Thursday, May 23, 2019

100 Albums: "Bringing Down The Horse" by The Wallflowers

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

Artist: The Wallflowers
Title: Bringing Down The Horse
Released: 1996
Genre: adult contemporary roots-rock


Bob Dylan was a funny looking man with an odd but unique voice who couldn't sing particularly well but managed to completely upend the 60's folk scene and become one of the most influential musicians of all time. His son Jakob is an extremely handsome fellow with a beautiful singing voice and hoo-boy his music has been hit-or-miss. Conveniently for us, The Wallflowers--technically a band, although Dylan is the only permanent member--were kind enough to put almost all of their hits on a single disc, their sophomore album Bringing Down The Horse.

Leaning hard on their roots-rock sound, the slide guitars and organs are front-and-center in the mix, just behind the vocals. They marketed this album directly to Counting Crows fans by putting no less than Adam Duritz himself on the first single, 6th Avenue Heartache. The songs aren't really about anything, but the album is hook-heavy, passionate, and compulsively singable. And it sounds terrific. Every note is crisp, clear, and perfect. Just listen to the slow build-up at the front of the opening track One Headlight, with that flanged guitar giving way to the drum and then letting the other instruments creep in. Listen to the warm atmosphere of Invisible City or the driving drums under The Difference or the chirping keyboards on Three Marlenas or the smooth ascension of the verses in Angel On My Bike. It's a pristine sound underscoring some first-rate songwriting.

It's honestly kind of hard to understand why their other albums aren't better. You have to think it was the producer, or something, right, who was able to bring out the brilliance from an otherwise lackluster band. Or maybe it was the 4 year gap after their previous record, which gave them time to write and cull new material. Who can say?

Further Listening: They had a cover of Heroes on the soundtrack to the 1998 movie Godzilla that's pretty decent, although it prompted my wife to quip: "Bob Dylan's son covered David Bowie on the soundtrack to a remake. How many coattails can one man ride?"

Monday, May 20, 2019

100 Albums: "Purple" by Stone Temple Pilots

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

Artist: Stone Temple Pilots
Title: Purple
Released: 1994
Genre: alt-grunge / hard rock


Stone Temple Pilots appeared on the national scene in 1992, alongside other first-wave grunge acts like Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam. The "grunge" monicker covered a variety of musical styles: post-glam (Pearl Jam), punk (Nirvana), metal (Alice In Chains), and hard rock (Soundgarden). STP's debut Core is a solidly in the "hard rock" camp, and the most popular singles from that album--Creep and Plush--are also its mellowest. They followed this up with Purple, a record that transitions between their hard rock origins and the vintage pop-rock sound that would dominate their future records. I've mentioned earlier that "vintage" sounding bands are specifically aping Jimmy Page's guitar tone, and you can see the beginnings of that with STP on this record, especially in the album's most enduring single, Interstate Love Song. It should not be a surprise that the only cover STP ever released as a single was Led Zeppelin's Dancing Days.

Purple is a best-of-both-worlds record. It has some the band's best hard rock tracks in Vaseline and Unglued as well as some of their best mellow music in Pretty Penny and Big Empty. Silvergun Superman has a great deconstructed ending. Kitchenware & Candybars is--alongside Nirvana's Something In The Way--a quintessential grunge album closer. Still Remains is one of my favorite rock-and-roll love songs. The album wraps up with a hidden track called My Second Album, a lounge-style tune that satirizes the idea of hidden tracks while also showing off singer Scott Weiland's amazing singing voice in the same lounge context that he would later put to use in his amazingly bad solo Christmas album.

STP the band was consistently stymied by Weiland's drug addiction. Tours got canceled, the band broke up and reformed multiple times. Supposedly while recording No. 4 they would just finish the music and then prop him up in front of a microphone so he could record vocals while blasted out of his mind on heroin. Meanwhile the band recorded an entire other album with Dave Coutts of Ten Inch Men under the name Talk Show. But Weiland was so integral to STP's sound that they've never really been able to get any traction without him, and like so many other heroes of the era of music STP helped usher in, Weiland's habit would eventually lead him to a premature death.

Further Listening: The follow up to this was Tiny Music... Songs From The Vatican Gift Store, and it's a weird one, but I like it quite a lot. Big Bang Baby is my jam. I also like the subsequent album No. 4 for songs like low-key crooners like Sour Girl and I Got You. Their records after that range from forgettable (the recent self-titled album with Jeff Gutt) to really, weirdly bad (Shangri-La-De-Da) Weiland has some solo music that's almost unlistenably bad, and the rest of the band's forays without him are pretty disappointing.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

100 Albums: "Jagged Little Pill" by Alanis Morissette

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

Artist: Alanis Morissette
Title: Jagged Little Pill
Released: 1995
Genre: alt-rock / adult contemporary


Well this came out of freaking nowhere. A minor Canadian pop-star who was probably more famous for her brief stint on You Can't Do That On Television records a DIY album with Glen Ballard in his bedroom recording studio and the thing explodes like a bomb on MTV and rock radio, selling sixteen million copies and spawning six hit singles. The lead single was the bolt-from-the-blue You Oughta Know, featuring instrumentation from a couple of Red Hot Chili Peppers and more angst than people realized was possible in someone from Canada.

It's a big, sloppy mess of an album. Ballard messed up the levels while tracking vocals for You Oughta Know and clipped the hell out of them, but it was a great take that sounded good in the mix and this record was only going to move 20,000 units or so anyway, so who cares? Then, when it was an unexpected hit, and he was asked for raw tracks so people could remix it, all he could say was "yeah, sorry, we scorched that." I mean, what the hell is Hand In My Pocket even supposed to be about? It's a tone poem more than a song, and the main guitar part is one chord repeated over and over. It's the sort of record that you can't make on purpose. It was crafted by two people who were having the time of their lives writing music with absolutely zero stakes.

But here's the thing: it's kind of an amazing album. It was angsty enough for the alt-rock crowd, but you could still listen to it in the car with your mom and not feel too embarrassed when the lyrics let fly with an occasional F-bomb. Morissette is an animal on the rock tracks and a sweetheart on the ballads. She sings frankly about obsessing over ex-boyfriends, losing faith after years of Catholic school, and famously has an entire song devoted to the concept of irony that doesn't actually get around to describing anything that is genuinely ironic. Which is, itself... unintentionally ironic. And Head Over Feet may be the perfect love song? Maybe? All I know is that I developed a monster crush on Morisette after hearing it. You Oughta Know has an alternate mix as one of the two hidden tracks (don't ask, it was the 90's) in which Flea is allowed to just go crazy with the bass-line, and it's an astonishing thing to hear.

Further Listening: Nothing else in Alanis Morissette's catalog comes anywhere close to being this good. This was a happy accident of a record. She did release an acoustic version that's not as good, but is definitely interesting. It features an amusing lyric change in Ironic: "it's like meeting the man of my dreams, and then meeting his beautiful... husband." And no, that's not technically irony either.

Monday, May 13, 2019

100 Albums: "The Big Folk Hits" by The Brothers Four

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

Artist: The Brothers Four
Title: The Big Folk Hits
Released: 1963
Genre: folk


The Brothers Four were wart of the 1960s folk music that also produced acts like Peter, Paul, and Mary or The Kingston Trio. It's the same movement that was parodied in A Mighty Wind, referenced in Inside Llewyn Davis, and summarily destroyed when Bob Dylan arrived on the scene. The band was best known for their take on Greensleeves (the tune was borrowed for the Christmas hymn What Child Is This, although the original is equally haunting and low-key bawdy).

The Big Folk Hits was another car album for me, and I associate it with vacations and long drives. It includes a variety of standards which that band didn't appear to update at all. Silver Threads And Golden Needles is clearly sung from the perspective of a woman, but they don't change the lyrics at all. The John B. Sails keeps the Nassau dialect you'll find in the earliest versions of the song. There are more popular versions by The Kingston Trio and The Beach Boys under the title Sloop John B, but this version is the default version in my head. Similarly, when I think of the song El Paso, I will always think of The Brothers Four and not Marty Robbins.

In addition to standard folk fare like 500 Miles or If I Had A Hammer or Michael Row The Boat Ashore (which is a dreary album closer; I usually skip it), it also has some seriously wild tunes, like Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport or Darling Corey, both of which are energetic and just a bit zany. It's an album I still like to put on for long car trips and share with my kids.

Further Listening: It's a short album and if you try to buy it on disc you'll probably find it paired with Songbook which contains their version of Greensleeves. For car trips, my dad had taped his LP and on the other side of the tape had Today by the New Christy Minstrels, which is a fun album, although a bit more irreverent and Southern-oriented.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

100 Albums: "Lateralus" by Tool

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

Artist: Tool
Title: Lateralus
Released: 2001
Genre: halfway between prog-rock and art-metal

The poster of this video put the wrong album cover on it.

My gateway to Tool was A Perfect Circle, which featured singer Maynard James Keenan doing more radio-friendly songs with his friend Billy Howerdell. Tool albums pre-APC tend to be didactic and philosophical, but starting with Lateralus, Tool's driving math rock began to feel a bit more introspective and personal. The lead single Schism is about trying to heal a damaged relationship. "I know the pieces fit, 'cause I watched them tumble down." The Patient is about wanting to help others without really understanding why. "If there were no desire to heal the damaged and broken met along this tedious path I've chosen here, I certainly would have walked away by now. And I still may." Disposition is a quiet song whose lyrics in their entirety are "Mention this to me. Mention something, mention anything. Mention this to me. Watch the weather change."

My favorite song is the title track, a nine-and-a-half-minute opus about embracing randomness and seeking out surprises, all of it keyed to the Fibonacci sequence. The lyrical syllables, in fact, follow that sequence pattern through the verse (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8...) "Black / And / White are / All I see / In my infancy / Red and yellow then came to be..." It's all very cool and very nerdy at once. The album peters out a bit at the end. It's almost 80 minutes long, so once you get to the hefty instrumental Triad my attention is pretty spent. Tool wants you to work for your audio enjoyment, it seems. Which is fine. It's important to also have anti-pop in your life.

Further Listening: The albums on either side of this--Ænema and 10,000 Days--are both quite good, and if not for the whole one-album-per-artist rule then 10,000 Days would definitely be on this list, if for no other reason than it contains my favorite Tool song, the batshit crazy Rosetta Stoned, which is definitely worth eleven minutes and change of your time. Ænema is in the more didactic camp of Tool albums, but the title track is an excellent ode to Bill Hicks, and it's got 46 & 2, which is built around a phenomenal rock riff.

Monday, May 6, 2019

100 Albums: "Masseduction" by St. Vincent

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

Artist: St. Vincent
Title: Masseduction
Released: 2017
Genre: post-alt pop rock


When Annie Clark, virtuoso guitarist formerly of The Polyphonic Spree, started her solo career, she took her stage name from the hospital where Dylan Thomas died. She's always been a bit of an eccentric--like that one time she dressed like a toilet for a benefit concert in Glasgow. Her music frequently feels more like a deconstruction of pop music than actual pop music, where songs feel sonically like they're mostly about the space around the melody. The result is a string of brilliant albums that are great to listen to but barely memorable.

Masseduction is a bit of a reinvention. Clark allows the pop elements to breathe and works all the sonic weirdness in around the edges, and the end product is a masterfully crafted, personal statement from a truly gifted composer who is also an excellent lyricist. I love the build of the chorus from Los Ageless: "How could anybody have you / How could anybody have you and lose you / How could anybody have you and lose you and not lose their mind, too?" or this line from the first verse that captures her contempt for star culture: "In Los Ageless, the mothers milk their young." Happy Birthday Johnny revisits a character who has shown up since her debut. Here, Johnny is a former friend turned junkie who explodes at her because she hesitates to give him "dough to get something to eat". It's a heartbreaking track, as is New York, a song about Clark's then-crumbling relationship with Cara Delevigne in which she sweetly croons "you're the only motherfucker in this city who can handle me." The other standout is Slow Disco, a gentle ballad that asks "Don't it beat a slow dance to death?" It's been redone as a dance track called Fast Slow Disco (very NSFW video, so Google at your own risk) or as a piano balled called Slow Slow Disco.

Top to bottom, a great record that is frank, inventive, and earwormy.

Further Listening: Her albums are all pretty solid, but my other favorite is Actor, which has my two hands-down favorite St. Vincent songs: Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood and Actor Out Of Work (the video for that song is amazing--and SFW). It doesn't really sound like any of her other music because she fired her producer halfway through and was left with a bunch of orchestral arrangements she had to fit songs into. It's definitely a "happy accident" record. There's also an album called Masseducation (note the added "a" turning "seduction" into "education") that is Masseduction stripped down as piano-and-vocal only. It's interesting, but it doesn't really stand up to the fully-rendered version.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

100 Albums: "The Sign" by Ace Of Base

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

Artist: Ace Of Base
Title: The Sign
Released: 1993
Genre: euro club pop


Circa 1992, a Swedish pop quartet sent their "Mr. Ace" demo tape to an up-and-coming producer named DenniZ PoP. He hated it. It was basically unlistenable. But his car radio broke and the tape got stuck, so he had to hear to it over and over for weeks, at which point he decided that there was something salvageable in the song and he agreed to work with the band.

Music. It's a glamorous biz, yo.

The resulting album was called Happy Nation, which was released in the U.S. with some slight alterations as The Sign. It was not only a commercial juggernaut, but it became the template for an entire wave of pop music. After The Sign was released, PoP would found Cheiron Studios and hire songwriter Max Martin, and together the would launch the careers of N'Sync, The Backstreet Boys, Robyn, and Britney Spears. Ever wonder why a generation of pop songs have lyrics that sound like they were written by someone who doesn't quite understand English idioms? Odds are, it's because they were either written or influenced by Max Martin. According to Ace Of Base, "all that she wants is another baby," which sounds like a woman wants to get pregnant, but in the context of the song "baby" here clearly means "lover." See also Britney Spears' breakout ...Baby One More Time. "Hit me" is supposed to me "call me" and would probably have been more naturally rendered as "hit me up." No natural English-speaker would phrase it that way. But you know who would? Max Martin. Ever wonder why The Backstreet Boys want you to "believe when I say 'I want it that way'" but also "don't ever want to hear you say 'I want it that way'" and never bother to talk about what that way is? It's because Max Martin wrote it. For a full treatment on the Swedish Pop machine, I recommend Slate's Hit Parade episode on the subject.

I enjoy this album without any irony. For as much as it is prototypical of the late 90's pop renaissance, it's not as formulaic as you might expect. It takes the early 90s fast-but-brooding dance club sound (think Real McCoy or Everything But The Girl) and blends it with bright bubblegum pop melodies and reggae instrumentation. In my most recent re-listen, I was surprised at just how much reggae is in there. The keyboards favor organ and horn sounds over piano. The bass is forward in the mix with the higher-end instruments mostly accenting upbeats. The tone of the bass and drums are clearly reggae-influenced--the song The Sign even has timbales in it. It doesn't have quite the same leisurely pace of a reggae song or the high-tempo drive of a club hit, but instead bounces jauntily in between. The Sign, All That She Wants, and Don't Turn Around were big radio hits in the U.S., and that club-with-reggae vibe is evident in non-radio (in the U.S. anyway) songs like Happy Nation, Wheel Of Fortune, or Living In Danger, but my favorite tracks are the ones that just go full-tilt into trashy eurodance mode, like Dancer In A Daydream, Waiting For MagicYoung And Proud, or Voulez-Vous Danser. It peters out a bit towards the end with a weird and not-great dance mix of a song called My Mind and a not-terribly-interesting remix of All That She Wants, but for the most part it moves along merrily between aggressively dancey or danceably poppy without fully committing to--or getting bogged down by--either.

Further Listening: Nothing else the band did would be as popular as The Sign, but they did have modest hits with Beautiful Life and a cover of Cruel Summer.

Monday, April 29, 2019

100 Albums: "Yes And Also Yes" by Mike Doughty

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

Artist: Mike Doughty
Title: Yes And Also Yes
Released: 2011
Genre: alternative acoustic rock


Soul Coughing was one of the stranger bands to come out of the 90s. They had two major hits, the poppy Circles and the fun-if-incomprehensible Super Bon-Bon. After they disbanded, singer Mike Doughty got a rental car and an acoustic guitar and started playing shows and selling burned discs of his first solo album Skittish. 19 years and 17 albums later, he's still going strong and playing weird, poppy, acoustic-driven rock over (with the occasional dash of avant-garde EDM).

Yes And Also Yes sits nicely in the center of the Venn Diagram consisting of these circles: weird enough to be interesting, poppy enough to sing along with, and suitable to play in front of my kids. In fact, Strike The Motion was my oldest child's favorite song at one point in his short life. Weird Summer has an anthemic vibe. Vegetable is an odd groove. Rosanne Cash drops in to guest on Holiday (What Do You Want?) which is actually a fairly compelling holiday song. And, because it's the guy from Soul Coughing, whose lyrics are all basically existential poetry anyway, you get this delightfully odd little turns of phrase like "She doesn't fall in love, she takes hostages" from The Huffer And The Cutter. All in all, it's a fun, breezy, easily-listenable-yet-highly-engaging record. It very nearly has an adult-contemporary feel to it.

Further Listening: I haven't heard much of his other solo stuff, except Circles, which is basically him covering Soul Coughing's greatest hits, but on the strength of this I should probably check it out.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

100 Albums: "Untitled (IV/Zoso)" by Led Zeppelin

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

Artist: Led Zeppelin
Title: untitled
Released: 1971
Genre: classic rock


Is there a more epic album opening than Black Dog? Plant screaming "Hey, Hey, Mama..." and a trio of musicians exploding into that proto-metal riff behind him? There's a reason Led Zeppelin is always included in discussions of who might be the greatest rock band of all time: Plant's bluesy wail, Bonham's impossibly huge drum sound, Page's guitar work--and tone, when people talk about "vintage guitar tone" they're talking about Jimmy Page--and Jones's bass and keys (bassists are the unsung heroes of rock, and Jones's bass work here is low-key phenomenal). They're an iconic band, and this is their most iconic album.

Officially untitled, but commonly referred to as either Zoso or IV, this record is not only their best-selling, but it contains their most well-known song, Stairway To Heaven, also known as the song you're not allowed to play in a guitar store. It includes references to Tolkien and visual elements taken from the occult. Of it's eight tracks, seven of them are absolutely brilliant and one of them is Four Sticks. Which is fine. Perfectly serviceable. Solid little tune. Anyway.

Even if you've never listened to it front-to-back, you've almost certainly heard most of it in commercials or on your dad's radio station. The opening drum line from Rock 'n' Roll is instantly recognizable. I've already mentioned Black Dog, but for fun some time try to count along with the drum line. It's crazy complex the way the guitar and drum interact, but you wouldn't notice unless you're listening for it. Stairway features one of the greatest rock guitar solos of all time and it was completely improvised on the first take. Misty Mountain Hop is delightfully psychedelic. Going To California is haunting. All told, it's one of the great rock records, an influential masterpiece.

Further listening: I mean, take your pick. It's Zeppelin--their entire catalog is rich. So to mix things up, I will recommend some off-beat covers of songs from this album. There's The Lovemongers' take on Battle Of Evermore from the Singles soundtrack, A Perfect Circle's dreamy atmospheric reinterpretation of When The Levee Breaks, or Dread Zeppelin giving Misty Mountain Hop the ska + Elvis treatment.

Monday, April 22, 2019

100 Albums Supplemental: Video Game Soundtracks

So far on this list I've had two broadway soundtracks, one movie soundtrack (two if you count Help!, which isn't really one but...), and one season of a score from a television show. I like soundtracks. One thing that is not going to show up on this list but is very much represented in my music collection is soundtracks to video games. They're usually available for a couple dollars as DLC, if you don't mind hunting through system folders to find them. I love video game music, but the soundtrack albums tend to not make very good albums. Invariably, some of the music is really more about setting a soundscape, which is really cool in a game and hard to listen to on its own. But it does mean that even the best ones are hit-or-miss. And some of them are really shoddily put together. But they can also be incredible in their own weird way. So here's a smattering of video game soundtracks that I don't really listen to, but definitely have a couple tracks mixed into my favorite playlists.

Darren Korb - Bastion

Swampy steel guitars and a low-key country vibe under light-industrial drums. It reminds me of Firefly a little. The best song: Spike In A Rail.

Aperture Science Psychoacoustic Laboratories - Portal 2: Song To Test By

It's four freaking discs long. And it includes the soundtrack for the entire first game as well, because of course it does. It generally blips along pleasantly (or darkly) enough, but there are some great high points. Robots ftw has a bouncy, dissonant party vibe. Furthering The Cause Of Science does a good job of capturing the awe-and-wonder side of the game. And of course there's the brilliant Still Alive penned by Jonathan Coulton that plays under the closing credits of the first game.

Markus Captain Kaarlonen - Rochard

A game about space junkers with a bluesy theme song, the album is surprisingly made mostly of ambient tracks with big shimmery orchestral swells. Aliens & Indians is worth your time.

The Adjective Plural Noun - Full Boar

Actually this album is terrible. It was pretty clearly put together by a multi-instrumentalist who could play anything but didn't really know much about tracking. The crazy-impressive guitar work is all out of sync with itself. But I included it anyway because it is one of my favorite band names.

Mike O.K. - Windforge

Steampunk RPG that's... not well-received. The soundtrack mostly builds itself around one particular theme, but it's a huge theme, almost on the scale of Lux Aeterna from Requiem For A Dream. It churns relentlessly but has a gorgeous melodic resolve in the fourth bar. It's best exemplified in the track At The Top Of The World.

Jean-Marc Giffin - Sentinels of the Multiverse

There are currently seven volumes with an eighth on the way--one for each of the expansions. Since this is an adaptation of a tabletop game, it doesn't have levels or the kind of narrative progression you see in most video games. Instead, the tracks are all musical themes tied to either a location or a character, and these characters and environments are riffs on traditional comic book settings. So you have the crime-ridden urban noir theme, or the theme for Wager-Master, an impish villain who wants to put the heroes through a life-or-death game show. These can get weirdly specific in very entertaining ways. Omnitron is a villain from the base game who comes back as an environment later, so its environment theme is an expansion and deconstruction of its villain theme. The Time Cataclysm theme is based on the idea that the deck of cards it represents is a mash-up of environments from all the previous games, so the song for it is a seventeen-minute series of mash-ups of previous themes. There are fifteen "team" villains that you fight not individually but in groups of three to five, and all of them have the same melody for their themes but with different arrangements, because when you hear that theme in the game, it's built of threads of all the individual villains, meaning you get a different arrangement depending on which villains you fought and what order you had them standing in. Honestly, it's all kind of amazing.

Nobuo Uematsu - Final Fantasy VI

The music in Final Fantasy is generally well regarded, but FFVI is definitely the highlight, and I'm not just saying that because it's my favorite video game of all time. But seriously, just listen to this theme that you walk around the world-map to! The music is gorgeously composed and doesn't fall into the some-of-it's-just-a-creepy-soundscape trap. On the other hand, it's three hours of chiptunes, none of which have an actual ending because they're made to loop indefinitely in the game. So for each track you hear the theme looped through twice and then fade out.

And you can't talk about Final Fantasy VI without mentioning...

Overclocked ReMix - Final Fantasy VI: Balance And Ruin

This is a fan reinterpretation of the music from FFVI and you can download all six insane hours of it for free! Every single track was recorded by a different artist, so you wind up with fingerstyle-guitar, rag time, and dubstep--all on the same disc! There's a gorgeous classical rendition of the evil Emperor's theme. The iconic-if-clunky opera (yes, this is a 16-bit game with a major story arc surrounding an opera) is given a 9-minute treatment by someone who, methinks, is a big fan of the song Bohemian Rhapsody. If you're a fan of the game, you need to have checked this one out.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

100 Albums: "Seeing Sounds" by N.E.R.D.

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

Artist: N.E.R.D.
Title: Seeing Sounds
Released: 2008
Genre: funk rock with hip hop


Pharrell Williams is probably most famous for his contributions to 2013's most highly anticipated summer single (Daft Punk's Get Lucky) as well as its most controversial one (Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines). But in the late 90s and early 00s, he was the public face of The Neptunes, a production duo consisting of Williams and Chad Hugo, which made waves producing huge hits for Britney Spears, N'Sync, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Kelis, etc. Around that same time, they recruited Shay Haley, a friend they'd jammed with in high school, for a side project called N.E.R.D., a "side project" that has put out five albums. Seeing Sounds' title is a reference to the fact that Williams has synesthesia, a condition in which input processing signals in the brain bleed across senses, and a common manifestation is for sound to produce a visual sensation like a color. It's part of what contributes to the unique sound of Williams' music, since he's not just trying to make things sound cool, but to look cool as well.

Seeing Sounds is adventurous. It's got the punchy drum loops you associate with Neptunes tunes and the hip-hop keyboards, but the guitar and bass are straight out of alt-rock, and the lyrics are just damned witty. The lead single was Everyone Nose (All The Girls Standing In The Line For The Bathroom) about girls at a club doing cocaine in the bathroom, and the line "a hundred dollar bill, look atchoo, atchoo" cracks me up every single time. The song Windows manages to use Bill Gates and Microsoft as puns. Anti-Matter's chorus hook is "You so anti, it does not matter".

Puns!

My favorite song, if not Everyone Nose, is Sooner Or Later, whose music video features the 2008 financial crisis. Close behind that is You Know What. The song Happy is pretty good as well, although not as good as the other song called Happy that Williams recorded for Despicable Me 2.

Further Listening: Fly Or Die is pretty decent. And, of course, Happy.

Monday, April 15, 2019

100 Album: "Game Of Thrones Season 3 Soundtrack" by Ramin Djawadi

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

Artist: Ramin Djawadi
Title: Game Of Thrones, Season 3 Soundtrack
Released: 2013
Genre: DAH duh, duh-duh-DAH duh, duh-duh-DAH duh


He's not as big a name as Hans Zimmer or John Williams or the various Newmans out there, but Ramin Djawadi is easily the most interesting composer working in television right now (with due respect to Bear McCreary). Soundtracks, especially television soundtracks because they're produced so quickly, have a tendency to serve more as a wall of atmosphere than anything else. But Djawadi's work here and on Westworld has generated some amazing musical themes. There's a strong undercurrent of leitmotif informing the way the music flows together and the themes those motifs are built around are damned catchy--which you know if you got the joke in the genre description above.

While all of the soundtracks for GoT are very listenable, this is my favorite. It has A Lannister Always Pays His Debts, which is probably the best extant version of the Lannister House theme Rains of Castamere. Chaos Is A Ladder is the "intrigue" theme for the show. You Know Nothing is a gorgeous love theme. Mhysa is a triumphal--and seriously great--version of the Daenarys theme that morphs into the main theme of the show. The main theme also gets a lighter treatment in Dark Wings Dark Words, a dark thrum in White Walkers, and a beautiful finger-style guitar arrangement of it closes out the album called For The Realm.

The two guest songs on here aren't that interesting, The Bear And The Maiden Fair by The Hold Steady and Kerry Ingram singing It's Always Summer Under The Sea (Shereen's Song). And while strains of them pop up, this album doesn't have a good version of the Stark, Greyjoy, or Baratheon themes, if those are more your jam.

Further Listening: Seasons 1, 2, and 6 are also excellent, but for very different reasons. 2 has The National's rendition of Rains Of Castamere and Winterfell, the second half of which is the best version of the Stark theme. 1 has the definitive version of the Baratheon theme in The King's Arrival. 6 has the nearly 10-minute epic Light Of The Seven that plays during the big event that season at the Sept of Baelor. 4 is a bit of a jumble, but it includes Two Swords, which plays under the Season 4 cold open: where the sword Ice is being melted and reforged into the swords Oathkeeper and Widow's Wail. The song starts with the Stark theme, but deconstructs and morphs it into the Lannister theme as the scene plays out. It's really, expertly crafted.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

100 Albums: "Light Grenades" by Incubus

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

Artist: Incubus
Title: Light Grenades
Released: 2006
Genre: mathy alt-rock with just a soupçon of hardcore punk



Incubus reminds me of Radiohead in everything but how the music actually sounds. They're nerdy in a very musician way, artful without being artsy, edgy without being completely cynical, and their songwriting is just strange enough to make you wonder how they ever made it into the mainstream in the first place. Arrangements are complex, built around unorthodox chord voicings and time signatures. Their lyrics aren't about your usual rock staples of sex and drugs (or angst, or self-destruction, or being abused by your parents--this album came out in the 00's after all) but are more introspective, metaphorical, and overall possessing of that whiff of a B.A. in Literature. In fact, most of the time when Incubus songs don't work for me, it's because they lean too hard on the intellectualism and fail to distill a song down to its emotional core.

Light Grenades manages to walk that line, delivering complex, brainy music that also has solid hooks and a ton of heart. There's a tendency with this band to try and fill a song up with lyrics, but here singer Brandon Boyd is willing to give the important moments a little space. I particularly love Oil And Water which has sparsely-lyricked verses. Here's all of the lyrics from the first forty seconds of a less-than-four-minute song: "You and I are like oil and water, and we've been trying, trying, trying to mix it up." It's a simple, clever, and resonant in a song about a relationship that just isn't working no matter what they do. And it flows nicely into the next song Diamonds And Coal which is about a rough relationship that could work out if they'd just "give us time to shine." The big single was Anna Molly which is a great radio tune, but my favorite from the album is Dig, which is just one of the great rock love songs. Paper Shoes is another favorite. It doesn't completely work, but I find it endearing. Hell, even the weaker tracks on this album, Pendulus Threads and Light Grenades--the ones that harken back the most to Incubus's early days as a hardcore punk band--are at least fun and quick. But they're also the exception. While it frequently rocks out, the album is altogether thoughtful and emotional, willing to be mellow, and able to find the simple meaning behind the complexity.

Further Listening: A Crow Left Of The Murder is nice and angsty, and Make Yourself has their most enduring hits, but--alas--nothing out of the Incubus catalog holds up quite as well as Light Grenades does.

Monday, April 8, 2019

100 Albums: "The Colour And The Shape" by Foo Fighters

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

Artist: Foo Fighters
Title: The Colour And The Shape
Released: 1996
Genre: post-grunge hard rock



After Kurt Cobain died in 1993, Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl shut himself up in a studio for a week to record a project called Foo Fighters, a collection of songs he had personally penned some years prior. He ran from instrument to instrument recording almost the entire thing himself. It was an unexpected hit, driven by singles Big Me, This is a Call, and , but the worry with these sort of projects is that they're ephemeral. Would Grohl have more than one album in him? Turns out he did, and in 1996 the band Foo Fighters released a follow-up The Colour And The Shape, which would be the band's best selling record.

One great thing about Foo Fighters is that it sounds absolutely nothing like Nirvana. Nirvana was punk, but slower. Foo Fighters inherits more from the classic hard rock of the 70s: The Knack, Tom Petty, and so forth. Grohl cites Black Flag and Bay City Rollers as influences, as well as Nirvana-frontman Kurt Cobain. It has an American vibe. TCatS was written after Grohl went through a divorce, so unlike the self-titled debut--which Grohl went to great lengths to make the songs be not about anything--it has more introspective and personal lyrics, even if they remain vague and obscure. I don't know what "For a song that's indelible like manimal" from Wind Up is supposed to mean, but I believe that he means it. The music is more assured and complex. There are some huge hooks. Monkey Wrench and My Hero were in constant radio rotation when the album came out. The biggest hit was Everlong, and it's a phenomenal song, but there are some great deep cuts. Hey Johnny Park is one of my favorites. Walking After You would be a single from the X-Files movie soundtrack, but the original mix is here. That and the mid-album diversion See You are two incredibly fun songs to play on guitar, and sport some bizarre chord fingerings--unexpected after the power chord riff-rock that dominated the debut album.

But if I had to pick one favorite, it would be New Way Home, the album closer. It progresses like a typical rock anthem for two minutes and then just drops down to nothing. It then spends nearly two full minutes slowly building up in speed and volume before exploding right around the 4 minute mark. It's an incredible way to end a record.

Further Listening: If not for my one-album-per-artist rule, There Is Nothing Left To Lose would definitely be on this list. It produced the singles Learn To Fly, Stacked Actors, and Breakout, as well as what may be my all-time favorite Foo Fighters song Gimme Stitches. My wife and I have debated at length about which actually is actually the better album, and I usually come down on that the side of that one over The Colour And The Shape, since it's poppier and bit more accessible. But just going by density of great songs, I guess I have to admit that she was right.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

100 Albums: "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" by Elton John

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

Artist: Elton John
Title: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Released: 1973
Genre: classic piano-pop rock


Released at the height of his stardom in 1973, recorded on a farm in France, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is a monster record. Though the CD manages to fit the entire album on a single disc, it was originally released as a double-LP. Bennie And The Jets, Candle In The Wind, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting are to this day staples of classic rock radio.

For me, this was a car album. I grew up in Houston, but my extended family lived in St. Louis, so every summer we would pile into the van and make the seventeen-hour drive between the two cities (it's shorter now that they've raised the speed limits to 70 on the highways) with a box of tapes that my dad had made of his records--all of them immaculately lettered in calligraphy because that's how Dad writes. He doesn't print. He calligraphs. I'm so used to that version of the album that I instinctively anticipate the moment where the record skips at the start of the second chorus of the title track. I would run out of steam somewhere after Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting, which the album kind of does as well. But still, this was not just a record that I listened to a lot, it was formative for me. After growing up on fare like this, a lot of "normal" rock records start to feel pretty pedestrian.

Because like much of John's oeuvre, it's an odd duck of a record. The recording process was basically thus: Bernie Taupin would write poetry and then give it to John over breakfast. John would spend the morning turning poetry into a song on the piano and then in the afternoon the rest of the band would sort out the arrangements and lay it all down on tape. But Taupin doesn't write straight-forward love songs. He tells stories. So you have an ode to Marylyn Monroe (Candle In The Wind), a song about finding fame after growing up on a farm (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road--and it's worth pointing out that this is pure Taupin; Elton John was a city boy), abstract nonsense (This Song's Got No Title), an obituary for a fictional Prohibition-era gangster (The Ballad Of Danny Bailey (1909-34)), a song about lesbians in Catholic school (All The Girls Love Alice), an ode to silver-screen cowboys (Roy Rogers), a faux-live performance of a song about a rock band that doesn't actually exist (Bennie And The Jets), a pulpy noir dirge (I've Seen That Movie Too), and so forth. And all of this is set to John's bouncy, poppy melodies. It takes a certain type of character to sing a two-tone-flavored song called Jamaica Jerk-Off with earnestness, and that character is Sir Elton Hercules John.

Further Listening: John's catalog is substantial, so it may be easier to start with one of the several greatest hits collections he's put out. But if you want another album, Madman Across The Water is worth a listen. It drags a bit on the second half, but it's the album that gave us Tiny Dancer, John's most popular song, and also the only song that is over six minutes long and also acceptable to perform at karaoke. That album also has Levon and Goodbye, which are excellent songs. It kicked off a string of records that would produce John's most memorable hits: Honky Cat and Rocket Man from the follow-up Honky Château and Crocodile Rock and Daniel from Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player.

Also, the BBC Documentary series Classic Albums did an episode on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road which is worth watching, if notably shorter than the record it details.

Monday, April 1, 2019

100 Albums: "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy" by Sarah McLachlan

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

Artist: Sarah McLachlan
Title: Fumbling Towards Ecstasy
Released: 1993
Genre: adult contemporary


Before Angel, before she was the patron sainte of sadness and puppy dogs, Sarah McLachlan was known as the woman who turned a letter from a stalker into one of the most seductive pop songs of its era. The true story there is somewhat more complicated--the lyrics to Possession were inspired by mail from obsessed fans, one of whom had the sheer audacity to sue her for "stealing" his work--but the fact that the song was composed from a place of fear rather than lust is wild. Suffice it to say, lines like "I would be the one to hold you down" read very differently in a man-speaking-to-a-woman capacity than vice-versa. Whatever that has to say about gender dynamics in 1993, I leave to the listener.

I seem to recall hearing Possession on rock stations, not just Top 40 stations, but Fumbling Towards Ecstasy is in no way an alt-rock album. It's pure singer-songwriter music, constructed (as opposed to band songs, when tend to be "discovered" more than written) with arrangements that vary a lot in instrumentation despite being similarly textured. The Vm-IV-I piano pattern under the verse of Possession, trilling the suspended 4th, is the kind of progression you arrive at very naturally when composing on an acoustic guitar. Similarly the sway of a song like Ice Cream evokes strumming, even though the final version is dominated by piano and drums. The lyrics are generally pretty abstract and imagist, but they're poetic and graceful.

Possession is the clear standout on the album--a piano-only version was included as a hidden track on the CD--and I don't think anything else in her extensive catalog is quite as good as that. But McLachlan certainly knows her way around a hook, and a number of songs will have you humming along. I'm particularly a fan of PlentyGood Enough, Ice, and the title track. Apart from the opener that threatens so [checks notes] "kiss you so hard I'll take your breath away," it's a remarkably chill record.

Further Listening: I don't have any of her other albums, but I've enjoyed some of her other singles, particularly her more driving and uptempo songs like Sweet Surrender or Stupid. She also contributed When She Loved Me to Toy Story 2 (although the song was written by Randy Newman) and you cried, I cried, we all cried during that montage.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

100 Albums: "Hair: The Original Broadway Musical Soundtrack"

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

Artist: Galt McDermot, Gerome Ragni, and James Rado
Title: Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical
Released: 1968
Genre: rock musical


Every now and then a musical captures the zeitgeist of a generation--at least, the zeitgeist of that generation's starving New York art scene. For the late 60's, that musical was Hair, a ground-breaking succès de scandale that depicted the burgeoning hippie movement in all of its racially-integrated, free-loving, drug-taking, war-protesting glory. It gained notoriety--and is likely best remembered--for its nude scene, but it was a significant cultural phenomenon for its time, running on broadway a full year before the era-defining event that was Woodstock. The soundtrack spawned a number of major radio hits that have been subsequently covered. It helped launch the careers of Meat Loaf, Melba Moore, Diane Keaton, and Tim Curry, amongst others. It tells the story of Claude, nominal leader of "the tribe" who has been drafted and is torn between continuing on penniless with his principles and his draft-card-burning contemporaries, or caving in to pressures from his conservative parents and joining the army. And that's pretty much the story. It's worth reading the plot synopsis on Wikipedia just for the staging of the acid trip that takes up much of Act II just so you can get an idea of how bonkers the show was.

Though it's called the first "rock musical" it borrows a lot musically from funk. The guitar tone through much of the recording wouldn't feel out of place on a disco record. The bass from Jimmy Lewis is incredible. As is common for musicals, the mid-range instruments are pulled back to make room for the vocals, so the bass is prominent and it's a lot of fun to listen to. Lyrically, the songs are intentionally provocative, celebrating sex acts, drugs, race, etc. Most of the songs in Act I are little more than vignettes, like the song Sodomy which has this to say: "Sodomy, fellatio, cunnilingus, pederasty. Father, why do these words sound so nasty?" And... that's half the lyrics of that song right there. The most famous songs from the show are Aquarius and Let The Sunshine In, which would be immortalized by The Fifth Dimension--although I hate that they drop the first two thirds of The Flesh Failures (Let The Sunshine In) and just repeat the chorus ad nauseam. It's easy to pick out the radio songs because they have tighter performances and cleaner mastering. Easy To Be Hard would go on to be a hit for Three Dog Night.

Some of the best songs are the ones that deliberately stoke race. Colored Spade has a black man going through a litany of "slang" words for "black" which is entirely made up of racial slurs before he settles on "President of the United States of Love". White Boys is a parody of the Supremes that is an absolute show-stopper. Abie Babie has a black woman reciting the Gettysburg Address as though it were an MLK speech, the whole time being distracted by the doo-wop singers backing her up. When someone pretends to shoot her, her response is "Bang? Shit, I ain't dyin' for no white man." It's a bold statement from one of the earlier Broadway shows to feature a fully integrated cast. Then there are the smaller, quiet songs like Good Morning Starshine, which was sung on Sesame Street, or Frank Mills, which I used to sing to my boys as a lullaby.

It's fun, it's rollicking, it's brash, it's messy, it's controversial, and it's occasionally filthy. Oh, and there are multiple passages from Shakespeare woven into the lyrics. A treat for the whole family, really.

Further Listening: They made a movie in the late 70s that makes some pretty big alterations to the story and disco-fies most of the music. Not recommended. In 1967 there was an off-Broadway version of the show that had a soundtrack release but it might as well have been a different show. The show had a recent revival on Broadway which gave us a new soundtrack, but I haven't listened to that one yet. Could be worthwhile.

Monday, March 25, 2019

100 Albums: "Touch" by July Talk

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

Artist: July Talk
Title: Touch
Released: 2016
Genre: indie alternative swamp-rock



For a few years there, it was just a given that an "indie" band would have both a male and female singer, the most famous probably being either Of Monsters And Men or She & Him. But aside from a few exceptions, the blended male/female typically result in neither vocalist being very memorable or distinct.

July Talk is the exception, co-fronted by Leah Fay and Peter Dreimanis, who sound kind of like a happier Karen O and an angrier Leonard Cohen, respectively. They sing at complete opposite ends of the spectrum, Fay with an almost keening soprano and Dreimanis with a growly baritone, which means they don't blend so much as form a two-pronged assault. Fittingly, a lot of their vocal lines aren't so much handed off to each other as they are a call-and-response. You can hear that used to great effect on Lola + Joseph, a song about a chance romantic encounter at a liquor store, and also just a damned sexy song.

Despite describing their actual relationship as "brother/sister" Fay and Dreimanis frequently sing in character as paramours, and the messiness of adult relationships are an undercurrent throughout the whole album. Topics include being unsatisfied with voyeurism (Picturing Love), staying in a broken relationship just because the familiarity is comfortable (Strange Habit), and the complications around a casual "booty call" relationship (Beck + Call). The album ends with Touch, an atmospheric slow-build song about needing to connect with someone but at the same time needing to keep yourself walled off from everyone. And for good measure, there's also a song about colonialism (Jesus Said So).

It's a compelling album with a unique sound. I heard the song Touch on the Next Music podcast and knew I was going to need to hear the rest of the album. They're a new band, but one to watch.

Further Listening: The band only has one other album, a self-titled album from 2012. It's not nearly as refined as Touch, but you can hear rougher versions of the sonic elements that are on display here. It also has Summer Dress, which is perhaps the band's best song.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

100 Albums: "Astro Lounge" by Smash Mouth

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

Artist: Smash Mouth
Title: Astro Lounge
Released: 1999
Genre: alt-rock surf-pop


Twenty-two records in and this is the third surf-rock album. I may have a type. This is another album that is just plain fun. And yes, All-Star is much maligned, and I suppose that's fair. It's light and fluffy and got seriously overplayed when it came out. But the entire album holds up. I make sure it's on my iPod before any lengthy road trip, because not only is it compulsively listenable, it even sounds good on crappy car speakers with messed up EQs.

It opens with Who's There, a track that gleefully announces what you can expect for the next fifty-odd minutes: vintage-guitar-and-rock-organ dance-pop that's been bedazzled with sci-fi sound effects and theramins. It's not deep, but it's up-tempo and immensely fun. And even if the singles are kind of played out, there are plenty of other great songs to choose from. I'm a big fan of Waste, Fallen Horses, Diggin' Your Scene, and I Just Wanna See. The only thing I don't particularly like about the album is the ending. The penultimate song Home would have been a perfect closer, but a cover of ? And The Mysterians' I Can't Get Enough Of You Baby is tacked on after (yes, I know The Four Seasons did it first, but SM's version definitely is inspired by ?atM). Skip it.

Further Listening: Fush Yu Mang, the band's debut, has a couple decent tracks, but nothing else Smash Mouth has put out really holds a candle to this, not that I've heard anyway.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Curious Fictions (And Some Blog Cleanup)

Hey everybody!

I'm going to be doing some housekeeping around here, deleting older posts and what not. Part of that means I'll be taking down the Friday Flash Fiction posts. I anticipate most of them will be given a coat of polish and then moved over to Curious Fictions.

Which, oh, by the way...

I've got a page at Curious Fictions. It's a platform for authors to post their reprints, so I'll be migrating previously published stories over that way. If you are so inclined, you can subscribe to my posts over there.

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100 Albums: "Play" by Moby

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

Artist: Moby
Title: Play
Released: 1999
Genre: alt-rock but also techno and somehow kind of archival?


Alt-rock and grunge were on the wane in the late 90s, having been displaced by nü-metal, rap-rock, and the boy-band revival. Into that melange, enter Moby, a tiny bald vegan from New York whose song Natural Blues was essentially an EDM-lite remix of a Depression-era Mississippi Delta song by Vera Hall. So when that creeped into radio playlists, my cohort's collective reaction was "Wait, what the hell was that? Play it again!"

Though Play felt like a bolt from the blue, Moby had been working in music for nearly two decades. He'd started in the early 80s playing guitar for a hardcore punk band called the Vatican Commandos and then had a career as a DJ and techno artist through the late 80s and early 90s. In the mid-90s he'd started blending those sensibilities, putting out Everything Is Wrong, which has the vibe and tempo (mostly) of an alt-rock album but whose songs are largely structured like EDM songs and sung by guests vocalists. Several of those had found their way onto film--notably God Moving Over The Face Of The Water, which is prominently featured in the finale of Michael Mann's crime drama Heat.

Play takes those same musical sensibilities but adds a new gimmick: several tracks feature vocals sampled from delta blues songs. Trouble So Hard becomes Natural BluesJoe Lee's Rock becomes Find My Baby. Moby himself sings on a few, notably the singles Porcelain and Southside, the latter of which featured Gwen Stefani on both the single re-mix and music video (honestly, I prefer the non-Gwen version, but your mileage may vary). Overall, it's an odd duck of an album. It absolutely should not work, but it does work and it's kind of amazing. Moby's process at this point was to just record 150 songs in his apartment and then pick his favorite 17 or 18 to make the record. It's mostly driven by piano and slide guitar over looped drums. There are a half dozen lead vocalists. The liner notes contain essays about veganism, prison reform, and fundamentalism. It includes progressive dance (Bodyrock), gospel (Run On), spoken word (The Sky Is Broken), ambient instrumental (Inside), alt-rock (Southside), in addition to the delta blues remixes (Natural BluesFind My BabyHoney).

It is, in short, Moby being Moby. This is the man who, as a successful musician, opened a tea store in New York City where he would occasionally buss tables. He's just a guy who found a way to make a living doing what he loves, and his albums are always just doing whatever he's interested in, and for a while there, whatever he was interested in happened to be very popular.

Further Listening: If not for my one-album-per-artist rule, Everything Is Wrong would be on this list for sure. Animal Rights, which fell between EiW and Play, is an interesting mix of lo-fi punk and ambient piano that just doesn't quite work. I do like 18, the follow-up to Play, but it doesn't break any new ground. It feels very much like a re-tread of the Play formula.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

100 Albums: "Puppy Love" by The Kickstand Band

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

Artist: The Kickstand Band
Title: Puppy Love
Released: 2012
Genre: garage surf-rock


I got this album as part of a bundle from the now-defunct music curation service Sound Supply. Of the dozens of albums I got from that service, this is the only one that really stands out (I've discovered lots of interesting songs, but this is hands-down the best album). It's light, it's poppy, it's energetic, and while musically it hews to a fairly classic formula, it has a lot of fun within the constraints of said formula. The two singers--it's an early teens indie band, so of course there's one female and one male singer--sound great together, and the playing is tight and lively.

Puppy Love is a mere 24 minutes long--the longest of its ten tracks barely crack two-and-a-half minutes. Still Thinking Of You is one of the of the slower songs. My fave from the album is Purgatory, which gives the afterlife the same sort of treatment the Squirrel Nut Zippers did with their song Hell: dressing it up with genre-specific lingo. I'm also a big fan of New Years Eve, the album closer. But honestly, there's not a track here I don't enjoy.

Further Listening: They've put out a few EPs, but no other proper albums. Nothing else I've heard from them shines quite a brightly as this. I'd recommend going to their Bandcamp page where you can stream the entire album and buy it at whatever price you think is fair.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

New Fiction Out Now: Please [redacted] My Last Email

I've got a story out in the Futures section of the new issue of Nature Magazine. This is my second time being published in Nature. It's probably the weirdest story I've ever sold, and I'm super proud of it.

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Monday, March 11, 2019

100 Albums: "Tron: Legacy" by Daft Punk

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

Artist: Daft Punk
Title: Tron: Legacy Original Motion Picture Sountrack
Released: 2010
Genre: orchestral electropop


I've never seen the film, but I love this soundtrack. Neither am I a particularly huge fan of French EDM pioneers Daft Punk. This is simply a situation where the right elements came together to make some incredible. Instead of their normal sample-heavy dance tracks, Daft Punk crafted the music for this from whole cloth, blending their synth sensibilities with an 85-piece orchestra to create something that wasn't quite a movie score and wasn't quite a dance record, but existed somewhere in between. It's great background music. I can put it on while working on something and enjoy it without being too distracted by it. In fact, after Trouble Will Find Me, it's my favorite music to write to.

There is a single motif that runs throughout the album, and it's a great one. A stripped down version of it shows up in the Overture, a high-energy version over the end titles, and other permutations throughout. A few tracks break away to do their own thing, and of those I highly recommend Derezzed and Adaggio For Tron. It's got highs and lows, staggers and stops, but unlike a lot of the scores that you can find to listen to on their own, the tracks here each feel like their own song, not just an aggregate of music cues that have been glommed into a single track because they run together.

Further Listening: Random Access Memories is interesting, and digs a little more into funk and disco. Paul Williams sings on it, so that's fun. It's an odd duck of an album, but it features Get Lucky, which was destined to be the song of the summer of 2013, until it got blasted out of the water by Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines. And then there's the Daft Hands meme that sprang up around Harder Better Faster Stronger, which is itself a great tune.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

100 Albums: "Help!" by The Beatles

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

Artist: The Beatles
Title: Help!
Released: 1965
Genre: The frickin' Beatles


I almost went with 1 instead because honestly how the hell do you pick a favorite Beatles album? On a different day of the week I might have said Rubber Soul or Revolver or Sgt. Pepper, but I settled on Help! because it's the absolute best album of their early period when they were the most like a normal band. They still played together as a group and hadn't started getting super experimental yet--which, to be clear, I love their experimental stuff, but there's something to be said for a rock band in a room playing straight-forward rock music. At a certain level, it becomes less about what songs you like on an album and more about which album has the bits that annoy you the least. And for my money, I'd rather hear George Harrison mess around with an expression peddle (I Need You) than with a sitar (Love You To from Revolver, Within You/Without You from Sgt. Pepper, basically all of the Concert For Bangladesh).

Lennon and McCartney are absolutely on fire with their writing on this record. The title track is one of the best--if not the best--of John Lennon's entire oeuvre. Second-to-last on the album we have Paul McCartney's Yesterday, one of the greatest pop songs ever written and the most-covered song of all time. In many ways, Help! is the archetypical Beatles records. We get John being sad but in a poppy way (Ticket To Ride), John being sad in a sad way (You've Got To Hide Your Love Away), John being out-and-out depressed (It's Only Love), Paul's bubblegum pop in a major key (I've Just Seen A Face--my low-key fave on the record), Paul's bubblegum pop in a minor key (The Night Before), George being overly technical (It's Only Love), George kicking back and having fun for a change (You Like Me Too Much), a cover that's fun but doesn't really feel like it belongs here (Dizzy Miss Lizzy), and a goofy song for Ringo to sing (Act Naturally, a great Carl Perkins number). The only song that's not great is Tell Me What You See, which is a pretty good song actually, it just gets droney in the verses.

Recorded over four months and then released six weeks later, Help! came in the middle of a whirlwind of productivity when the Beatles were putting out two albums a year and touring constantly. There's a rushed feel--it never gets too perfect, but the Beatles were also extremely well-practiced musicians, so even the not-quite-perfect stuff feels pretty good: loose and vibrant, never sloppy. At thirty-seven minutes long, none of the album's fourteen tracks sticks around very long, so you get positively pummeled by brilliant pop song after brilliant pop song. After the dreary Beatles For Sale, Help! is a revelation. The band was reinvigorated in no small part by becoming friends with Bob Dylan (Dylan's fingerprints are all over You've Got To Hide Your Love Away) who introduced them to his other friend Mary Jane. So the band was relaxing a bit but hadn't gotten to the point yet where Paul was writing love songs about the drug yet (Revolver's Got To Get You Into My Life).

The album is accompanied by a movie of the same name, which I really can't recommend. The performances in it are fun, but the plot involves the band trying to escape a Thuggee cult that's trying to murder Ringo and it's... rough. Suffice it to say that seeing British actors in Indian make-up is problematic by modern standards, and really problematic when you dig into the history shared by those two countries. I don't blame the band for this, though. By their own admissions, they were basically stoned out of their minds for the entire shoot.

Further Listening: I dunno, all of it? I mean, it's the frickin' Beatles. What do you want? The White Album is a touch overrated, Let It Be is kind of a hot mess, and their really early stuff is sloppy, especially the stereo mixes. On the other hand, they're the frickin' Beatles. Help! kicked off a stretch of amazing records that got progressively more inventive: Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (also overrated, but only because it's merely brilliant and not world-peace-inducing), and Magical Mystery Tour (uneven with some bizarre A-side tracks, but overall a very solid effort). But if you're looking to dip your toe in, I would still recommend 1, released in 2000 in an attempt to repackage The Beatles as a boy band and also somehow as direct competition with Elvis, for some reason? It's a decent career retrospective that includes almost all of their best-known hits (the big notable exception being Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds which was never a single). It was the first major remaster of any of the Beatles songs since they were originally released on CD in 1987, and its success led to the remastering of the entire catalog that was released in 2009. It's not as comprehensive as the blue and red compilations from 1973, but it's stronger for being a bit more streamlined.

Monday, March 4, 2019

100 Albums: "The Electric Lady" by Janelle Monáe

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

Artist: Janelle Monáe
Title: The Electric Lady
Released: 2013
Genre: afrofuturist R&B


The Electric Lady picks up the tale of Cindi Mayweather, a time-traveling android, hunted in her home city of Metropolis for falling in love with a human. So, Janelle Monáe is a big old sci-fi nerd, is what I'm getting at.

This album was a bit of a slow burn for me. Dance Apocalyptic is just breathtakingly fun, but nothing else on the record is quite as immediately accessible. The songs do get under your skin, though. After a complete listen, I found myself going back to groove on Electric Lady, It's Code, and We Were Rock & Roll. Monáe mostly belts out soul, but Q.U.E.E.N. and Ghetto Woman both feature some blistering raps. But I think my favorite on the album--after Dance Apocalyptic--is Sally Ride, an ode to eponymous astronaut who was the third woman in space, the first American woman in space, and the presumed first LGBTQ astronaut ever.

I poked fun at the sci-fi stuff above, but it's an important part of the album's aesthetic and message. A lot of it is relegated to the music videos and liner notes and some oblique lyrical references, but there are three interludes that take the form of a call-in android radio show that do some interesting world-building. The host, DJ Crash-Crash, fields calls from pro-human and anti-human androids, android sorority girls (the Electro-Phi Betas), even a human who has called in to say that "robot love is queer." It becomes pretty evident that in the context of this album, androids are an oppressed class who have formed their own vibrant subculture. And in case that metaphor is too subtle for you, I'll remind you that this is afrofuturism.

The Electric Lady is fun, inventive, soulful, immersive, and it has something to say. And I have a soft spot for ambitious projects, especially ones that you can dance to.

Further Listening: The Electric Lady is parts IV and V of a proposed seven-part concept series that started with the Metropolis EP and continued with The ArchAndroid. Both of those are highly listenable. Her most recent album is Dirty Computer, which I haven't listened to yet, but it's been very well-received. And while it's not exactly "further listening," Monáe gives a great performance as real-life mathematician and NASA engineer Mary Jackson in the movie Hidden Figures. Science!

Thursday, February 28, 2019

100 Albums: "The Fragile" by Nine Inch Nails

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

Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Title: The Fragile
Released: 2000
Genre: industrial


Of all the celebrities I admire, the one I'd like to meet the least is Trent Reznor, the man behind Nine Inch Nails. And the reason I never want to meet him is that I would probably turn into a blubbering fool and embarrass both of us. (Or who knows, we have children the same age, maybe we'd just do the parent thing and talk about our kids.) The thing to keep in mind is: Nine Inch Nails fans don't talk about favorite songs--we talk about the songs that saved our lives. Reznor's angsty, anthemic tracks reached out to us at our lowest and let us know that we weren't alone. It's pretty deep, life-affecting stuff when you're an angry, confused fifteen-year-old. (And for what it's worth, the songs-that-saved-my-life for me are A Warm Place from The Downward Spiral and the 9-minute remix of Wish from the Fixed EP. I'd just lie on the ground and switch back and forth between those two songs. Fifteen was a rough year, folks.)

Recorded over two years and released a full five years after The Downward Spiral launched the band to worldwide success, The Fragile is sprawling and ambitious. Twenty-three tracks (eight of which are instrumental) spread over two discs. In addition to the usual Reznor arrangements with distorted drums, fuzzed out guitars, and slightly out-of-tune pianos, The Fragile has orchestral elements, horn sections, and three different choirs. To look at it from the outside, it seems like a piece of hubris rather than art. It should not work. But it does. The whole thing is nearly two hours long, but I get done listening to it and I just want to put it on again. Of the entire Nine Inch Nails catalog, this album is probably the most melodic. Unlike thrash metal, which seeks to take instrumentation and make it noisy, industrial music tends to take noise and try to make it musical. So you get weird elements like the percussion line from the song The Fragile (embedded above) which uses a sample of a chain being dragged as an accent. The song Ripe (With Decay) has buzzing flies on it. This is the era where Reznor would tune all of the strings on his guitar to D (in three different octaves), distort the snot out of it, and just play really fast with his finger barring the entire fretboard, and then do that with two different guitars to make these huge dyad chords. You can hear it to great effect on the last chorus and outro to We're In This Together.

This is also where his lyrics got more introspective. The Downward Spiral was about sex and drugs and, well, spiraling down. It opens with a track called Mr. Self Destruct and ends with a song called Hurt. The message is pretty straightforward there. But here, the songs are more about the messiness of relationships, the joys and the sorrows, the ugliness but also the beauty. The opener Somewhat Damaged is angry about a relationship falling apart: "How can I ever think it's funny how everything you swore would never change is different now?" But then look at the song The Fragile just a few tracks later: "She shines in a world full of ugliness. She matters when everything is meaningless." Now, it's Nine Inch Nails, so there's still going to be some anthemic battle cries and righteous indignation. Look no farther than the chorus of The Wretched: "Now you know, this is what it feels like." Or any of the lyrics from Starfuckers, Inc. But then you get moments like the refrain from The Great Below--"I can still feel you, even so far away" that are just rich with longing and emotion, a sentiment that is then echoed and distorted in the song Underneath It All at the end of the record.

Further Listening: Nine Inch Nails's debut Pretty Hate Machine is excellent, even if it feels a little undercooked. Head Like A Hole, Sanctified, Sin, Down In It, and Something I Can Never Have are all amazing songs. The Downward Spiral contains Nine Inch Nails' biggest hits: Closer and Hurt. Roughly half of that album is utterly brilliant, but there are a handful of songs on the back half that grate on me. Year Zero is a pretty epic album from start to finish, and if not for my affection for The Fragile, it would be the album on this list. It's noisy and overtly political, producing the singles Survivalism and Capital G. Reznor recorded several EPs with his wife Mariqueen Maandig under the monicker How To Destroy Angels. There's a lot of great music that came out of that, but my favorites are A Drowning and Ice Age. Reznor was part of a project called Tapeworm with Tool's Maynard James Keenan. The project was kiboshed, but one of the songs emerged as Passive recorded by A Perfect Circle, and it's quite good. Reznor won an Academy Award for his work on movie scores with Atticus Ross. Of the half-dozen or so they've put out, the best is The Social Network, and I recommend it if you're a fan of instrumental music. Similarly, if you listen to This American Life on NPR, you've likely heard a few tracks from the all-instrumental Nine Inch Nails double-album Ghosts. And if you want a real treat, look for some of Reznor's pre-NIN new-wavy projects.

Monday, February 25, 2019

100 Albums: "Cosmic Thing" by The B-52's

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

Artist: The B-52's
Title: Cosmic Thing
Released: 1989
Genre: Bouffant new wave surf-rock


There are things that you love, not because they're particularly good, but because they just make you happy. For me, that is Cosmic Thing. Any time I listen to it, I feel better.  The album is a mix of dance tracks and relaxed mid-tempo pop (and also Love Shack, which is sort of both) with call-and-response vocals and funk-rock guitars. It's a bit of an artifact of its era, production-wise: at only ten tracks, it's nearly 50 minutes long, meaning songs have time to linger and play around, instead rushing through verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus/outro. It is aggressively campy. The album opens with a drumroll and Fred Schneider shouting "Gyrate 'til you've had your fill" on the title track--a song about having an out-of-body experience, running across cosmic beings, and watching them "shakin' their cosmic things." So, not exactly highbrow entertainment, but unapologetically fun.

The B-52's came out of the same Athens, Georgia rock scene that produced R.E.M. Athens in the 80s was similar to the way we think of Austin, Texas today: an oasis of weirdness and youth culture in the middle of an otherwise very conservative state. It shouldn't be a surprise that they were embraced early by the gay community, and in many ways, Cosmic Thing is a celebration of being different and an acknowledgement of the isolation that accompanies it. You can see this in microcosm in the album's (and the group's) biggest song Love Shack, which posits a tiny shack "set way back in the middle of a field" full of people "huggin' and-a kissin', dancin' and-a lovin'," but it's a lyrical motif that shows up throughout. In Deadbeat Club they sing about going to "crash that party down in Normaltown tonight." Dry County is about relaxing on your front porch because you can't get alcohol, and it contains possibly my favorite lyric of the album:
When the blues whomp you up on the side of the head
Throw 'em to the floor and kick 'em out the door
When the blues kick you in the head when you roll out of bed in the morning
Just sit on the porch and swing
There's an optimism to the record that I really enjoy. The final song is an instrumental track called Follow Your Bliss. The song before that, Topaz, is full of hopeful imagery about "cities by the sea" and "blue dolphins are singing" and "the universe expanding." It's not really about anything, just a list of nice ideas. Roam is about traveling the world just because you feel like it. The only moderate downer is Channel Z, which is certainly uptempo, but is more of a protest song. Even so, Cosmic Thing is a romp--just an infectiously joyful record that wants to throw you a party.

Again, some things you love just because they make you happy.

Further listening: The group's other big hit is Rock Lobster, a weird surf/dance song that John Lennon was apparently a huge fan of when he heard it in a club some six months or so before his death. One can only imagine that, had history played out differently, he might have collaborated with them.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

100 Albums: "Greatest Hits" by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

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

Artist: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Title: Greatest Hits
Released: 1993
Genre: Americana rock




Are career retrospectives even a thing anymore? They don't really make sense in the iTunes age, when you can just go buy your favorite songs individually. And they don't really work as albums, for the most part. Inevitably they try to give the albums from the time period they cover relatively equal weight, which means including the flotsam from lesser albums and skipping over the deep cuts of the great ones, making less of a "greatest hits" collection than a "lots of hits and some stuff we felt sorry for" collection. They have to include one or two new songs, and those usually suck. Because they were recorded over the span of decades, the songs don't really sound like they live in the same sonic world. And because there is no unifying idea behind them, the whole thing is necessarily less than the sum of its parts.

Tom Petty's career retrospective is sort of the exception that proves the rule. Is it more than the sum of its parts? No, but it's still remarkably good because just take a look at those parts. Tom Petty spent his career writing the great American songbook. His singles are just legendary. From Free Fallin' to American Girl to Refugee and everything in between. As Slate noted when covering his death, Tom Petty was better than anyone else in rock-and-roll at penning opening lines. And it's a testament to the musicianship of Petty and his bandmates that his career retrospective actually does sound like it was recorded by the same band--like it all could have been recorded in the same month, even. The single from this collection is Mary Jane's Last Dance, which is an incredible song, one of the two or three best of Petty's career.

Now, all of that said, the above rules still hold true. The other new song, Something In The Air, is pretty inessential. And Don't Come Around Here No More, the sole inclusion from 1985's Southern Accents, feels like it wandered in stoned from another project. It doesn't completely gel. But the magic of this record is that it manages to transcend that and still work as a single, satisfying listening experience.

Further Listening: Judged purely on what got included here, Petty's strongest albums (at least until 1993) appear to be Full Moon Fever and Damn The Torpedoes. The immediate follow-up to this was Wildflowers, which spun off a great hit with You Don't Know How It Feels. But if you just want something fun, check out Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, a side-project Petty wrote and recorded with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, and Bob Dylan.