Thursday, June 13, 2019

100 Albums: "Playland" by Johnny Marr

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Johnny Marr
Title: Playland
Released: 2014
Genre: post-punk britpop


Best known as a guitarist and co-writer for the Smiths, a band that broke up in 1987, Johnny Marr has had a long career in the background of rock-and-roll. He was briefly in the Pretenders and Modest Mouse. He did a lot of session work. He produced a few albums, did a stint with the Cribs. And then in 2011, he started putting out solo albums. And... this is one of them. And it's really quite good.

Playland is the sort of album that gets written by a rhythm guitarist. The leads are slow and thick and melodic. The rhythm parts are densely layered but still pop and jangle. There's a definitely britpop sheen to the whole thing: solid hooks, simple structures with lots of tiny variations over the course of a song, a bit of the old post-punk jangle, and a healthy dose of reverb on everything. Although, for as atmospheric as its musical elements are, it's got a real sense of movement. The single Easy Money is the standout song and the clear radio track. The opener Back In The Box is excellent. 25 Hours is a bass-forward chunky, almost punk track. I love the chorus on The Trap and Candidate, two of the slower songs.

But really, what's most enjoyable about this record is how well put together it is. Yes, the songs are catchy and impressive and all of the instruments sound good, but you also have to take a step back to appreciate the craftsmanship on display. Marr has been playing in bands for over four decades now. He's really quite good at this.

Further Listening: Marr has two other solo albums that I haven't listened to, although I've liked the snippets I've heard. But if you just want to revel in some rhythm guitar awesomeness, then there's nothing better from him than How Soon Is Now?

Monday, June 10, 2019

100 Albums: "Third Eye Blind" by Third Eye Blind

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Third Eye Blind
Title: Third Eye Blind
Released: 1997
Genre: post-grunge power pop


The late 90s were a weird time for rock and roll. The second wave of grunge was on the ebb, the pop renaissance was just around the corner--the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys had their first commercial hits in 1996, although bubblegum wouldn't completely dominate until Britney Spears' debut in 1999. All around there was less appetite for self-serious angsty music, and the rock acts that broke during this era embraced their fun side. Two bands in particular stand out to me, Third Eye Blind and Incubus. Both broke around the same time and constructed their sound from a lot of the same component parts, even though the end result was quite different. The both wrote up-tempo pop songs that were infused with punk and hip-hop influences. They both wrote lyrics that specifically de-glamorized the culture of partying and drug abuse that surrounded rock and roll. Of the two, Incubus was the more sophisticated, pursuing an experimental and complex sound. Third Eye Blind wrote popcorn, but it was some tasty popcorn. Third Eye Blind wasn't a huge-selling album, but it produced some very successful singles: Semi-Charmed LifeGraduate, How's It Going To Be, and Jumper, which all got heavy radio play.

I remember being completely, er... charmed... by the lead single Semi-Charmed Life. It was fast and bouncy and very high-energy, while somehow seeming to be about junkies who weren't enjoying getting high anymore, or something like that.  It was also very easy to play on the guitar, so double-bonus. I loved that they sang about sex and drugs with candor and earnest, if not nuance, but even then I didn't really get it. I owned the cassingle with the radio edit, and mostly bought the whole album because I loved that song but hated the way the radio edit garbled with phrase "crystal meth." The rest of the album followed suit: catchy, high-energy songs about subjects that sounded cool even though I didn't really understand the narrative. I mean, I understand them better now. Now that I've been through a rough break-up or two, I have a better handle on the opener Losing A Whole Year and its opening line "I remember you and me used to spend the whole goddamn day in bed." Back then I assumed they were just tired all the time--the next track was called Narcolepsy, so I guess that made sense. Or maybe it was a drug thing?

Oh, 1997 Kurt, you sweet summer child.

I listened to this album constantly. It was just under an hour long, the perfect length to put on a 60-minute blank tape and listen to in the car on repeat. Again, this is not high art, it's pop art, but it's really compelling pop art. Some of the non-radio tracks are still in my sing-a-long playlists. (How, for example, was Graduate a single but not the far superior London?) And there are little lyrical flourishes that I still enjoy. Like "The clothes she wears mis-fit" from Thanks A Lot or "I've never been so alone and I've never been so alive" from Motorcycle Drive By. The couple of down-tempo numbers like The Background and God Of Wine have drive and purpose. The only songs that haven't aged well are Good For You, which feels like such a throwback to second wave four-chord grunge, and I Want You, which is aggressively sappy, but neither of those are bad, by any stretch.

Further Listening: The follow-up Blue was pretty underwhelming, and I haven't heard any of their other albums (although apparently they have a lot of them). Alas. Sometimes, you only have one hit record in you.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

100 Albums: "Even Worse" by "Weird Al" Yankovic

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: "Weird Al" Yankovic
Title: Even Worse
Released: 1988
Genre: comedy


I first heard Weird Al's song Dare To Be Stupid when I was maybe seven years old and it was a revelation. For a kid like me--coming from a very conservative background but with an off-beat sense of humor--this was eye-opening. He was subversive, but in a family-friendly way; Yankovic identifies as Christian and has always kept his material PG and free of swearing. He makes fun of people, but only after getting their permission. His whole MO is to take everything you think is "cool" and shift the context just a little in order to make it silly. He's a virtuoso musician, a comic craftsman, a consummate goofball, and beloved the world over. He's supposed to be a first-rate showman (I haven't seen him in concert yet, although that is going to be remedied later this month) and, by all accounts I've heard, one of the nicest human beings you could ever interact with. I've been a fan of his for basically my entire life. As I've gotten older and musical landscapes have shifted, I don't find myself enjoying the newer material as much, but I go back a lot to this era of his work and this disc specifically--not because it's one of my favorite novelty albums, but because it's one of my favorite album albums. I enjoy the performance and craftsmanship on display here, and it doesn't even matter than what's being crafted and performed is a joke.

Even Worse is best known for Fat, a parody of the song Bad Yankovic's second go at spoofing Michael Jackson. As a rule, comedy doesn't age very well, but Fat has fared worse than most of Yankovic's material due to shifting attitudes about body-shaming and.. well... not to put too fine a point on it, shifting attitudes about Michael Jackson. Yankovic is most famous for his parodies of specific songs, even though that makes up less than half of his oeuvre. The song parodies here are good, but they're also the least interesting thing going on. Aside from Bad, all of the songs being parodied are 1980s covers of songs that were originally written in the 50s or 60s. There's I Think I'm A Clone Now, parodying Tiffany's cover of I Think We're Alone NowLasagna, parodying Los Lobos' version of La Bamba, and Alimony, which specifically satirizes Billy Idol's live cover of Mony Mony. But by far the best song parody is (This Song's Just) Six Words Long, a skewering satire of George Harrison's take on Got My Mind Set On You. Because while Harrison's hit is a bona fide classic, we all have to admit that it's a little weak in the lyrics department.

But the real meat of this album is the style parodies. Velvet Elvis is a spot-on riff on The Police. You Make Me is a fantastic Oingo Boingo spoof. Twister is not only a pitch-perfect imitation of the Beastie Boys, but it also takes the form of a product jingle (The Beastie Boys have famously never allowed their music to be used in commercials). Good Old Days is supposed to be play on James Taylor, but what really sells it is that it's a gentle ballad being sung by a psychopath. It's one of Yankovic's darkest songs. And Stuck In A Closet With Vanna White, while not specifically parodying any artist, is an early example of Yankovic's here's-a-bunch-of-funny-nonsense songs. It's also remarkable for being the only studio album after his debut to not feature a polka medley of some sort, but it doesn't suffer for the lack. And since it's still early on, there's the energy and willingness to push that you get from a hungry young artist still trying to figure things out. I still enjoy this one immensely.

Further Listening: Yankovic's catalog is huge, but if I had to pick other favorites... Dare To Be Stupid has some of his best work. The title track is a Devo style parody that is so spot-on that Mark Mothersbaugh (of Devo) has gone on record saying that he wished he'd written it. It also has Yoda, a parody of The Kinks' Lola which is noteworthy because Lola is itself a comedy song, and Yoda is so much funnier. Off The Deep End is probably the first album of his that I owned, and it holds up pretty well. I also have a tremendous amount of affection for the UHF soundtrack, which has parodies of R.E.M. and Dire Straits, plus an entire polka medley of Rolling Stones songs. Finally, I'll recommend Alapalooza, which opens with a parody of Richard Harris's MacArthur Park re-written to be about Jurassic Park and closes with a polka rendition of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody.

Monday, June 3, 2019

100 Albums: "The Dark Side Of The Moon" by Pink Floyd

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Pink Floyd
Title: The Dark Side Of The Moon
Released: 1973
Genre: psychedelic rock


Pink Floyd was always a deeply experimental band. It wasn't always successful, but even their older weird stuff that doesn't quite work (I'm looking at YOU, Ummagumma) is still at least interesting. They were able to evolve their sound over several years, and DSotM is where all the pieces come together in just the right way to form something magical. And by "magical" I mean one of the greatest-selling albums of all time. As Floyd albums go, it's fairly straightforward. It runs a little over forty minutes and has eight-to-ten tracks (depending on whether you separate Speak To Me/Breathe and Brain Damage/Eclipse), all of which have run-times that are under seven minutes. The tracks with vocals run a little long and the instrumental interstitials run a little short, but that's pretty standard for 70s rock. I mean, compare this to 1971's Meddle, whose closing track Echoes is over 23 minutes long and takes up the entire second side of the LP. (This is even more impressive when you realize that standard tape reals used in recording run out at 16 minutes.)

Rather than experimenting with form and breadth, Pink Floyd use this album to play around with depth. This thing is densely layered. The topmost layer is 5 glossy psychedelic pop songs built on classic rock fundamentals but working in some jazz and blues. But when you dig into the lyrics you start to find stories about drugs and desperation and mental illness. And then those interstitial tracks have voices on them, people talking casually about death and fear. And then if you really crank it up, during the quieter moments you discover these lush soundscapes sitting under everything. And then you get the shit scared out of you for listening at high volume because Time opens with a sound collage of alarm clocks going off. It's a moody, atmospheric masterpiece that really defines its era of music. The craftsmanship is superb. Floyd were masters of sounding like Pink Floyd. No one else really comes close, and if that's your jam, then you've already bought this record and listened to it a dozen times.

Further Listening: I haven't consumed the entire Floyd catalog, but of all I've heard, DSotM is the stand-out. That said, I have a lot of affection for Meddle--in which the band was starting down that path--and Wish You Were Here, a concept album delivered because their record company was begging them for a follow-up to DSotM. So it's mostly about how record execs are douchebags. For all of its accolades, I don't particularly enjoy The Wall. It has a few epic tracks on it, but it feels like mostly filler to me--a reach-exceeds-grasp situation.

And yes, I'm aware of the Wizard Of Oz thing and no, I don't think it actually works or is all that interesting. But, to be fair, I kind of hate that movie.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

100 Albums: "(What's The Story) Morning Glory?" by Oasis

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Oasis
Title: (What's The Story) Morning Glory?
Released: 1995
Genre: britpop


Americans will never understand just how huge Oasis were for a while there in Britain. The brothers Gallagher were working class rockers who emulated the Beatles with their candy-coated, drug-fueled, pop rock. Liam was the voice and Noel was the writing talent, and when Wonderwall broke in 1995, it was huge. (WtS)MG? does what every artist wants in a sophomore album. It hones and doubles down on their sound. It pushes on their boundaries: Noel sings lead on a few songs--including a single--the album has two untitled instrumental fills, and then there's the seven-and-a-half minute closer. The songs are very earwormy, and I adore Noel Gallagher's lead guitar work. His fills are melodic and dynamic, but they're not overly flashy and the counterbalance nicely against the vocal melodies. They never shred, but they never sit still either.

It's slightly more ballad-y than their previous album. After the raucous openers Hello and Roll With It, the album settles in for lighter with Wonderwall and Don't Look Back In Anger. It picks up a little with the mid-tempo rockers Hey Now and Some Might Say before dipping again for Cast No Shadow, which is a decent song and also the least memorable, in my opinion. It picks back up for the bouncy She's Electric and the hard-rocking Morning Glory, which is my favorite and probably also the most brazen, teasing an unidentified party for being hungover after a cocaine bender. Then it lilts away with Champagne Supernova, an epic which somehow got cut down into a radio single.

This was the peak of their success in the US. The follow-up Be Here Now was dull and indulgent, and the band was soon better known for the family feuds between Noel and Liam than for their music. But for a little while there Oasis was everywhere.

Further listening: If not for my one-album-per-artist rule, there's a very good chance their debut Definitely Maybe would also be on the list. Yes, it's a little rough around the edges and yes, Shakermaker borrowed some melodic elements from that Coke commercial, but Live Forever and Supersonic are excellent, anthemic songs, and Married With Children is just a good time.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Sale: "Carpools & Coworkers"

I've added a new entry to the "Coming Soon" section of the old Fiction page. My story Carpools & Coworkers has been purchased by Daily Science Fiction and will be appearing there in the near future. I don't have a date locked down yet, but you can always subscribe and get it delivered straight to your inbox whenever it does come out.

]{p

Monday, May 27, 2019

100 Albums: "Stadium Arcadium" by Red Hot Chili Peppers

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Red Hot Chili Peppers
Title: Stadium Arcadium
Released: 2006
Genre: alternative funk


There really isn't any other band quite like Red Hot Chili Peppers. Defined primarily by Anthony Kiedis's raps about sex and geography and the insane punk/slap bass playing of arguably-the-greatest-bassist-who-ever-lived Flea, RHCP's sound is a bizarre blend of not-quite-funk, not-quite-hip-hop, and not-quite-punk. It became one of the earliest things you could point to and call "alternative" back when we were all still trying to figure out what that word meant. Stadium Arcadium is the last album they recorded with their most successful lineup: Kiedis and Flea alongside drummer (and Will Ferrell doppelganger) Chad Smith and guitarist John Fruciante. The music was originally conceived to be released a series of EPs, but wound up being joined into a double-album with a total run-time of just over two hours.

Stadium Arcadium has the laid-back vibe of a record from band that's been doing this forever and is just really good at it by now. That's not to imply that it's low-energy. It bops and grooves and jumps along. The songs are generally brisk and short and there's not a bad track out of the twenty-eight. The radio singles are good, but my favorites are Charlie and Turn It Again, the latter being the longest song on the entire album by over half a minute and the one where Frusciante is allowed to just cut loose the most on. My only complaint is that at two hours long it's exhausting. RHCP albums always have lots of tracks, but somewhere around track 25 is where my attention starts to really wane, which is hilarious to me since Turn It Again is second-to-last and the closer Death Of A Martian is pretty excellent.

I had the opportunity to see them touring this record and it was a thoroughly engaging show. Stages exist so Flea can take them. However charismatic you think he might be based on music videos and recordings, he is even more so. The opening act was Gnarls Barkley. Helluva show.

Further Listening: Californication is a great record, and it was the first one they did when Frusciante re-joined after he quit the band the first time. It produced a number of singles, the most enduring of which is Otherside. Blood Sugar Sex Magic is not a very listenable album in my opinion, but it gave us Give It Away, Under The Bridge, Breaking The Girl, and Suck My Kiss, all of which still get radio play. And while it's considered something of an anomaly, I rather enjoy their album One Hot Minute. It was the only album recorded with Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, and while he was a poor fit for RHCP, the album is solid and memorable.