Without You I’m Nothing
Reader Recommendations from 2005

I have absolutely no motivation this week. Apologies for the late column, and further apologies in advance if it ends up sucking. I seriously considered blowing this week off, but with so much new music hitting stores in the next few weeks, I can’t afford to. If I don’t get to these reviews this week, chances are way too good that I’ll never get to them at all.

But first, a digression into TV land:

I caught the premiere of Love Monkey this week. With that title (taken from the novel on which the show is based), I had no idea what to expect, but I watched it because a) it stars the immensely likeable Tom Cavanagh, who made Ed a worthwhile stop each week for years; b) the supporting cast is eccentric and excellent, including Larenz Tate, Judy Greer and Jason Priestly, as well as two Buffy alums (kudos to the first person who can tell me who they are without consulting IMDB), and c) it’s about music nerds. As a music obsessive who’s been trying to capture the spirit of that experience for years, I’m always interested to see how others approach it.

Love Monkey looks like it’s going to be one of those shows I wish I could embrace. Cavanagh is terrific, as always, even if he’s basically playing Ed Stevens again. The writing is sometimes klutzy, but it’s the pilot, and I did laugh out loud a couple of times, so I’m willing to give it another shot. The plotting was ridiculously predictable – Cavanagh’s character has both a girlfriend who’s no good for him, and a girl-slash-friend who would be perfect for him, and I get the definite sense that the show’s writers will pursue this will-they-or-won’t-they in the most cliched manner available to them. But as I said, it’s the pilot. I’ll give it another go.

But what really bugs me about Love Monkey is the music stuff. No, scratch that – the music stuff in this show pissed me off. Cavanagh plays an A&R guy for a major minor label in New York, and his job is to seek out the new sound. He’s portrayed as an obsessive music junkie, one who actually gets fired from the record company for standing up for the transformative power of music. “We should be all about bringing the music to the people, not about making money” he says, name-checking the whole of the 1960s in the process, and it’s an inspiring little speech.

There’s just one problem. The show is so obviously corporate, so obviously not written by music fans, that it’s insulting. Early in the pilot, Cavanagh’s character Tom Farrell finds his next big thing, a guitar-playing kid named Wayne, and he’s shown reacting with wonder and awe at his obvious talent. But Wayne sounds just like a third-rate John Mayer, and no better than 95 percent of what you hear on the radio. You can hear kids like Wayne at 400 open mic nights a week in New York alone. What’s so great about him? The show never tells us.

But I will. Wayne sounds like what the execs at CBS expect their audience of middle-agers to like. He sounds like the next ready-to-mold adult contemporary star, one step above the contestants on American Idol. He’s carefully inoffensive, designed to make the 40-somethings watching on Wednesday nights say, “Yeah, he’s pretty good.” There is literally nothing about this kid that would make any music junkie take notice.

It doesn’t stop there. The references throughout the show are all easy. Not one band or artist was name-checked that my mother wouldn’t recognize. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, and I don’t need obscure you’re-in-the-club asides to like a show like this, but if you’re talking about people who live and breathe music, the breadth of their knowledge and obsessiveness will naturally extend beyond Eric Clapton and Sting. It feels like the writers are being careful not to make anyone feel left out, and in doing so, they’re missing the essence of a character like Tom Farrell.

The most nerdishly upsetting thing about Love Monkey was the obvious product placement – Sony’s Essential Bob Dylan collection, which is a key element of two scenes. First of all, any music fan like Farrell purports to be would know that there is nothing essential about these collections, and wouldn’t give them as gifts. He’d more likely make a mix of his own, and fume a bit about how all the good stuff was left off the corporate compilation.

Worse, though, is what he says when he hands it over: “It’s every song he ever recorded.” Um, what? Dylan’s been recording for more than 40 years, and he has more than 30 albums. The Essential Bob Dylan is a two-CD set that collects 30 songs. There’s no way a supposedly music-mad guy like Tom Farrell would make that mistake, or not correct someone when they make the same mistake. It’s a sales pitch put into the mouths of characters in an attempt to sell more of an extraneous Dylan collection, and if Tom Farrell were a real guy watching this show, he’d have kicked his TV at that point.

I know, because I almost did.

There’s a lot right with Love Monkey, but if it’s supposed to be about music, and about how much this character loves it, then there’s a lot wrong with it, too. He bitches about Air Supply at one point, and then spends the rest of the show trying to sign a guy whose songs are the A&R equivalent of that band’s crowd-pleasing pap. It makes no sense to me, but then, I don’t think I’m the target audience here. They’re not going for music fans, they’re going for people who know music fans, and older folks who stopped listening to new bands around 1979. They’re going for Targeted Consumers, and I would bet that more specifically marketed CD collections like The Essential Bob Dylan will be product-placed in future episodes.

Anyway, I’ll give it another shot or two, mainly for Cavanagh and Greer. But I don’t highly recommend it.

* * * * *

Speaking of that…

In a lot of ways, TM3AM lives and dies on recommendations. Not only do I have this extensive network of friends and acquaintances who know what I like and give me tips on great new stuff, I also have readers who write in every week to tell me about their favorite records. Most of the time, I know the artists, but surprisingly often, a stranger will surprise me with something excellent that I’d never heard.

For example, last year’s number one album, Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois, was a recommendation. So was number nine, The Dissociatives. Last week, I reviewed Imogen Heap’s Speak For Yourself, which I probably wouldn’t have bought without Dr. Tony Shore’s ecstatic emails. I get excited about music, and I love it when others share that excitement. It’s infectious. I’m not always as taken with the recommended albums, but just knowing that there are people as thrilled to share the music they love as I am often keeps me going.

But sometimes I just forget to say thanks, or to write something about the records themselves. I have a few from 2005 that just slipped by me, very good albums that I may not have bought without some very jazzed readers telling me about them. Last year especially, there was just so much good music that I couldn’t get to everything.

Case in point. So many people told me to pick up Porcupine Tree’s Deadwing that it would be unfair to single one or two of them out. But there’s a guy named Matthew Waterhouse (and yes, Doctor Who fans, he’s heard all the Adric jokes) who has been urging me to review it for months now, and wondering why I didn’t give it at least an honorable mention in the year-end top 10 list. So this one’s for him, although he’ll probably want his money back.

It would be inaccurate to say I’m a Porcupine Tree fan, although I do like them. Their mastermind, Steven Wilson, first came to my attention as the producer and co-writer of Fish’s Sunsets on Empire album, which still stands as one of the big man’s three best efforts. Wilson played the mean guitar solo on “The Perception of Johnny Punter,” and if you’ve heard it, you know how immediately impressive it is. That initial exposure led me to Wilson’s main band, and a couple of his side projects, but he’s never made a stronger impression than that smoldering solo, unfortunately.

But I really liked In Absentia, the more concise, rocking Porcupine Tree album from 2002. PT has always been a slower, more Floyd-esque guitar-rock band, dabbling in electronic textures and ambient skyscapes, but In Absentia packed a pop song punch I enjoyed tremendously. Of course, I forgot to review it, but what else is new…

Deadwing is in a similar vein, but the more drawn-out passages are back, providing an interesting balance. The album ignites early with the nine-minute title track, a heavy groove with a pleasant melody and a kickass solo by Adrian Belew. It does slightly overstay its welcome, but thankfully, the same cannot be said for the bulk of Deadwing. “Shallow” is a great little rocker, and “Lazarus” is fragile and very pretty. Of the longer songs, “Start of Something Beautiful” impresses the most, with its buildups and diversions.

The problem is, most of this album just blends together into one long groove of various tempos. With all of Wilson’s meticulous production, the songs often lie there – “Mellotron Scratch” is creepy, yet forgettable, and “Arriving Somewhere But Not Here” could have been half as long and still been as effective. By the end of Deadwing, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to get out of it – it feels more like an attempt at a mood piece, but the driving rhythms keep it from achieving the ambient grace of some of Wilson’s earlier records.

In the final analysis, this is a decent enough record, but it doesn’t concentrate its efforts enough to be anything more. I have heard better Porcupine Tree albums (like In Absentia), and I have heard worse ones. I probably forgot to write about this because it didn’t lodge itself in my brain. It has just sort of existed in my to-review pile for months, not calling much attention to itself. And even after re-immersing myself in it, I have to say that I’m still more impressed by Wilson’s work on Sunsets on Empire than anything here.

If I recall correctly, Matthew Waterhouse was merely curious as to whether Deadwing would appear in the top 10 list. Whereas my longtime correspondent Lucas Beeley was downright incensed that his recommendation didn’t chart, writing me an email with the subject line, “So what gives?” He was kidding, of course, but I owe him an apology for not responding quickly, and for not reviewing the record he suggested. It’s a double insult, because the album itself is fan-bloody-tastic.

It’s Picaresque, the third LP from the Decemberists, a five-piece from Oregon who may as well be the house band on the Flying Dutchman. It’s odd to be able to tie this band down to a terrestrial place, to give them a state of origin – their work is so timeless, haunting and otherworldly, like the songs of the sea itself. The Decemberists work almost strictly within the English folk tradition, playing ghost stories and sea shanties as if they were pop songs.

In a lot of ways, they remind me of the Levellers, but rather than use their folksy framework to capture the sound of the earth rising up, as the Levs usually do, the Decemberists tap into the sound of the ocean. It doesn’t need to rise up – all things sink into it eventually, so it’s unnervingly patient. Leader Colin Meloy’s songs are as traditional as Richard Thompson’s, and yet here, thanks to the production of Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla, they sound perfectly modern, like newly minted legends.

The band could not have picked a less poppy opener than “The Infanta,” the tale of a baby monarch. It’s strummed with almost explosive abandon, a strident minor-key folk song of the highest order. Just listen to the thunderous toms throughout, and the fanfare of strings in the bridge. This thing is awesome, and while Picaresque never quite gets there again, it makes for a stunning opening shot.

Not that the rest of the album isn’t excellent, it’s just quieter. The Levellers comparisons strike closest on “We Both Go Down Together,” a sweet fiddle-driven number, and “The Bagman’s Gambit” somehow manages to be both sparse and epic at once, all acoustics and pianos until its two-minute mark. “For My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)” is the perfect Decemberists song, a foreboding, deathly waltz over bass drum bomb-blasts, given added ethereal grace by Meloy’s wavery voice and delicate melody. One song later, they’re breaking out the Beatles influences on the sprightly anti-war diatribe “16 Military Wives.”

My favorite number here is “The Engine Driver,” a song that seamlessly combines this band’s folk and pop leanings. Revolving around the simple line, “And if you don’t love me let me go,” the simply strummed piece has a melody that never stops surprising. It’s a song that would sound equally at home in the repertoires of R.E.M. and Fairport Convention. The album concludes with an extended, lurching epic called “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” and a graceful coda called “Of Angels and Angles,” striking just the right note. But it’s “The Engine Driver” that stays with you.

I can’t say why I never reviewed this one. I had heard of the Decemberists before, but I probably would not have picked this album up without Lucas Beeley’s now-trademark breathlessly excited email. And he’s right, this deserved an honorable mention in the top 10 list. I plan on picking up this band’s other work – I already have Her Majesty, and it’s similarly terrific. Which is all I can ask of a recommendation – that it introduces me to great music I might never have heard otherwise. So keep them coming, folks.

Thanks to Matthew Waterhouse, Lucas Beeley (and his brother Steve), and everyone else who wrote me with questions, complaints, comments and suggestions this year. You’re all appreciated.

Next week, just for Mike Cetera, there’s a new Duncan Sheik album.

See you in line Tuesday morning.