Fall Sounds
Five New Reviews, One Long Column

It’s a pretty big one this week, folks – I scored one of my rare days off this week, so I had some extra time. Hope that’s okay with everyone. This is where I play catch-up on a flood of recent releases, some good and some not so good. The flood continues next week , and the week after, and basically all through October, so any chance to gain some ground on the ever-growing tower of CDs on my desk…

First, though, an installment of Things I Didn’t Think I’d Like:

On a recommendation, I picked up the new Black Keys album, Magic Potion. The Keys are a guitar-drums duo, and just that combination is enough to put me off, but I’m very glad I bought this beast. It’s pretty great – dirty blues recorded live, with 1970s equipment. A lot of this sounds just like Grand Funk Railroad’s first few records, minus Mel Schacher’s bass playing, and it’s all raw and soulful. It’s the kind of blues that one of this week’s main contestants could learn a thing or two from…

I also bought Blood Mountain, the new Mastodon, thanks to some prodding by Andrew at my local record store. And man, this thing is awesome. I missed out on Leviathan, the band’s previous effort, even though many consider it a classic. And now I’m going to have to go back and get that one, too, because Blood Mountain is extraordinary – progressive metal that never lets up, and never sacrifices melody, and brings in a dozen different musical styles as window dressing.

It’s simply excellent, if your ears can handle it, and it contains a contribution from The Mars Volta’s Cedric Bixler-Zavala that’s a hundred times better than anything on his band’s new album. It also has amazing, detailed cover art, apparently a Mastodon tradition. Just an all-around fantastic metal record.

All right, no more metal for this week. Bring on the pop-rock!

* * * * *

I will never hate the Barenaked Ladies.

This is official. I discovered it this week, as I listened to their latest attempt to turn me into an ex-fan. It’s called Barenaked Ladies Are Me, and it’s the weakest thing they’ve done, not counting that awful Christmas album from a few years back.

Let’s back up. I’ve been a BNL fan since Gordon, which hit back when I was in college. Maybe it was just the right time for me to hear a fun little ditty like “If I Had a Million Dollars,” but I was hooked pretty much immediately by the band’s sense of fun. Their live shows have a carnival atmosphere to them – they’re loaded with improv, jokes, fake songs, and impromptu vaudeville routines. Some bands play concerts, but BNL puts on a show.

I’ve seen them live probably six times now. Back when I worked for Face Magazine, the band played an acoustic show at a club called Asylum. It was the kind of show you had to win a radio contest to get into, unless you were one of the bigwigs at the city’s only music mag. My old friend Meg and I went, and as I recall, the tickets they gave us to get in read something like this: “Official I-Don’t-Need-To-Win-No-Contest-Because-I-Am-Special Ticket.” I still have it somewhere.

The point is, I love this band, and I think I always will, no matter how lame they get. And Barenaked Ladies Are Me is pretty damn lame. The first problem with it is that it travels even further down the mature adult-pop pathway blazed by 2003’s Everything to Everyone. I dug that album, but even I noticed that it was more reserved than prior records. BNL is often written off as a novelty band, and they’ve always been deeper than that, but they’ve also always been a lot of fun – even when they’re about autoerotic asphyxiation, their tunes are a blast.

Barenaked Ladies Are Me is the first BNL record that isn’t any fun at all. Leave it to Ed Robertson to deliver the wittiest thing here: “Bank Job” is about a failed caper, used as a metaphor for a failed relationship. And he’s right – how do you plan for a bank full of nuns? “Bank Job” has fun lyrics, but the banal music drags it down, and the rest of the album has a kind of low-key wispiness. The sound is great – the guitars punch, the accordions and horns are nice touches, but overall, there’s very little here that’s memorable.

If you’ve heard the first single, “Easy,” then you know what to expect – simple acoustic songs with bland melodies and only the faintest hint of the sharpness Robertson and Steven Page usually exhibit. Oddly, the two best songs on the album come from keyboardist Kevin Hearn. “Sound of Your Voice” is a rousing singalong, and “Vanishing” is decidedly creepy, one of the band’s finest examinations of jealousy and loss. Unfortunately, Hearn himself sings that one, and his thin voice doesn’t quite do the song justice. Bassist Jim Creeggan sings his own “Peterborough and the Kawarthas,” and he fares better, although with a title like that, you’d expect a quirkier song.

But no, Barenaked Ladies Are Me is almost entirely devoid of quirk, and is the band’s most “normal” album to date. It’s all pleasant, like a Gin Blossoms album, but there isn’t much here to satisfy long-time fans. And yet, here I am, listening to it again, and I swear – I will never hate this band. Just the mixture of Robertson’s playing and Page’s singing takes me back to age 20, and it hardly matters how lame the songs are. I’m even singing along with a song called “Rule the World With Love,” which may be a sign of mental illness. Barenaked Ladies remain a band I love, even as they’re boring me to tears.

* * * * *

BNL may have let me down, but the prize for Most Crushing Disappointment of the Year goes to John Mayer.

Here’s the thing – Mayer is really, really good. He’s a good songwriter, and an amazing guitar player, and I’m tired of having to defend him against his own work. “Daughters” drove me insane. It’s easily the most banal song on Mayer’s second album, Heavier Things, and so of course it became the smash hit, and the one that everyone’s heard. I mention that I like John Mayer, and nine out of 10 people will sing “Daughters” back to me, laughing at my questionable taste.

I honestly thought those days were over, though. Last year, Mayer released Try, a live album with his kickass trio, which included him on guitars and vocals, Steve Jordan on drums and Pino Palladino on bass. Those two guys have been around forever, and they’re great players, but Mayer matched them lick for lick on Try, a rough and tumble blues excursion that finally – finally! – showed off just how good the guy is. At the same time, he announced that Jordan and Palladino would be featured on his third album, Continuum, which he promised would be a quantum leap from his older records.

But now Continuum is here, and I feel like I need to defend Mayer again. Honestly, he’s much better than this, trust me.

The biggest problem I have is that Continuum never, ever rocks. Not once. Mayer is able to kick over the chairs and rip bluesy solos with the best of them, but you’d never know it from this merely pleasant effort. Leadoff track “Waiting on the World to Change” is perhaps the most upbeat thing here, and it’s an old-time soul ballad, like something Marvin Gaye might have done. It’s enjoyable – hell, this whole album is enjoyable, in a sense – but it’s not the full-on journeyman rock album Mayer led us to expect.

No, this is an adult contemporary album through and through. Much of it sounds like Sting, and a lot of it sounds like the lamest of Eric Clapton’s smoothed-out solo work. “Belief” sounds so much like the former Gordon Sumner that I had to check and see if he had a co-writing credit (he doesn’t), and “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” could easily be a Slowhand track. All the rough edges are sanded off, and spit-shined. Mayer’s lead guitar is all over the album, thankfully, but only in clean, miniature bursts that don’t call attention to themselves. He only gets to show off on the Jimi Hendrix cover “Bold as Love.”

There are certainly good things here, and interestingly, some of the slower ones are the best – “The Heart of Life” deserves to be a hit, so engaging is its acoustic lope, and “Stop This Train” takes some delightful melodic detours. The final track, “I’m Gonna Find Another You,” is a swell, soulful coda to the enjoyable “In Repair.” But the whole thing smells like safety, like Mayer was told to make an album that wouldn’t upset the radio programmers who have to slot his new stuff alongside Phil Collins and whoever it is that just won American Idol.

That’s my real problem with this otherwise competent and well-crafted album. Listen to the trio album – Mayer basically had Cream in the studio with him, and he decided to skip that phase of Clapton’s career and make Pilgrim instead. The best thing you can say about Continuum is that it’s a nice album, and it is – it’s got some sweet ballads on it, and some smooth blues like “I Don’t Trust Myself With Loving You,” one of the highlights. But it should have been so much more, and it should have rocked.

And so here I go again, defending him against his own work. Continuum isn’t bad, but John Mayer is capable of so much better. Let’s hope he figures that out someday soon.

* * * * *

Jason Martin hopefully needs no such convincing of his own skills. For more than 10 years, he’s led his band Starflyer 59 through half a dozen genres, writing one great little song after another, and toiling in obscurity all the while. But for those of us who have discovered Martin (and his brother Ronnie, of Joy Electric), his yearly missives are things to look forward to.

This year’s is called My Island, and it follows up Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice, one of the best records Martin’s ever made. Talking Voice was an immaculately produced gloom-pop powerhouse, with an incredibly full sound and some of the catchiest melodies of Martin’s career. Rather than try to top that by moving even further down the studio wizard path, though, he’s decided to pull back and make a guitar-heavy rock album.

And it’s pretty great. Like most Starflyer albums, the worst thing you can say about My Island is that it’s too short – it’s 10 songs, running a meager 32 minutes. The sound is slightly stripped back – guitars, bass and drums, for the most part, with some great keyboard textures – and the songs have taken on an energetic, angular new-wave quality. Standout “Nice Guy” starts off with a cheesy piano intro, and then jumps right into a Clash-style bass-heavy groove that, quite simply, rules. Martin’s baritone sounds menacing here, and the whole thing works.

“I Win” is a keeper, one of several rockers with memorable melodies here, and the keyboard figure after the chorus will make its home in your head without much effort. “Division” could almost be a Talking Voice outtake – it’s perhaps the darkest thing here, and loaded with texture. And the title song is right out of prime 1980s Daniel Amos, with Martin paying homage to Terry Taylor, one of his admitted heroes.

Still, there are missteps here, whereas on Talking Voice there were none. “Mic the Mic” is too repetitive, as is “It’s Alright Blondie,” though the keyboard motif on the latter track is enjoyable. Despite these minor hiccups, My Island is another in a long line of very good records from Starflyer 59. Jason Martin’s catalog is too extensive and too excellent to go as unnoticed as it has. On the final track on My Island, Martin sings, “My ideas outweigh all the talent I have.” He’s never been more wrong.

Check the band out here, and buy their stuff here. And watch for The Brothers Martin, coming soon – it’s a collaboration between Jason and Ronnie, and it dives further into new wave waters. Hear some of it here.

* * * * *

If you’re in a band, and you have an album coming out, and you’re trying to come up with the year’s best title for it, don’t waste your time. That honor’s already been won by Yo La Tengo – their 10th album is called I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass.

Game, set, match.

As you’d expect, the album cannot possibly be as good as its title, but anyone who wrote off Yo La Tengo after their last two records, the lazy And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out and the shimmering Summer Sun, may want to reconsider. I Will Beat Your Ass is another sprawling piece of work – 15 songs spanning 77 minutes – but it returns to the band to its greatest strength: its wild diversity. None of these songs sound anything like their neighbors, and yet they all sound like Yo La Tengo.

The album opens with “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind,” an 11-minute guitar freakout over a repetitive backdrop, and it represents the first time frontman Ira Kaplan has really kicked out the jams in six years. It ends with another one, “The Story of Yo La Tango (sic),” as if to bookend the songs in between. And those 13 shorter tunes are some of the most elegant of the band’s career, from the bouncy pop of “Beanbag Chair” to the falsetto soul of “Mr. Tough” to the orchestrated balladry of “Black Flowers.”

Of course, vocals have always been Yo La Tengo’s Achilles heel, and they’re as weak here as they’ve always been. Kaplan has a thin, wavery voice, and all the pitch control of Wayne Coyne, though he is complemented well by his wife, drummer Georgia Hubley. The pair spin little webs of fragile harmonies that decorate the sweeter tunes, but they fall short on the harsher ones, like the percussion-fueled organ jam “The Room Got Heavy.”

But it’s the eclecticism that will keep you coming back. The gem of the album is the nine-minute instrumental “Daphnia” – sandwiched in between two folk-pop ditties, its slow walk through a frost-covered landscape truly stands out, and the piano work, dripping like melting icicles over Kaplan’s understated guitar, is exceptionally beautiful. It’s the only song like it here, and it plays like intermission music, with the second act heralded by the rambunctious “I Should Have Known Better.”

Other standouts include the trashy rock of “Watch Out For Me Ronnie” and the beautiful gallop of “The Weakest Part” (which includes the best Kaplan-Hubley harmonies on the record), but truly, it’s all pretty good stuff. I have never been on the Yo La Tengo train as much as some of my fellow critics, but I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass is a winner, and if you’ve never heard the band, it’s a particularly good place to start. Plus, as an added bonus, you get to buy and own an album called I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass.

* * * * *

Saving the best for last once again, we come to Roger Joseph Manning Jr.

Hell, I knew him when he was just Roger Manning, keyboard player and genius songwriter for Jellyfish, perhaps the greatest band of the ‘90s. No, I’m not kidding – Jellyfish’s two albums are perfect pop platters, and I don’t mean that they’re almost perfect, or that they contain moments of perfection, but that every minute of both albums is absolutely perfect. Don’t take my word for it, buy them for yourself, especially if you like pop music of any stripe.

Since J-Fish broke up in 1994, Manning has kept the busiest. His cohort Andy Sturmer has done some production work, but little else, while Manning has launched two bands – the funky Imperial Drag and the hilarious Moog Cookbook – and played on a couple dozen albums by other artists. So it’s hardly any surprise that he won the race to get a full-length solo record out. The only surprise, unfortunately, is that it took more than a decade.

But it’s here, and it’s called The Land of Pure Imagination. And it’s completely wonderful.

True, this is really just a restatement of his not-widely-available Solid State Warrior LP from last year, but one gets the sense that this is the real deal, the way it was meant to be heard. Manning played every note and sung every line on this album (except for one little trumpet solo), and if the two J-Fish albums weren’t enough to establish him as a pure pop genius, this would absolutely do it. This album is practically swimming in amazing melodies, dreamy harmonies, and quirky-beautiful arrangements. It’s an astounding listen.

This isn’t for everyone. Manning’s voice is high, childlike and eerily precise – great for the oceans of backing vocals that graced Jellyfish albums, but not as effective as a lead instrument. His songs are similarly childlike, as obviously influenced by Brian Wilson as much as by Andy Partridge. This entire album exudes innocence and joy, about as much as you’d expect from a record unironically titled The Land of Pure Imagination, and some will be put off or embarrassed by it.

But not me. I’m on board from the delirious chorus of the title track, an epic that includes some judicious use of toy piano. “Too Late For Us Now” may be the catchiest pop song of the year, and in my world, it’s a hit. “Wish It Would Rain” starts as a lazy waltz, but blossoms into a pop classic, with some gorgeous vocal melodies. “Sandman” could be a great lost XTC track, as could “Dragonfly,” and “Creeple People,” the album’s one stab at rocking out, is a messy, noisy romp. Land concludes with “Appleby,” a left-field carnival of sound and melody, and one of the strangest and coolest things here.

This isn’t Jellyfish, and as such, it’s not perfect. The sound is sumptuous and lush, but occasionally you’re reminded that these are basically home recordings, and some songs (“Pray for the Many,” “In the Name of Romance”) fall just under par. But for the first solo album from one of my heroes, it’s pretty damn terrific, and there isn’t a moment here that doesn’t sparkle with inventiveness and sheer delight. I love this little record, one of my favorites of the year so far, and I’m thrilled to have new Roger Manning music on my shelf and in my life. It’s not a Jellyfish reunion, but it’ll do.

* * * * *

That’s it for this week. Next week, some ‘70s-inspired pop from other countries.

A quick recommendation before I go – Aaron Sorkin coasted back to TV this week with the pilot for his new show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and it was quite good. Not an outside-the-park home run like the West Wing pilot, of course, but full of Sorkin’s trademark banter and wit. And he found a dignified, pivotal role for Judd Hirsch, whom I’ve always liked. We’ll see if this show sticks around – it seems very expensive to produce, and NBC has dumped it on Monday nights. But if you liked Sorkin’s work on Sports Night and The West Wing, this is the goods.

See you in line Tuesday morning.