One Up, Three Down
Weird Al Delights, Three Others Disappoint

I’ve got a bunch of reviews this week, and almost no time to crank them out. And since I’ve already gotten shit about it, we may as well start with Weird Al.

I honestly, sincerely, and with no irony intended whatsoever believe that Weird Al Yankovic is a musical genius. He’s often dismissed as “just a parodist,” as if clever and funny parodies were easy to begin with, but his talent runs considerably deeper than that. Very few humor acts have produced a catalog with the breadth and punch of Yankovic’s, and there’s a reason his career has lasted more than 20 years while other Dr. Demento favorites have delivered their one novelty hit and disappeared.

And here is that reason – Yankovic understands music and its impact on American culture. He’s not just some guy who rearranges the words to pop hits, he knows what makes those pop hits tick, and he’s able to effortlessly (or so it seems) assimilate the musical sensibility of just about anyone, while skewering their place in the zeitgeist.

Yeah, I did just use the word “zeitgeist” in a Weird Al Yankovic review. And yeah, it’s easy enough to listen to his new album, Straight Outta Lynwood, and just laugh your head off, because it’s very funny. But that only hits one or two levels of what Yankovic does. Just about every song on Lynwood can be seen as social satire, gently barbed for your protection. No one would ever call Yankovic vicious, of course, and he’s not trying to smack anybody down with this record, but Lynwood is clever and pointed, all the way through.

It also makes me feel very old. This is the first ever Weird Al record for which I had to do research – I had never heard three of the five songs he parodies here, a sure sign that pop culture is finally starting to pass me by. To be fair, Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’” wasn’t exactly a worldwide hit, but oddly, its unfamiliarity only adds to the success of Al’s parody, “White & Nerdy.” It maintains the bravado of the original rap, but trades its thugs and hoes for pocket protectors and Klingons.

But that’s just the start. “Pancreas” proves once again that Yankovic is a master mimic, able to take on the musical persona of just about anyone. Here it’s Brian Wilson that gets the treatment, as bits reminiscent of “God Only Knows,” “Wind Chimes” and “Good Vibrations” weave through this loving tribute. Al and his crack band (the same three amazing musicians that have played with him since 1984) busted out dozens of odd instruments for this one, and the lyrics, praising the titular, overlooked organ, are no sillier, really, than a lot of Wilson’s work. (“Vege-Tables,” anyone?)

“Canadian Idiot” takes Green Day for a ride, delivering an attack on our northern neighbors that really says more about American arrogance. “I’ll Sue Ya” is a subtler “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” imagining an angry white boy wielding the legal system instead of a nine-mil. (“I sued Coca-Cola, ‘cause I stuck my finger down in a bottle and it got stuck! I sued Delta Airlines, ‘cause they sold me a ticket to New Jersey, I went there, and it sucked!”) And “Weasel Stomping Day,” believe it or not, has the same theme as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”: traditions gone awry. This time it’s disguised as a children’s theme about… well, a day in which everyone stomps weasels. The sound effects are delightfully sickening.

Parodies of Usher’s “Confessions” and Taylor Hicks’ “Do I Make You Proud” stumble around a bit, but Yankovic scores with “Trapped in the Drive-Thru,” a 12-minute takedown of R. Kelly’s already hilarious “Trapped in the Closet” epic. Here, Yankovic details his adventures (or lack thereof) in the takeout line, which ends up being more interesting than Kelly’s guns-and-gay-men fiasco. Yankovic mirrors Kelly’s vocal acrobatics, his ridiculous “soulful” emoting, only this time, the action is centered on whether the drive-thru clerk will remember not to add onions.

But he saves his best shot for last – “Don’t Download This Song” is a “We Are the World”-style ballad about the evils of illegal downloading. It perfectly skewers both the all-join-hands, sappy sentiment of all-star benefit songs, and the fearful stance of the record industry in the face of a digital future. I can honestly see big-shot record execs dreaming up a song like this to convince people that “the record store’s where [they] belong.” The song is, quite simply, amazing, and in a final twist of irony, Yankovic is offering it as a free download at his MySpace site. (Listen closely during the fade at the end for the funniest line…)

If I have a complaint about Straight Outta Lynwood, it’s that Al doesn’t mess with his formula at all – here are six new originals, five parodies and a polka, just like always. But hell, why change something that’s working? Weird Al remains one of our best cultural lampooners, and given the pomposity of pop in general, we need someone to skillfully let the air out of the balloon now and then. Straight Outta Lynwood is another winner in a string of them, and with it, Yankovic proves again that he goes well beyond just “comedy music.” It’s satire, it’s social criticism, it’s the last three years of pop music all chewed up and spit back. But best of all, it’s really funny.

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I know I’ll get even more shit for this, but you just read the most positive review of the week. My other contestants include three guys that are often called geniuses, and I usually agree, but not this time.

First up is Beck, whose third album in 18 months is called The Information. This record reunites the chameleonic wunderkind with Sea Change producer Nigel Godrich, but if you’re expecting anything along the lines of the glorious, otherworldly sadness of that album, you’ll be left wanting. The Information is Beck’s attempt to bring it all together – here’s hip-hop, funk, acoustic blues, ethereal harmonies, cheesy synthesizers right alongside celestial ambience, and a bevy of nifty pop choruses.

So why is the cover art the most interesting thing about it? I’m not sure. But the packaging is awesome – The Information comes with a blank J-card insert, and a sheet of bizarre stickers, so you can design your own artwork. It’s a great concept in the age of personalized, interactive music. Create your own cover, then rip the songs to your iPod and shuffle them to create your own album, Beck seems to be saying.

And you may as well, since The Information offers no album-length journey, just a series of 15 songs. That in itself isn’t a bad thing – A Hard Day’s Night is just a collection of songs – but about half of these tunes are forgettable. As a whole, the album has a muted spell that works, and I find myself alternately bored with it and drawn into it, but 10 minutes after it wraps up (with a three-part collage that includes Dave Eggers talking over an endless synth wash), I don’t really remember much of it.

It’s taken a few listens to cull the good stuff, but “I Think I’m in Love” stands as perhaps the best of the bunch, with its skipping beat and jaunty melody. “Strange Apparition” sticks out simply by being the most traditional of these songs, a piano-led blues that plays it straight. “Nausea” picks up some of the whip-smart acoustic work of Guero, while the title song is a blippy success. But for every song that sticks, there’s one that just drifts in and out, like “Dark Star” (not the Grateful Dead song) or “Movie Theme.”

Godrich does his job admirably, stuffing The Information with details and darkening the corners with waves of sound. I just wish Beck had done his a little better this time out. He’s apparently been working on this material for years, recording Guero while on a break, but it’s strange just how much better last year’s album is than this year’s. I need to spend more time with The Information, but as of now, I’m ready to call it a strange experiment, and only a semi-successful one.

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Colin Meloy of the Decemberists has fewer acolytes than Beck does, but they’re no less fervent in their devotion. Meloy has been an indie it-boy for some time, a strange status for a guy more inspired by 18th century British folk music than anything the 20th century dished out. His band dresses in Civil War-period outfits and traffics in pirate tales and war ballads. Their last album, 2005’s Picaresque, includes a 10-minute sea shanty that defies description, and boasts no ties to modern music at all.

So, upon listening to The Crane Wife, the Decemberists’ major-label debut, one could be forgiven for wondering what happened. The signs of success are all there, at least in my world – The Crane Wife is a loose concept album that finds the band exploring different sounds and styles, and fully utilizing that major-label budget. They re-teamed with Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla, the man behind the boards for Picaresque. This should have been a home run.

But it’s not. The main problem with The Crane Wife is that, for all Meloy’s fascination with period pieces and folk tales, the band has never sounded more modern, and by extension, more normal. This record is glossy and full-sounding, but what always made the Decemberists interesting was the implied creak of the ship’s wooden decks as the waves hit, or the atmosphere of an old English pub, that radiated off of their work. The songs on The Crane Wife, barring some exceptional exceptions, are all pretty average indie pop tunes, and they provide an ill-fitting bed for Meloy’s talespinning.

Meloy himself remains the same, blessedly, his high, nasal voice defining the band here more than anything else. The album opens with “The Crane Wife 3,” built around an overused chord progression and not much of a melody. It starts acoustically, but builds to full Pete Townshend splendor before crashing into the album’s most smashing success, a three-movement suite called “The Island.” This song is breathtaking, betraying a strong Jethro Tull influence in its second movement, “The Landlord’s Daughter,” and providing the album with its most heartbreaking moment in its third, “You’ll Not Feel the Drowning.” It is one of Meloy’s best songs, bar none.

But don’t let it make you too hopeful. “Yankee Bayonet,” a duet with Laura Viers, is blah acoustic pop, and “O Valencia” betrays its Romeo-and-Juliet theme to a bouncy pop song that sounds like half a million other bands. “The Perfect Crime #2” is a nifty shuffle that ends up going nowhere, and I would like Meloy to tell me how the melody of “When the War Came,” a noisy and repetitive stomp, isn’t a direct rip-off of “No Quarter.” Neither murder ballad “Shankhill Butchers” nor wispy pop number “Summersong” make much of an impression, despite some nice production on the former.

And then you get another multi-parter, “The Crane Wife 1 & 2,” that’s really just two uninspired songs stitched together. The second part is leagues better than the first, thanks to Meloy’s lovely vocals and words, and the band’s understated accompaniment. But unlike “The Island,” this just drags on too long without doing much to keep your attention. And finale “Sons & Daughters” is a nice round-robin coda, but not the full redemption this record needs.

So what happened? I have no idea. With a band this singular, though, the only fair comparison is to their own previous work, and The Crane Wife doesn’t hold a candle to Picaresque. It’s bigger, sure, and “The Island” is a masterpiece, but there’s nothing here as beautiful as “The Engine Driver,” as striking as “The Infanta,” or as jaw-droppingly insane as “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” It’s a definite step back, a definite disappointment, and I hope the major label had nothing to do with it. Here’s hoping that next time out, Meloy and his merry band remember what it is that makes them special.

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And then there’s Lindsey Buckingham, a guy who may as well have “forgotten genius” tattooed to his forehead. In the 1970s, he and Stevie Nicks reinvented Fleetwood Mac, taking them from their blues roots to a layered pop sound that’s rarely successfully imitated, even now. He’s always been my favorite member of that outfit – I vastly prefer his songs to the earth-witch-spirit-goddess pabulum of Stevie Nicks. Buckingham is also a criminally underrated guitarist and producer. He does things with an acoustic guitar that sound impossible, and he does them live.

So the prospect of an acoustic album from Buckingham had me all excited, but Under the Skin is a bit of a letdown. One reason is the vocal production – Buckingham is gifted with a strong voice, but he’s chosen to close-mike most of this record, singing in a breathy half-whisper that doesn’t suit him. The title song goes for an extraterrestrial atmosphere, but falls woefully short, and I never thought I’d prefer the Rolling Stones to Lindsey Buckingham, but his version of “I Am Waiting” doesn’t quite work.

Once you get used to it, the album does weave its own kind of spell, and Buckingham’s guitar work is always excellent. The opener, “Not Too Late,” marries the most confessional lyrics of Buckingham’s career with some of his most precise and difficult playing, and “Show You How” sounds like it could be the start of a winsome pop song – you can hear how cool it would be, even if all we have here are the acoustic bass and vocal tracks.

But it’s a long haul from there to the next successful track, “Cast Away Dreams,” and you have to get through a cover of Donovan’s “To Try for the Sun” first. But “Dreams” is worth the wait, the only half-whisper tune here that really works. “Shut Us Down” is nice, in a bargain-basement Elliott Smith kind of way, but the album only really lifts off one more time, with the echo-laden “Someone’s Gotta Change Your Mind.”

Word is that Buckingham has another album in the works, this one a fully-produced pop platter in the vein of 1992’s swell Out of the Cradle. I’m already excited for that one, and hopefully it will make Under the Skin seem like the experimental diversion it is. But since it’s been 14 years since the last Lindsey Buckingham solo record, Skin can’t help but feel like a misfire. Buckingham is too talented to make albums like this one.

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Ordinarily, I like to end these longer, multi-review columns with something sparkling and beautiful, just to leave you on a high note. Sadly, that treasure eluded me this week, but hopefully the bounty of the coming weeks will make up for it. We’ll get new ones by Jeremy Enigk, Unwed Sailor, Sparta, Ben Folds, Copeland, Deftones and some band called the Who, as well as Christmas albums (!) from Aimee Mann and Sufjan Stevens.

Next week, I am driving to Minnesota to accept an invitation from Dr. Tony Shore – he and I are going to see the Zappa Plays Zappa show, which is Dweezil, Ahmet, and numerous former Mothers of Invention playing three hours of Frank’s music. Should be a grand old time. I will try to get a column done before then, but if I don’t, then I won’t post one until the following week. I’ll have a full report on the show, of course, when I get back.

See you in line Tuesday morning.