Fifty Second Week
Farewell to 2006

This is Fifty Second Week.

But first, a small update, for those interested in my work-in-progress, the Frank Zappa Buyer’s Guide. If you recall, I’ve been waiting for the latest Zappa Family product to show up at my door, that being the four-CD audio documentary MOFO, or Making of Freak Out. And also, if you recall, I wrote a bitchy diatribe aimed at the Zappa family, taking them to task for releasing the two-CD version first, promising that it had extra material not on the four-CD set, and then refusing to let us pre-orderers know the track list of the four-CD set we’d already bought.

This is bad business, I think, but my anger has subsided – the four-CD MOFO did indeed show up in my mailbox this past week, and it’s a wonder. The package is this fold-out origami creation, in a way, made out of the same hard plastic as those old Trapper Keepers. It’s gorgeous, even though it took me about half an hour to get two of the CDs off the hard plastic hubs. The book is beautiful, and the whole presentation is much better than I expected it would be.

But yes, there are seven (count them, seven!) tracks on the two-CD MOFO that are not on the four-CD MOFO, despite the fact that each of the four discs clocks in at around an hour, and there was plenty of room to include everything. I’m not sure why the Zappas decided to do this, but the most obvious reason seems to be money – they can milk the hardcore collectors for $70 for the big MOFO, and another $30 for the little MOFO, even though they share about 90 minutes of the same material.

This is incredibly annoying, and honestly, the wrong way to treat Frank’s fans. The whole MOFO project was mishandled, which is a shame, because the product is excellent. Gail Zappa says that this is the first in a series, and the obvious care she took in arranging and designing this set bodes well for future volumes. But I wonder if anyone will pre-order them, after the lack of consideration and professionalism the Zappas showed the fans this time.

Seriously, Zappas, next time, just do a couple of simple things – release a track list, and if you must make a deluxe version and a standard version, put everything you have on the deluxe version, so the collectors don’t have to shell out twice. That’s it. A steady flow of information and some simple courtesy to the fans will get you everywhere.

Now that MOFO is here, expect that Zappa guide sometime in January. But for now, as I said, this is Fifty Second Week.

This is a new tradition here at tm3am, one I started in 2005. At the end of every year, I find myself with this towering stack of unreviewed albums, ones that, for whatever reason, I just didn’t get to during the course of 12 months. Fifty Second Week is a way to burn through that stack, giving short reviews of each CD, so that I don’t leave anything worth talking about out of the column. Basically, I give myself 50 seconds to write a short review. It’s an experiment in brevity, something I’m really not good at, and I’ve promised myself that wherever I am in my review – mid-sentence, mid-word, whatever – when the timer runs down, that’s where I stop.

Fifty Second Week was a hit last year, and a lot of fun to write. I have 45 albums to get to this year, which, if I do it right, should take about an hour. So here we go. Fifty Second Week starts… now.

* * * * *

Trey Anastasio, Bar 17.
I disliked Trey’s Shine album for being too glossy, and Bar 17 rectifies that, but is a bit too sloppy and unkempt this time. I know, I know, I’m never happy, but this is kind of a mess with a few really good tunes thrown in.

Trey Anastasio, 18 Steps.
If you ordered Bar 17 off of Trey’s website, you got this EP free. It’s stuff from the same sessions, so it sounds like Bar 17, but it seems to have more of a focus than the full album does. In some ways, I like this better, and I’m glad I made the online purchase so I could have it.

Annuals, Be He Me.
I picked this up after a good review, and it’s not bad at all. It’s intricately produced acoustic pop, and even though the songs aren’t particularly memorable, the sound is nice. I don’t know that I will buy another Annuals album, but this one isn’t a blight on my collection or anything.

Army of Anyone.
This is Richard Patrick from Filter and the DeLeo brothers from Stone Temple Pilots, and you can tell. But it’s also one of the crunchiest, most memorable rock records of the year, even if it’s a little cliched at times. Patrick has a really cool voice, though. This is recommended.

Bright Eyes, Noise Floor.
Immensely appealing rarities collection from Conor Oberst, taken from every stage of his career. Oddly, I don’t remember many of the songs, except one really mean one about eating for you or something, but I do remember listening to this and liking it. Oberst is dreadfully overrated, but take him for what he is and he’s not a…

Shawn Colvin, These Four Walls.
I could swear that I heard this, but just like her last one, Whole New You, I don’t remember a damn thing about this album. I recall that it was the same sweet acoustic pop that Colvin always delivers, but the spark she used to have seems absent. Or maybe it’s just me.

Danielson, Ships.
This is an awesome bit of craziness from Daniel Smith, sounding like the most bizarre carnival you’ve ever seen. The best song is called “Did I Step on Your Trumpet,” which should tell you all you need to know. This is Smith’s most advanced and insane album ever.

Glenn Danzig, Black Aria II.
BWA-HA-HA-HA! No, hang on, I mean… BWA-HA-HA-HA-SNORT! Wait, what? I paid full price for this? Dammit!

The Dears, Gang of Losers.
Much more of a straight rock record than No Cities Left, this one is compact and distorted, but no less dramatic. “Whites Only Party” is probably my favorite Dears song right now.

Dredg, Live at the Fillmore.
Dredg has a really appealing modern drama-rock sound, and they somehow manage to replicate it live on this superb document. They even do a bunch of the segues from El Cielo, mixed with the more straightforward rock they proffered on Catch Without Arms. Love this.

Fair, The Best Worst-Case Scenario.
One of the better records I didn’t review this year, this is Aaron Sprinkle’s new band. You may know Sprinkle from Poor Old Lu, or his own solo stuff, and this sounds essentially the same, if a little fuller and darker. “Blurry Eyed” is one of the year’s best songs. Highly recommended.

Final Fantasy, He Poos Clouds.
I should have reviewed this one, too. This is Owen Pallett of the Arcade Fire, playing almost nothing but violins overdubbed on top of one another. It’s fantastic stuff, and he gets extra points for the album title – only Yo La Tengo came up with a cooler album name this year.

Foo Fighters, Skin and Bones.
If you liked the second disc of In Your Honor, you’ll love this – it’s the Foos live and acoustic, running through some of their best songs. I have always been a big fan of “Everlong,” the song that closes this set, and in this setting, it’s almost better. The rest, well, you know if you’re going to like this or not, right?

Vince Gill, These Days.
Ambition gets me every time. Gill’s album is a four-CD set, broken into country, pop, rock and bluegrass volumes, and it’s perhaps the clearest statement of his vision you can find. It’s great, if you like Vince Gill, but again, you already know what you’re going to get here, I think.

The Gothic Archies, The Tragic Treasury: Songs from a Series of Unfortunate Events.
The Gothic Archies are Stephin Merritt’s goth band, when he’s not fronting the Magnetic Fields, and this is his soundtrack to the 13 Lemony Snicket books. It’s just as clever and gloomy-fun as you’d expect, especially with song titles like “Smile, No One Cares How You Feel.” Great stuff.

Hem, No Word from Tom.
Hem is a soft-spoken country-folk band in the Cowboy Junkes vein, and this is their rarities collection. Worth it to hear Sally Ellyson sing R.E.M.’s “South Central Rain” and Fountains of Wayne’s “Radiation Vibe,” though nothing else stands out.

Hem, Funnel Cloud.
Two Hem albums this year, and I didn’t review either one. Not sure why, because this album is another slice of atmospheric country-folk-pop in the same lazy, low-key vein this band has always traversed.

Indigo Girls, Despite Our Differences.
After two great little acoustic-pop records, the Girls turn in this by-the-numbers, rote, boring album of typical folk music. It’s always a treat to hear Emily Saliers and Amy Ray sing together, but this is not their best set of songs, not by a long shot.

Elton John, The Captain and the Kid.
Nostalgia got me on this one. I will never again believe the hype surrounding a new Elton album, no matter how many respected critics try to convince me that it’s just like the 1970s stuff. It isn’t. It’s much, much lamer, especially the second half.

Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris, All the Roadrunning.
God, this is great. Don’t know why I didn’t review this either, considering that Knopfler is one of my favorite guitarists, and he and Harris sound like they were born to perform together on this swell little record. It’s traditional-sounding, granted, but it’s damn good.

Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris, Real Live Roadrunning.
And here’s the accompanying CD/DVD package from the tour, which is equally great. Knopfler gets to stretch out on guitar here, and the duo included a bunch of great Dire Straits songs, including “Romeo and Juliet” and the wonderful closer, “Why Worry.”

L.E.O., Alpacas Orgling.
This is power-popper Bleu turning in a refined Jeff Lynne impersonation, but it’s much better than that makes it sound. The first few songs, especially, are ELO-style pop wonderamas that will make just about anyone smile. Thanks to Tony Shore again for this one.

Live, Songs From Black Mountain.
I don’t know where Black Mountain is, but if these are the songs they sing there, I hope I never go. After a couple of decent albums, Live slips into self-parody with this terrible platter full of melodrama and self-serious silliness. Blah.

Loreena McKennitt, Live in Paris and Toronto.
This is a live document from McKennitt’s last tour, many moons ago, and it includes many of her best songs. This deserves more and better words than I’m able to give it in 50 seconds, but there you are.

Loreena McKennitt, An Ancient Muse.
And this is McKennitt’s first new album in nine years, and she sounds basically the same. Her stuff is often called new-age, but that’s just plain wrong – it’s folk music with an international flavor. “Penelope’s Song” ranks among her most beautiful.

Stephin Merritt, Showtunes.
I’m just now realizing that I’ve never listened to this. I bought it because it’s Merritt, and it collects songs from a few plays he scored, and the lyrics looked interesting, but I’ve never actually taken it out of its case and pressed play. That’s incredibly sad.

Willie Nelson, Songbird.
I bought this because it was produced by Ryan Adams, and Willie’s backing band here is the Cardinals, but it ended up being a lot better than I thought it would be, even if the world doesn’t ever need another version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Om, Conference of the Birds.
Om is the bassist and drummer from Sleep, carrying on that band’s stoner-rock tradition. This album is two very long songs, although the first, the 16-minute “At Giza,” is a real departure, perhaps the softest and most mesmerizing song these guys have ever contributed to.

The Panic Channel, (ONe).
This is half of the original Jane’s Addiction with a new singer and bass player, but it’s a little bit better than you’d think it would be. Basically, though, this is standard melodic modern rock, with nothing extraordinary to recommend it. I liked it enough to keep their pretentious spelling and punctuation, though.

Tom Petty, Highway Companion.
I’m not sure why I keep buying new Tom Petty albums. It’s not like he’s ever going to change, at this point. If you liked Petty before, you’ll like him now, but I’ve grown tired of his heartland rock and his Bob Dylan impressions. I listened once, then filed away.

Glen Phillips, Mr. Lemons.
Stupid title, sweet record from the former Toad the Wet Sprocket singer. This is more stripped-down than his last one, Winter Pays for Summer, and includes a great cover of Huey Lewis’ “I Want a New Drug.” Not sure why I didn’t review this one, either.

Robert Pollard, From a Compound Eye.
Never sure what you’re going to get from Mr. Guided by Voices. In this case, his first post-GBV solo album, you get a 70-minute mish-mash of fully fleshed-out songs, minute-long bursts of noise and demo-quality experiments…

Robert Pollard, Normal Happiness.
This is more like it. Pollard’s second record of 2006 is 16 short, sharp punk-pop tunes, and it comes on like a bullet and is over before you know it. This is the Robert Pollard I like, and I hope the seven or so albums he has set for 2007 are this good.

Shiny Toy Guns, We Are Pilots.
Saw these guys opening for Mute Math, and thought they looked idiotic, but their synth-pop sound was appealing, The album is pretty good, especially “You Are the One” and “Don’t Cry Out,” and their sound is even more appealing when I don’t have to look at their face-painted drummer guy.

Slayer, Christ Illusion.
The classic lineup reforms for a classic Slayer album, all speed and technical riffing and snarling about Satan. This is great stuff, though, and it’s just short enough that it never drags. Like their early records, this one kicks your ass and then high-tails it before you can get sick of it.

Snow Patrol, Eyes Open.
Yeah, my eyes are opened to this band’s Matchbox 20 impersonation. I don’t understand why so many critics fell all over themselves to praise this record. It’s bland and boring, and it doesn’t even have the moments of interest that Final Straw had. I think I’m done with Snow Patrol.

Sparklehorse, Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain.
Here’s another one the critics fellated for reasons that escape me. This is lazy to the point of catatonic, and even if some of the atmospheres are interesting, the songs aren’t at all. There’s nothing here that will keep me coming back.

The Stills, Without Feathers.
This is a major reinvention for the former new wave band, combining rocking guitars with a newfound sense of straight-ahead rock. Too bad the Killers made the same change later in the year, and got all the credit for it…

Sting, Songs From the Labyrinth.
Damn my completist nature for making me buy this. Oh, look, it’s Sting and a lute, playing 16th Century music while tunneling up his own ass! Try this – play this album, and then Outlandos D’Amour back to back, and then ask, what the hell happened to this guy?

Strapping Young Lad, The New Black.
Strapping Young Lad is Devin Townsend’s outlet for aggression – prior SYL albums were wall-to-wall rage, with no breaks. So this is surprising – this album has quiet passages, and places where the music breathes. But somehow, in this style, that’s a detriment, and kind of a letdown.

Matthew Sweet and Susannah Hoffs, Under the Covers Vol. 1.
This is what you’d expect – sugary covers of some of the best fizzy pop tunes in music history, including songs from the Beatles, Love, the Beach Boys and the great Left Banke. Plus, can I just say that Hoffs has aged very, very well…

Ty Tabor, Rock Garden.
And how retarded is that album title? Tabor cranks up the volume again after his more acoustic solo record, Safety, and this sounds like second-rate King’s X stuff. For once, it’s obvious that both he and Doug Pinnick saved their best stuff for their main band’s album.

TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain.
Hi, I’m a rock critic. “Oh, TV on the Radio, can I wax your car, or mow your lawn or anything? You’re just so brilliant!” No, really, they’re not. This is pleasant and acceptable and sonically interesting, but not as good as the first one, and nothing special.

Various Artists, To Elliott From Portland.
Tribute albums scare me, especially ones for unabashed geniuses like Smith, so the quality of this is surprising. I especially enjoyed the Decemberists and Eric Matthews, but the rest is decent, too. You can’t go wrong with these songs, though.

The Wonder Stuff, Suspended by Stars.
Much better, in both production and songwriting, than their last album, Escape from Rubbish Island. Miles Hunt is still a sarcastic asshole, as songs like “Someone Tell Me What to Think” will attest, but this is a fun record from a band I’d written off.

And that’s it. Once again, I had fun doing this, but I’d love to hear what you think of the Fifty Second Week idea. Is it fun to read? Should I go back to the drawing board?

Since this is the last column of 2006, I thought I’d end by talking about a few things I’m looking forward to in 2007. The new Shins kicks the year off on January 23, and the single, “Phantom Limb,” is a winner. Pain of Salvation also follows up the extraordinary Be with the reportedly more straightforward Scarsick that week, too.

There are new ones coming from Explosions in the Sky, Bright Eyes, Lovedrug, Ted Leo, Joy Electric (the title of which keeps changing – the most current is The Otherly Opus/Memory of Alpha), the Brothers Martin (Ronnie of JE and Jason of Starflyer 59), the 77s and their mastermind, Michael Roe. And then, on April 9, we get the 14th album from Marillion, titled Somewhere Else. The best part? They recorded enough songs for two albums, so their 15th will be out in May of 2008.

Oh, and sometime in March of ’07, Axl Rose has promised to release the long-awaited Guns ‘n’ Roses opus, Chinese Democracy. And then the earth will crack in half, the skies will open, and Armageddon will begin.

On that cheery note, have a happy new year. Thanks for reading year six. Next week, year seven.

See you in line Tuesday morning.