’m the guy who wants to take two weeks off and watch all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in a row, so maybe I’m not the right person to comment. But I respect and admire artists who tackle the long-form work, and I’m always pleasantly surprised when publishing companies back them and release them uncut. Double albums are a particular weakness of mine. Far from being the intimidating slab that record companies believe they are, often a huge double album is my perfect excuse to try a band I’ve been meaning to sample.

Case in point – Over the Rhine. Here’s a band I’ve heard of, heard nothing but good things about, and have even seen play live, but I’ve never bought any of their albums, for no reason I can think of. But when I heard that their seventh, Ohio, would be 95 minutes long and spread out over two discs, I sought it out. I know, it’s insane. But I’m always hoping that longer works like these will be more definitive statements, in a way, than smaller ones. In this case, it’s probably true.

Over the Rhine is a duo, Karen Bergquist and Linford Detwiler, and they write defiantly, deceptively simple songs that draw from traditional heartland musics. The 21 songs on Ohio are stripped to their barest essences, and often contain little more than piano and acoustic guitar behind Bergquist’s rich, lovely voice. This album is all about performance and ambiance, and it’s often painfully, beautifully intimate. It was recorded on an 8-track, which amazes me – nobody records analog anymore, but the full, ringing tones the pair has captured here say to me that more artists should try it. There’s nothing cold about this music.

And I can’t imagine this being trimmed, or worse, cut in half. This is not two albums packaged together, like the OutKast record. Ohio is one complete statement, one in which songs complement and improve each other by proximity. It’s worth every one of the 95 minutes it takes to listen to it. It’s also the kind of simple, direct music that defies explanation – I could tell you that “Ohio” drifts on melancholy piano, or that “Suitcase” is both hummable and emotional, or that hearing Bergquist sing “Changes Come” is a nearly spiritual experience, but the songs are so naked that there’s almost nothing to talk about. This is pure music, and while a mammoth production like Rufus Wainwright’s Want One wouldn’t sound the same without his embellishments, here they would dilute the music’s power.

It shouldn’t have taken seven albums for me to discover a group like this. Ohio is a wonderful album, one whose shape only becomes clear over time. I’m grateful that the band and their label, Back Porch Records, realized that this long record works best in one go. Do yourself a favor – buy Ohio, and do with it what you can’t yet do with Wainwright’s album, or Tarantino’s movie: experience it all at once.

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Whew. Next week, I expect to check in with Spock’s Beard and Neal Morse. Thanks for reading this far. I’m going to sleep now.

See you in line Tuesday morning.