Monday, December 31, 2007

Alex Green - The Stone Roses (2006)

I'm again going to do something a little different for this review. You may be familiar with the 33⅓ series of books about albums. The albums reviewed range from classic 60s albums to a few more recent releases already hailed as classics. I don't know how authors or albums are selected, but their choices are usually very good. I've read several, including ones on Radiohead's OK Computer, The Kinks' The Village Green Preservation Society, and the Velvet Underground's The Velvet Underground & Nico. I have to say, the series is very inconsistent (in terms of quality and style), which is natural due to each book being written by a different author. Therefore, that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

I found the Village Green and Unknown Pleasures books to be incredible descriptions of the albums as whole units and as collections of the individual songs, additionally including thorough historical background and information on outtakes and contemporaneous singles, television appearances, and so on. I found the OK Computer book to be a bit tangentially distracted (too much discussion of "keeping songs alive" and on mathematical analysis of song length with no actual discussion of the relevance), but the worst so far was the one for the Smiths' Meat Is Murder. Instead of a biography of the band or a contextual essay, the book was a fictional account in which the characters adore the album. This was far from enlightening, and the countless overuse of clichés made it a tedious chore to finish the book.

I just finished reading a book on The Stone Roses' self-titled debut album, written by Alex Green. The album was originally released in 1989 and the book was published in 2006. I admit that I don't quite know how to structure this review, since it will be impossible to discuss the book without discussing the album. I think I'll give some background first.


Title: The Stone Roses
Author: Alex Green
Publisher: Continuum
Year: 2006
Series: 33⅓ #33

The Stone Roses is a fantastic album, often hailed as the best British album or just the best album ever. The band preceded the album with three singles: the gothy "So Young" in 1985, the shimmering "Sally Cinnamon" in 1987, and the funky "Elephant Stone" in 1988. "Elephant Stone" was included on US releases of the album (but not in the UK). After two album tracks were released as singles ("Made of Stone" and "She Bangs the Drums"), two non-album singles were released ("Fools Gold"/"What the World Is Waiting For" and "One Love") followed by three more album track singles ("I Wanna Be Adored", "Waterfall", and "I Am the Resurrection"). Then the band tried to jump their label, fought a long legal battle, eventually won, and released a mediocre album in 1994 before losing members one after the other and breaking up in 1996. A sad tale of lost potential.

The album itself is a work of art (literally, in the sense that the cover is a Jackson Pollock-inspired piece by guitarist John Squire, but more so just because of how good it is). The production and general sound is somehow simultaneously rooted in 60s pop, enmeshed as a definite product of the 80s, and yet different from almost anything else. It's a guitar album, but the vocals and drumwork are wonderfully done. The lyrics are slightly difficult to make sense of, but the possible interpretations are a pleasure to ponder. Perhaps the best part is the general sense of grandiosity offered by beginning the album in a long fade-in build-up of effects followed eventually by bass and then the rest of the instrumentation while singing "I Wanna Be Adored" (whose lyrics don't get much more complex than that) and then ending the album with a song like "I Am the Resurrection", replete with complex drumming, a great bassline, and two great and different choruses, one being a harsh indictment ("Don't waste your words / I don't need anything from you / I don't care where you've been / Or what you plan to do") and the other a more bombastic approach to a similar theme, but not without religious imagery ("I am the resurrection and I am the light / I couldn't ever bring myself / To hate you as I'd like"), before ending the song with a four-minute overdub-happy jam session that actually works really well. I apologize for the long sentence, but honestly, you think that last song is done, but the bass just doesn't quite want to stop and suddenly the drums and guitar are like "oh wait, we're not done yet" and then the awesome workout begins.


So the book. Green goes through the album one song at a time (like the majority of authors in the 33⅓ series) and discusses some aspect of the band or their environment at the time of recording and then briefly discusses the song. The unfortunate part of this is that there are really only a small number of pages devoted to each song (usually two or three), but we do learn a lot about the era and the scene. This is arguably extraneous, but if it had been included alongside a more thorough analysis of the actual songs, I would have been more appreciative. There's a lot of information about ecstacy and Margaret Thatcher (which is more or less appropriate considering the drug culture of the time and the clear fact that "Elizabeth My Dear" is about assassinating the Queen) but only only a limited demonstration of the connectivity of the discussed topics to the band itself and a mere small dose of information about the band's public appearances and activities.

When Green does analyze the actual musical material, he's usually good, but he seems to leave things out and keep his discussion brief. Given the space of an entire book, he has the space to say so much, yet he doesn't dig all that deep. Each song has its lyrics painted in one particular color, sometimes in a bit of a stretch to interpret the words, but also sometimes quite insightful. I think "Made of Stone" is more about an outsider gleefully observing a scene of destruction than about a drug trip, like Green suspects, and I really don't think "She Bangs the Drums" is in the slightest bit political, but "Elephant Stone" probably is about drugs and "This Is the One" is probably about a lopsided view about a relationship that's about to change.


Green also talks about some of the production values, most especially the reverse-track with overdubs that sums up "Don't Stop", but he doesn't even mention the envelope effect at the end of "This Is the One" or the multiple guitar overdubs used nearly every track. One of the best things about this album is the guitarwork, and not even mentioning overdub misses out on so much of the story. John Squire is a great guitarist, but he layered things up wonderfully. (Also funny is that Green writes a lot about how the Stone Roses are so different than the Smiths, but both bands loved their countless guitar overdubs done by a single guitarist.) Many songs are built around two clearly different guitar tones, both very effects-laden, often to the point of sounding like chimes or a piano. (How this was adapted to the live environment is a mystery to me, and Green doesn't seem to notice.)

Green also gets distracted by a lot of personal anecdotes and footnotes, often combining the two. I don't really mind all that much, but it doesn't really add anything. Furthermore, Green never speaks ill of any particular song – either himself or a quote by another musician or magazine is used to effectively say that every song on the album is either the best or at least utterly great. There is no negativity; this is pure worship. There are a lot of quotes in here, and most of them are pretty reputable – Alan McGee, founder of Creation Records; Dave Newton, guitarist of The Mighty Lemon Drops; the band themselves, and so on. Presumably, if all these other bands speak so highly of the band, and the press was similarly positive, maybe worship isn't the wrong choice.

Although I have been picking apart the book and focusing only on criticisms, the book is fairly well done. The analysis that is present is well done, and some of the background and whatnot is really good, but there is so much in the book that didn't need to be there compared to what could have been there that I would say it failed to live up to its potential. It's not a bad read, though. One last weird thing, though. The book has twelve chapters... one for each song on the first US album release. Every single other release of the album either has eleven (the European and Asian releases) or thirteen (every US pressing after the first) tracks, so the choice of twelve seems uninspired to me. (The first US version added "Elephant Stone", later versions also added the "Fools Gold" single.)

Scores:
The book: C+
The album: A

Friday, December 28, 2007

Metropolis (1927) - The Moroder Version (1984)

This post will be a little bit different from some previous ones. I'm going to discuss the soundtrack to a movie. (I apologize for the lack of posts as of late; I've had finals and holidays and whatnot. Now I have no responsibilities for a few weeks... expect more posts.)

You may remember Metropolis, one of the most expensive movies at for its time (1927). Metropolis was directed by Fritz Lang and released as a 210-minute futuristic epic in Germany, only to be severely edited for release in America. All further releases have been edits of some form (usually around 90 minutes), and when a team tried to reassemble the best possible version for a new DVD release in 2002, they only managed to restore the film to 123 minutes. Before that, and unlike any other previous release, there is one special version that deserves special note, most especially in this music-themed blog of mine. I speak of the Moroder version, an 80-minute semi-colorized edit released in 1984 with an 80s-tastic rock soundtrack coordinated and composed by Giorgio Moroder, an Italian disco producer-king.

I noticed that my college library happened to have five copies of Metropolis, one of which being this unique edit. So, this is a brief a review of this particular edit (not of the movie as a whole, which I really, really like) and the accompanying soundtrack. The edit was done acceptably; it's quite short but most of plot essentials remain. It makes sense, although it is clear that there is plenty of backstory missing and events just plain left untold. That eerie feeling that something is missing is bothersome, and the end seems to come almost too fast. On the whole, it does work. The colorization is unnecessary but an interesting touch; all it is is just tints over the print itself to add some mood to different scenes. It works well enough, I'd say.

As might be predictable, my main interest in this version was the soundtrack. Moroder's touch is clear. The sound is really more pop than rock, and when I mean pop, I mean really cheesy, big-synthy over-the-top production value pop. While watching the film, I had a really hard time picking out which pieces were which (as in, what audio corresponding to which song title and artist). Moroder did a few instrumental pieces on his own, but Freddie Mercury, Pat Benatar, Loverboy, Adam Ant, and a few others appear as co-composers of their own pieces. I knew from the start that I was largely disinterested in each of these people except Adam Ant, and even his song wasn't memorable to any degree. Since I don't have the soundtrack or my own copy of the film, I haven't had the chance to re-listen to the songs, and I can only go off of what I remember from memory.

What I remember isn't particularly positive. It's pretty bad, and way too 80s. (As should be obvious, I love a lot of 80s music, but there was also a lot of excess and mediocrity in those years. Those adjectives apply here appropriately.) These soaring ballads with horribly typical guitar solos and synth washes could be applied to any movie. Something like Metropolis deserves more, and a lot more at that. Something unique, and something that fits with a futuristic movie made in black and white 80 years ago and somehow balances a contemporary sound with the historical/futuristic setting. The songs and production provided sound awfully dated and completely inappropriate for a 20s movie or a futuristic movie. I admit that a few songs (mostly the Moroder solo bits) fit into the movie well enough, but the sounds just didn't work so hot.

Much as I would want to, I just plain can't recommend this version. I just can't. It isn't good. Watch the restored 2002 version and buy a different Moroder album. (He's done some perfectly fine disco in other outlets.)

Scores:
Metropolis, as a movie in general: A
The "Moroder version" in general: C
Moroder's soundtrack: D

[Edit 2008.12.13: If you haven't heard, an uncut copy of the film has been found and is currently undergoing restoration work. I assume a DVD release is inevitable.]

[Edit 2010.03.01: Again, if you haven't heard, the almost-entirely-restored version premiered in Frankfurt and Berlin two weeks ago. I failed to attend, but screenings appear to be continuing and a DVD release is apparently planned for April.]

[Edit 2010.11.22: I caught the 2010 restoration at Webster University in St. Louis a month or two ago. It's awesome and big step over the previous restoration. Go find it.]

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

John Lennon - Walls and Bridges (1974)

John Lennon is one of my favorite figures in rock and roll. I love the Beatles (mostly once they started to get away from their beginning straightforward sound, but even their early pop material is good), and John Lennon always wrote the songs I liked best, and although he was fairly extreme in his politics, I love his radicalism and his attempts to make a change. (Posting giant posters in eleven cities reading "War is over if you want it" is pretty great.) It's a serious pity that his solo career is fairly hit-and-miss, and, of course, that he was murdered in 1980 with much of his life left to lead.

In the twelve years John made solo albums (or duet albums with Yoko Ono), he covered a lot of ground. He started with three highly experimental albums with Ono (released while still a Beatle) which are of somewhat limited interest. Then came Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, two fairly different albums but easily his two best – and two of my favorite albums. Then came the political Some Time in New York, the decent Mind Games, the mediocre Walls and Bridges, the predictable covers album Rock 'n' Roll, and, after a five year break, the decent Double Fantasy and the posthumous Milk and Honey. I could write reviews for most of these albums (and some day probably will), but for now I'd like to discuss the last Lennon album I purchased (with good reason). This also works out since I haven't really written a single negative review yet.

Artist: John Lennon (with the Plastic Ono Nuclear Band, Little Big Horns, and the Philharmonic Orchestrange)
Album: Walls and Bridges
Released: October 4, 1974 (reissued 2005)
Label: Apple/EMI
Producer: John Lennon

Tracklist:
01. Going Down on Love
02. Whatever Gets You Thru the Night
03. Old Dirt Road
04. What You Got
05. Bless You
06. Scared
07. #9 Dream
08. Surprise, Surprise (Sweet Bird of Paradox)
09. Steel and Glass
10. Beef Jerky
11. Nobody Loves You (When You're Down and Out)
12. Ya Ya [Lee Dorsey cover]

Reissue bonus tracks:
13. Whatever Gets You Thru the Night [Live 1974.11.28 in New York City with the Elton John band]
14. Nobody Loves You (When You're Down and Out) [Alternate acoustic version]
15. Interview with Bob Mercer


Review:
Walls and Bridges was written and recorded during Lennon's "lost weekend", an 18-month block of time in which he separated from Yoko. This shows significantly, since it is one of the few Lennon releases without any input from Yoko, and some of the songs are clearly about missing her. In Yoko's absence, though, are Harry Nilsson, who cowrote "Old Dirt Road", and Elton John, who plays the piano and sings harmony on "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night", Lennon's only #1 single (during his lifetime). The former isn't really all that of a great song, unfortunately, and the former is good but just feels so hedonistic.


I think a big problem with the album is that it sounds so wrapped up in a stereotypical 70s pop sound. Many of the same elements can be heard in other Lennon albums, but it is rarely so bland, obvious, and uninteresting as it is here. The structures are too easy, very little of the material rocks, the sweet strings and horns are fairly clichéd, and the musicianship isn't really outstanding. I do like Klaus Voorman's basslines in many places, and Elton's piano work is great, but beyond that, talent is lacking. Most of the arrangements are just too predictable, too: too many (like "Old Dirt Road" and "Surprise, Surprise") just use the same guitar, piano, string, and horn sounds to get obvious pop material. The drums are always really straightforward and largely go unnoticed.

It's easy to see how this album was recorded during a "lost weekend" – it lacks direction and feels like no one was there to tell Lennon that some of his ideas needed work. "What You Got" rocks okay, but the screamed vocal seems kind of weird for him. "Bless You" is incredibly slow and spaced out, and it just doesn't work. It sounds like bad elevator music – nothing stands out at all. "Beef Jerky", Lennon's only instrumental release, isn't anything that great, and the short cover of "Ya Ya" with off-beat drums by his son Julian is at best cute, but ultimately just not good. (The complete, actually produced version on Rock 'n' Roll is still not that great, but maybe I just don't like the song.)

I should, however, admit that I do really like two of the songs: "#9 Dream" and "Nobody Loves You (When You're Down and Out)". "#9 Dream" is a very dream-like, strings-laden song, but I really like it – maybe because it is so ethereal yet still moves along, unlike the horribly downtempo "Bless You". The lyrics parallel the music – the chorus uses made-up words and the rest is about dreaming, magic, and spirit dances. "Nobody Loves You" is a mostly acoustic song that's fairly simple but gets across a dark theme of selfishness (although there's still a few lines about love slipped in). As the song progresses, the arrangement widens to include a full band, but the instrumentation is appropriate and works. It's a fairly dramatic song, but something about it makes it work and stand above the rest. (Apparently the album was originally envisioned as something more of a Dylanesque acoustic album, but things changed for the worse, especially considering how much the folkier Rubber Soul rules.)


There's also "Scared", which is also a somewhat harrowing song, but the arrangement works against it in some ways. The lyrics are pretty rough: "Every day of my life / I just manage to survive". (Oddly, it ends in a Dylan reference: "No place to call my own / Like a rollin' stone".) Most of the album seems to balance frustrations with life against a frustration with love. "Going Down on Love" does just that, while "Bless You" is clearly a statement of eternal love for Yoko, and "Surprise, Surprise" seems to be about his temporary lover in Yoko's absence, May Pang. "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night" seems on the other side of the scale, trading off lines like "Whatever gets you through your life / it's alright, it's alright" with "Don't need a sword to cut through flowers / oh no, oh no".

The bonus tracks aren't anything revelatory. The live version of "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night" by Lennon and the Elton John band is interesting by nature but not much different than the studio version. It was Lennon's last public performance, which makes it special, but it would have been nice to have included the other two songs performed that night with that line-up ("Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "I Saw Her Standing There"), although neither of those renditions are all that great either. The alternate acoustic version of "Nobody Love You" is also basically the same, but unadorned by other instruments. The interview at the end is just Lennon saying that EMI should promote the album because it's good. Considering that other material exists (like the (posthumous outtakes compilation) Menlove Ave. songs "Here We Go Again" and "Rock & Roll People") there should be no reason to include the fairly boring interview. (The reissue does have good sound and liner notes, but they changed the cover... weird.)


When it comes down to it, this album can only stand as a disappointment. There are a few good cuts, but much of the album is just plain not good. I'm sure no one ever really knew what to expect with Lennon, but there could be so much more here – the potential is mind-blowing, and it's largely wasted. Truly sad.

Score: D (convenient: "D" for "disappointment".)

Postscript: It's a pity that the recent Lennon reissue campaign has left several songs in limbo: "Instant Karma!", "Cold Turkey", and "Give Peace a Chance" (three of his biggest and best singles!) are not found on any album and are only available on compilations. (I firmly believe that reissue campaigns should strive to have an organized way of including all the released (and the best unreleased) material by an artist or band) without the overlap caused by best-of/singles compilations.) "Move over Ms. L.", the b-side to "Stand by Me", is unavailable except on one of the compilations. If you want only the good songs from this album, you're out of luck, since "Nobody Loves You" is only available here and nowhere else.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Modern Lovers - The Modern Lovers (1976)

The Modern Lovers have a bigger name than an actual recorded history. I knew about them because countless other great bands had covered them: Siouxsie & the Banshees, John Cale, Echo & the Bunnymen, etc., and the band shared a keyboardist with Talking Heads (Jerry Harrison). However, the Modern Lovers never recorded an album during their short early 70s lifetime and broke up with nothing but some demos to show for it. As singer/songwriter/guitarist Jonathan Richman began rounding up a second set of Modern Lovers in 1976 (but this time explicitly labeled as his backing band), Beserkley Records compiled some of the demos the original band recorded (mostly produced by John Cale) and released the album years after the recording process. The album has been reissued a few times and now boasts a host of bonus tracks from the various demo sessions.

Artist: The Modern Lovers
Album: The Modern Lovers
Released: 1976, reissued 2007
Recorded: 1971-1973
Label: Beserkley, reissued on Castle/Sanctuary
Produced by: John Cale, Kim Fowley

Tracklist:
01. Roadrunner
02. Astral Plane
03. Old World
04. Pablo Picasso
05. She Cracked
06. Hospital
07. Someone I Care About
08. Girlfriend
09. Modern World

Reissue (2007) bonus tracks, all of which are just outtakes:
10. Dignified and Old
11. I'm Straight
12. Government Center
13. I Wanna Sleep in Your Arms
14. Dance with Me
15. Someone I Care About [Alternative Version]
16. Modern World [Alternative Version]
17. Roadrunner [Alternative Version]

Review:
In some ways, I think the Modern Lovers wished they were the Velvet Underground. Richman is known to have hung around the band band in the day, and the band frequently covered "Foggy Notion" and perhaps a few other Velvets songs live. The band line-up is total rock-'n'-roll: guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, nerdy singer. The band is called proto-punk, and for a reason. The musical structure is ridiculously simple (anyone can play it); almost every song is a two- or three-chord rocker. "Pablo Picasso" is one riff based around one chord, and the slower songs don't get very complex either. In addition to the accessible and fairly traditional structures, the sound is usually a bit loud and distorted, and the various instruments use a fair amount of improvisation within the chord changes. The lyrics show a stand against what seemed like the dominant cultural hegemony of stadium rock and hippyism.

The music here has such a great sound to it, but what really makes the Modern Lovers a winning band is their lyrics. Richman sounds like a young, naïve, nervous and weird man who just wants friendship and love. Many of his songs are about romance, but his approach is very un-rock-'n'-roll; it seems that his obtuse nerdiness is his main impediment to love, and instead of the same old "let me hold your hand" sort of business (sorry, Beatles), he sings things like, "I don't want just a girl to fool around with / I don't want just a girl to ball / What I want is a girl that I care about" in "Someone I Care About". It's so plain and straightforward, so simplistic and innocent. However, it is very self-aware, and it's not like Richman doesn't know about the rest of the world. He just wants his good old way.

In "I'm Straight", Richman shows his awkwardness and dislike of drug and hippie culture: "I saw you thought today walk by with hippie Johnny / I had to call up and say how I want to take his place / ... / See he's stoned, he's never straight". In "She Cracked", Richman again expresses his style of conservatism: "She'd self destroy, necessary to self enjoy / I self develop, necessary to self help", "She'd eat garbage, eat shit, get stoned / I stay alone, eat health food at home". That one cracks me up a lot. He gets things pretty clear in "Old World" when he sings, "Well the old world might be dead / Our parents can't understand / But I still love my parents / And I still love the old world". He's aware that times have changed, though, and he's willing to accept that; he finishes the song with, "Alright, now we say bye-bye old world / Gotta help the new world". He even acknowledges that the old world isn't perfect: "I see a '50s apartment house / It's bleak in the 1970s sun".

On the whole, the lyrics are genius. I love the mild awkwardness, the desperate search for affection, the glorification and appreciation of a mix of traditional and modern values, and the somewhat subtle humor. "Astral Plane" is about a sort of imaginative dream-world where Richman can picture himself with his love, and "Roadrunner" is an absolute declaration of love of the highway and AM radio. Richman loves his old world and health food but simultaneously declares, "And me in love with modern moonlight / Me in love with modern rock-'n'-roll / Modern girls and modern rock-'n'-roll / Don't feel so alone, got the radio on". "Modern World" similarly expresses his unsubtle modern love: "I'm in love with the USA now / I'm in love with the modern world now". I greatly appreciate Richman's sort of postmodern attempt to appreciate both the past and present and try to get the best out of both world. Like me, Richman prefers things like music, love, health food, and the imagination instead of drugs and unnecessarily destructive behavior.

I have been focusing on the words a lot, but I do greatly appreciate the music, too. (However, I suspect Richman must have shared my priorities here, since in concert he would apparently stop the music and recite the words if he thought the audience wasn't paying enough attention). "Roadrunner" is glorious two-chord rock-'n'-roll (although admittedly a third chord crops up a few times). That song starts the album to a great start and sets the scene. The drums thump along in a simple, steady, upbeat rhythm, the guitar chugs along, Lou Reed style (a la "What Goes On" or something), the bass follows with a few flourishes, and the keyboard flows around the scale. It's great. Throughout the songs, the keyboard and guitar both get a few solos here and there, but nothing too dramatic or superfluous. Rhythm and tempo remain mostly consistent except for "She Cracked", an already great song (with its quick chugging, distorted guitar, dark keyboard, and simple but great melody) which slowly begins getting dissonant and messy before suddenly running right back into the chorus without missing a beat.

"Pablo Picasso", a witty song about the artist (sort of: "Well some people try to pick up girls / And get called assholes / This never happened to Pablo Picasso / ... / Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole / Not like you") that sort of points out the power of fame over ordinary life, has what is probably the most blatant guitar solo, but even here the solo is fraught with what could be considered mistakes (sort of like Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane" solo with all the thuds of trying and failing to hit artificial harmonics). The best is when part of the solo is just Richman turning his distortion pedal on and off.

"Hospital" is a slow, longer song that sort of cracks me up: "When you get out of the hospital / Let me back into your life / ... / And when you get out of the dating bar / I'll be here to get back into your life", "I go to bakeries all day long / There's a lack of sweetness in my life". He sounds so down and self-deprecating when awkwardly mumbles, "And when I walk down your street / Probably be tears in my eyes". I guess I can't stop talking about the lyrics, so here's one more: "Girlfriend" opens with a reference to being in the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston (a city which he mentions in several songs) but declares he'd pretty much rather have a girlfriend, which he then proceeds to spell out, only he spells it quite clearly wrong: "g-i-r-l-f-r-e-n". Who knows. The song has a great walking bassline under the somewhat slow and sparse feel of it all. At one point the drums even break the beat and hold the snare crack back a beat.

It's a sad fact that the Modern Lovers were so short-lived. Some of Richman's later work with different sets of Modern Lovers might be interesting, but after this outfit, he mostly traded his distortion and electric guitar for an acoustic guitar. The core set of songs here is incredibly well-written, and for demos, the recordings are of good quality and the performances are great. It's not quite right to say Richman was ahead of his time, but he certainly didn't fit in with his own. He wouldn't quite have fit in with the late 70s punks, but it probably would have been less awkward than the early 70s types. At least they had the sympathetic John Cale on their side.

This is a great album. The last five bonus tracks are of lower quality (in terms of both performance and recording) and not as essential. Find the album on cheap vinyl, or find an older CD reissue with just the first few bonus tracks, or go all out, but this is a great album, and it clearly meant a lot to plenty of other musicians.

Score: A+

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Control (2007)

This past week Control made its premiere in St. Louis, showing on one screen at one theater. I went and saw it with a couple friend and my brother, and although I have no desire to usurp my brother's venture of reviewing films, I would like to review this movie on the grounds that it is quite clearly about music. Specifically, Control is about Joy Division, one of the most hailed post-punk bands of the late 70s, and their lead singer, Ian Curtis, who committed suicide right as the band was getting serious recognition.

The film is sort of based off of Touching from a Distance, a memoir about Ian by his wife Deborah Curtis, but is supplanted by plenty of other sources. (If you are concerned about the accuracy of the depicted events, the surviving members of Joy Division have approved the content of the film.) Unlike some biographies of Ian and the band, Control tries to combine the personal aspects of Ian's life with the story of the band, and since the two do go hand in hand, it works out well. It was directed by Anton Corbjin, who might not be a big name, but he has been a longtime photographer (taking pictures of Joy Division when they existed 27+ years ago) and music video director (known for doing Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" and Joy Division's posthumous "Atmosphere" videos), and this is his first film, a fairly appropriate choice considering his history.

I don't want to detail all of Joy Division's history, so if you don't know it but want to, see the movie or read it on Allmusic or something. The movie chronicles Ian's first encounters with Deborah (followed by their very young marriage and childbirth) and the rest of the band (at an infamous Sex Pistols concert), then shows the growth of the band (becoming managed by Rob Gretton, playing on TV by Tony Wilson, recording the first album and singles with Martin Hannett, etc.), and then shows the troubling aspects of Ian's life and their toll on the band (namely marriage problems and epilepsy).

Fans of the band or scene might remember 24 Hour Party People, which focuses mostly on Tony Wilson, the co-owner/manager of Factory Records, but depicts some of the same events. Whereas that movie makes no attempt to separate fact from fiction (explicitly stating that the myths make better stories anyway), Control is more focused and aims to set the record straight. (My one question is the validity of the scene in which Joy Division signs to Factory: supposedly Wilson wrote the contract in his own blood, but I've heard conflicting reports to the truth of that. Beyond that one scene, every other event depicted appeared legitimate to me.)

Control isn't just an accurate biography; it's also a well-made film. The acting is solid, the visuals are good, and the soundtrack is great. The film alternates between black-and-white and sepia tones, which usually swap unnoticed. After Ian's first seizure, the film jarring switches from a dark outdoor sepia scene to a bright, indoor black-and-white scene that will nearly blind you, and although it's a bit annoying, it sure does serve as a wake-up call that something's not right. Ian was never fond of his hometown of Macclesfield, and the monochrome suits the bleakness of the area (and matches most of the historical photography of the band).

The real winning touch, though, is the soundtrack. It combines music from the era that influenced the band (Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Kraftwerk), original recordings by the band, new soundtrack recordings by the surviving members of Joy Division, and live material recorded by the cast for the concert scenes. The thing is, you wouldn't know that the concerts aren't actual Joy Division recordings – the cast does a really good job of accurately covering the material, affecting the band's demeanor, and actually sounding like the real thing. One of my favorite scenes merely traces Ian's walk to his boring job at the employment agency, but it's set to the early Joy Division song "No Love Lost". The song has a great bassline and a solid drumbeat that starts right as Ian starts walking and follows his pace. When we see the backside of Curtis, his jacket has the word "hate" scrawled on it.

The movie gets fairly intense in the latter half as the line between Ian's onstage dancing and seizures becomes more and more blurry and his affections shift from his wife to a Belgian journalist. The band keeps writing, recording, and performing, but Curtis' condition becomes worse and worse until he simply cannot take it anymore. The juxtaposition of the Joy Division songs that the band is shown recording or performing with the events going on make evident a connection that I never thought much about before. The band is shown working with songs in mostly the chronological order they were originally written, and the lyrics of each song seem to correspond eerily close to real life. The (real) band and other involved people have said before that the warning signs of Curtis' suicide were all there in his lyrics, but even I never credited his lyrics as actually applying the real life very well. After seeing an epileptic girl at the employment agency, Curtis sings "She's Lost Control", which lends the film's title and serves as a foreshadowing of Curtis' own problems. Later, after a troubling scene with Deborah, the band is shown recording the music video for "Love Will Tear Us Apart", a song whose lyrics strike a deep chord in response to the Curtis' relationship. Other songs throughout the movie similarly reflect real events (albeit perhaps less obviously).

Everything about this movie comes together well: the music goes with the visuals quite well. One could complain that the last third seems to move at a slower pace, but the movie does manage to pack a lot into just two hours without leaving much out. Many scenes make reference to events that a non-fan might not catch, which could make much of the movie alienating, but for those that know the story, it all comes together in a sort of "wait a minute, that crazy producer dude is Martin Hannett!" sort of way. Not to spoil the ending (although it is history anyway), but after Curtis' death the rest of the band sits at a table looking sombre, and drummer Stephen Morris has brought his girlfriend, Gillian Gilbert, along. Although she isn't named and no words are spoken, this clearly alludes to the dawn of New Order (which consists of the three remaining members of Joy Division plus Gilbert). Actually, the whole set of scenes in the last few minutes made a big emotional impact on me: there's the drama of everything falling apart, and it's all set to the Joy Division single "Atmosphere", which is already a haunting, moving piece.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. If it plays in your city and you know anything about the band, go see it.

Score: A

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Young Marble Giants - Colossal Youth & Collected Works (1980)

I don't remember how I learned about Young Marble Giants. Maybe it was when I heard Belle & Sebastian's semi-obscure cover of "Final Day". Who knows. But recently, I heard that their entire recorded output (one album, one single, one EP, one Peel session, one compilation track, and one set of demos, although a couple demo tracks and a live recording are absent) was being released as a three-disc set at a decent price. Not having heard a single song, I went for it. It might be really minimalist and limited in appeal, but I think it's great.

Also, my apologies for the lack of reviews as of late. I think I might like this format a bit better, but I might still use the old here and there.


Artist: Young Marble Giants
Album: Colossal Youth & Collected Works
Released: February 1980, reissued September 11, 2007
Label: Rough Trade, reissued on Domino Recording Co.
Producer: Young Marble Giants & Dave Anderson (Disc 1), unknown (Disc 2), Dale Griffin (Disc 3)

Tracklist:
Disc 1 (the original album):
01. Searching for Mr Right
02. Include Me Out
03. The Taxi
04. Eating Noddemix
05. Constantly Changing
06. N.I.T.A.
07. Colossal Youth
08. Music for Evenings
09. The Man Amplifier
10. Choci Loni
11. Wurlitzer Jukebox
12. Salad Days
13. Credit in the Straight World
14. Brand – New – Life
15. Wind in the Rigging

Disc 2 (from Salad Days, a set of demos recorded 1979 but released 2000, and other sources as labeled):
01. This Way [Testcard EP, 1981]
02. Posed by Models [Testcard EP, 1981]
03. The Clock [Testcard EP, 1981]
04. Clicktalk [Testcard EP, 1981]
05. Zebra Trucks [Testcard EP, 1981]
06. Sporting Life [Testcard EP, 1981]
07. Final Day [Single, 1980]
08. Radio Silents [Final Day b-side, 1980]
09. Cakewalking [Final Day b-side, 1980]
10. Ode to Booker T [Is the War Over? Compilation, 1979]
11. Have Your Toupee Ready
12. N.I.T.A.
13. Brand – New – Life
14. Zebra Trucks
15. Choci Loni
16. Wind in the Rigging
17. The Man Shares His Meal with His Beast
18. The Taxi
19. Constantly Changing
20. Music for Evenings
21. Credit in the Straight World
22. Eating Noddemix
23. Ode to Booker T
24. Radio Silents
25. Hayman
26. Loop the Loop

Disc 3 (from a Peel session recorded August 18, 1980):
1. Searching for Mr Right
2. Brand – New – Life
3. Final Day
4. N.I.T.A.
5. Posed by Models

Review:
If there's one thing you notice about the Young Marble Giants, it's how incredibly minimalist their music is. One guy (Philip Moxham) plays bass (and what a great bass he plays – he plays in the higher register and carries much of the melody, similar to Joy Division's Peter Hook; I wish I could write basslines that well). One girl (Alison Statton) sings. The other guy (Stuart Moxham) alternates between a very trebly, usually muted guitar and an organ, both of which he is quite proficient with. The only other sounds are simple drum machine rhythms, occasional extra noise provided by a friend, and the rare overdub.

Somehow, it all works. The stark clarity of each instrument stands out, and you can easily distinguish the few but perfectly interwoven parts. The music is quite well-composed. The guitar tends to play short chords while the bass winds around the chord changes. The few times the bass repeats a root note like a modern rock song's bassline, it feels nearly out of place, but even then, the tone is always trebly, prominent, and higher than a typical bass. In the songs with organ, the organ is usually played with both hands – meaning that there is a bass part on the organ, too. Usually, that part holds the root notes while the bass guitar goes on its merry way, filling out the chords with little flourishes. The singing, though, is plain, and admittedly done by an untrained singer.

Lyrically, many songs seem to deal with love lost or just general relationship woes, but it's all a bit removed and obscure. Rarely do the words come out a say the story directly, except perhaps the stand-out track "N.I.T.A." (also represented by a demo and Peel session version), where Stuart writes and Alison sings, "It's nice to hear you're having a good time / But it still hurts 'cos you used to be mine / This doesn't mean I possessed you / You're haunting me because I let you". The rest of the lyrics of that song are in sharp contrast rather abstract. "Eating Noddemix", referencing what is apparently a Swedish cereal bar, alternates discussing morning routines with various catastrophes.

Other songs are outright obscure with no hope of understanding, most notably "Choci Loni", a six-line piece about someone who eats through his house or something. "Salad Days" is a three line piece: "Think of salad days / They were folly and fun / They were good, they were young". Simple, but it tells it all (and lends its name to the demo compilation). YMG's one single, "Final Day", is an apocalyptic piece: "And the world lights up for the final day / We will all be poor having had our say".


The band is usually uptempo, keeping pace with a steady but moving drum machine at all times. Some pieces have simply fantastic instrumental work – not by virtue of virtuosity, but just in how the instruments interact. I love "N.I.T.A." and the instrumental "Wind in the Ragging" (featuring a great bit of counterpoint between organ and bass). No song exceeds much more than three a half minutes (only a couple come close, but two demos do reach four and a half). Their ideas are comparatively short but still wonderful.

The Testcard EP, released around a year after the album, features six instrumentals. "The Clock" features what sounds like an acoustic guitar that actually strums fuller chords and picks a few notes out, but the dancey "Clicktalk" is my favorite of those six, with a great hummed sort of baritone line. The demos aren't all that amazing; they're mostly just lower-fi versions of tracks from the rest of the output, but a few are subtly different, and four tracks are unique to the demos. The Peel session is likewise not particularly revelatory but mildly interesting to hear the band semi-live.


I think this album stands as a great example of post-punk radicalism. Instead of loud guitars or a wall of sound, the band chooses precise, clean, and clear tones to distinguish each part and let the gaps speak for themselves. It's a bit arty, slightly pretentious, and very unmarketable... or so I would think.

Score: A

Sunday, October 7, 2007

David J - Embrace Your Dysfunction (2003)

As I said before, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to purchase a copy of David J's Embrace Your Dysfunction, actually credited to David J's Cabaret Oscuro (meaning "dark cabaret" as well as I understand... but I don't speak Spanish). The album was originally released as a limited edition bonus to Estranged, but despite the low price ($10) and cheap container and liner notes (a mere paperboard sleeve), it stands on its own well enough as an album, especially considering the hour-long running time (when including the video track). The album contains two remakes of classic J songs, two remasters of recent EP tracks, four covers, three new originals, and one live take of an Estranged "song". Somehow it all works together fairly well.

I wish I knew more about Cabaret Oscuro, but it's rather hard to come by information about them. It hard to say if they are more of a side project or a backing band for J. Best as I can tell, the main collaborative force is Joyce Rooks on cello (and other instruments), but a few others seem to show up a lot, such as guitarist Mark Miller and percussionist Kris Krull. J, as per normal, provides vocals, acoustic guitar, bass, samples, and some synthesizer. Again, as far as I can ascertain, Cabaret Oscuro is a more recent assemblage – I think these songs were written and recorded after Estranged even though they found release at the same time. The band played along the West Coast quite a bit, and I think they are still active in some regard.. I could be very wrong about that.

Artist: David J's Cabaret Oscuro
Album: Embrace Your Dysfunction
Release Date: September 9, 2003
Label: Heyday
Producer: Unlisted, but undoubtedly David J

Tracklist:
01. Sorrow Sleeps at Night (Song for Llana Lilla)
02. Ten Little Beauty Queens [Live]
03. Mexican Drugstore [Remastered] [With Roberto Mendoza] [Originally from the Mess Up EP, 2003]
04. Goth Girls in Southern California [Remastered] [Originally from the Mess Up EP, 2003]
05. Dress Sexy at My Funeral [Smog cover]
06. My Life in Art [KXLU Radio Session 2002] [Mojave 3 cover]
07. By the Time I Get to Phoenix [Jimmy Webb cover]
08. Streets of Berlin [Ute Lemper cover]
09. Tell Me, Henry Kissinger
10. Life in Laralay [Originally by Love & Rockets]
11. Embrace Your Dysfunction [Live]
12. The Trees in Silence Sing [Video]

Analysis:
Embrace Your Dysfunction begins with the ten-minute, jam-ish, electronic noise-laden "Sorrow Sleeps at Night (Song for Llana Lilla)", a piece that never really changes and keeps the same steady sound the whole time. I think the piece is a bit long, but I like that instruments drift in and out through the measures, and J sings the whole while about a murdered girl and the motion lights built to prevent another similar incident.

The next song is a live rendition of J's "Ten Little Beauty Queens", originally released on 1992's Urban Urbane. This version is dominated by eerie sounds, an electronic drumbeat, and Joyce Rooks' cello. The original version features prominent guitar, but this version seems intentionally darker and strange. This version's music matches the disturbing lyrical content about a creepy dude who dressed up girls and took pictures of them in nooses until one died in an accident and was convicted for murder. The other remake on the album, "Life in Laralay" is similarly significantly changed in sound from the original version, released on Love & Rockets' second album, 1986's Express. This version follows the original's structure, but the only instruments are Rooks' cello, J's vocals, and some backing vocals. The spareness treats the song well, mostly because the arrangement was cleverly put together. The lyrical indictment of Hollywood still holds true.

Two of the most developed songs on the album are actually remastered versions of songs that appeared on the Mess Up EP. "Mexican Drugstore", done together with Roberto Mendoza, is a sort of Mexican electronic song. The song sounds fairly light, and a variety of instruments make for an interesting sound. (My only qualm is the tone of the lead electric guitar, which sounds too close to an elevator music tone for comfort.) The lyrics simply concern the variety of people that go to the Mexican drugstore to "take away our pain". Apparently, "we all got the same prescription", as J sings over an extended relaxed-sounding outro. "Goth Girls in Southern California", made up mostly of guitar, cello, and drums, goes through every cliché of the goth subculture. The lyrics are fairly witty, not failing to reference Peter Murphy. A great choppy middle section breaks up the feel a bit, and at the end, a harpsichord enters to changes things up, and it works well. Despite running through all the stereotypes, J concludes with "oh, leave them alone!". It would be fairly hard for someone who (like it or not) was in one of the original goth rock bands to not defend the subculture he helped define, even if it has changed over the years.

The middle of Embrace Your Dysfunction is full of covers, all of which make for interesting choices. The first, "Dress Sexy at My Funeral", originally by Smog, is rather humorous. The semi-standard guitar and cello combo appears, as it does in a cover of Mojave 3's "My Life in Art", which also features some drums and backing vocals. The song is fairly slow, but I really like the sort of nostalgic sound to it all. The chorus of "Tell me 'bout your life in art / tell me 'bout the boulevards / because Europe always seemed so far" is just great. J's next cover choice is the Jimmy Webb song "By the Time I Get to Phoenix", a classic-sounding slow and sad song about leaving a lover, but the most inventive cover is his interpretation of Philip Glass and Martin Sherman's "Streets of Berlin". The song has a definite cabaret feel, which is perfect for J's recent sound, and the electronics and cello fit right in. The song laments leaving Berlin, but seems more clearly about the harshness of the city and the streets.

"Tell Me, Henry Kissinger" is a biting piece about the eponymous person. Most of the instrumentation is just a few picked chords and a few reverb-drenched drum clashes, but organ, a snare reminiscent of J's V for Vendetta EP, and other instruments appear. The last song on the regular CD is "Embrace Your Dysfunction", a live version of the segue track found at the end of "Bright in Your Absence" on Estranged. It sounds nearly identical except for the crowd cheers.

The final part of the album is an accompanying video on the CD for "Trees in Silence Sing", a sort of tribute written after 9/11. I really like the lyrics, which lament that cassettes aren't allowed in Afghanistan and are ripped apart and strewn across trees. The song has a clear warning against extremism and also seems to indicate an anti-war sentiment. The video (and really the song too) are a bit over-dramatic, but I like them anyway.

Review:
Most of Embrace Your Dysfunction is a mix between a sort of dark electronica and an acoustic feel with cello. Really, cello just pervades the album all over, which perhaps is appropriate for a man who plays bass in two other bands. It's a rather different feeling than the general feel of Estranged, the album it accompanies. I don't really think the two are really supposed to be related – outside of the two remastered EP tracks and the live version of the title track, the two share little in common. I think the two deserve to be considered separate units (hence my reviewing them separately). Estranged has a certain theme of moving past a relationship, but this album has a variety of themes, mostly tied together under the general adjective "dark" (perhaps in part due to the prominence of the cello).

I haven't heard the rest of the Mess Up and Guitar Man EPs, so I don't really know what those songs sound like (although I've heard a radio session version of "The Auteur"), but the two remasters from the Mess Up EP presented here are both of high quality. They sound like outtakes from Estranged that just didn't fit the mood or theme. The covers are mostly simple arrangements, but they all work well, and they fit with J's personality, wit, and style well. The remakes are both interesting alternate takes of classic J songs. The new songs are a little bit weaker on average, just because "Sorrow Sleeps at Night" goes on a bit too long and "Tell Me, Henry Kissinger" is a bit too dark and biting without remorse (although that isn't necessarily a bad thing). "Trees in Silence Sing", though, is a great dedication to 9/11 without getting too heroic or sappy, and I really like the imagery of musical reference parts.

Embrace Your Dysfunction is considered just a limited edition bonus album to Estranged, but I think it's nearly as good and stands well on it's own, especially since it has its own sound (and is even credited to David J's Cabaret Oscuro instead of just David J). Since J recently found an unsold box of the album, I recommend purchasing one while supplies last (go to http://www.davidjonline.com/ and click on "store merchandise"); they're only $10 (plus shipping). And while you're at it, go to J's Myspace page (http://www.myspace.com/davidjonline) every month to listen to his "Tracks from the Attic", old outtakes and demos that have never found release. There's usually three a month, one of which can be downloaded. I think he should gather them all together and release them officially, but hey, a dream's a dream and I know it took a lot of effort for J to release Estranged and Embrace Your Dysfunction. [Edit 2014.06.18: Physical copies of Embrace Your Dysfunction are long since unavailable, but the album can be downloaded digitally from Bandcamp. Also note that the Tracks from the Attic were discontinued long ago and are now apparently forgotten and unavailable.]

Score: B+

Friday, September 28, 2007

Mat Kearney / Tyler Burkum / Jesse Irwin - Live 2007.09.28

Band: Mat Kearney
Venue: Webster University (Parking Lot E)
City: Webster Groves, Missouri
Date: September 28, 2007
Opening Acts: Jesse Irwin, Tyler Burkum

Setlist:
01. Crashing Down
02. Break Her Fall
03. Bullet
04. Chicago
05. In the Middle
06. Renaissance
07. Wait
08. Where We Gonna Go from Here
09. Girl America
10. City of Black & White
11. Nothing Left to Lose
12. All I Need
13. Undeniable

Encore:
14. Breathe In / Breathe Out
15. Won't Back Down

Review:
This won't be too long, since although I was present for the entire concert, I was also working at it. After helping set up for an hour before my classes and then returning after working an extended regular shift, I mostly blocked people from entering from the back corner and then checked IDs. I was pretty busy and distracted for most of the show, but I did manage to snag a setlist while taking down the stage setup. On a personal level, separate from the music, it was an enjoyable experience for me to be such a part of a concert – I had an event staff shirt and an access pass. It's always good to feel like you're on the inside.

So, I'll be honest, I hadn't heard of Mat Kearney until I heard he was coming. I mean, that's simply because he comes from a movement that normally doesn't interest me, and his singles are played on radio formats that I ignore and in television shows that I avoid. I figured I'd give him a chance, especially since I'd be there anyway due to my job.

The first opener, Jesse Irwin, was a Webster graduate who had played at Webster before, both at our old unplugged series as a student and at Homecoming as an alumni. He played a short set based on a sort of acoustic country feel. Not my thing but not bad or anything. Thereafter, Tyler Burkum came on. Burkum is apparently Kearney's guitarist but makes his own mostly-acoustic music on the side. I must confess my large degree of distraction, but what I did hear sounded pleasant. He played a short set, and I believe he did a song or two with some other guys.

Mat Kearney finally came to the stage and was accompanied a handful of musicians who handled additional guitar, keyboard, bass, and drums. Kearney himself played guitar and sang. I didn't catch lyrics nearly at all, so I really can't get deep here. In general, the music was on the lower-key side of things, which is to say, not metal. The sound was usually clean and largely straightforward (as in, not a lot of complex structure or intricacies – which shouldn't be taken to mean I thought it was dull, just that I didn't notice anything crazy on the basis of music theory). There were brighter, more upbeat songs, and slower, minor chord pieces. (Does that describe every concert or what?) During the long instrumental beginning of the first song, one of the bartenders near me said it sounded like the Smashing Pumpkins. I couldn't disagree – the tempo and general sound or feel of that first song sort of did feel Pumpkinesque. After the second song, the bartender said it sounded like Coldplay, and again, I couldn't disagree – Kearney's vocals are a bit similar, and the music seemed to be moving in a bit of that sort of modern alt-rock sound direction.

I must repeat, my attention was not as focused as it should have been to be writing a review, but I have to say the general sound was good enough for me. I can only guess about lyrical content, which is normally very important for me, but the sound was pleasant enough. Probably not something I'd listen to a lot, but not bad if I happened to catch it somewhere. I did notice that Kearney pulled out a few raps, which I found interesting. A few of my coworkers and friends seemed to disapprove, but from what I heard, he did a decent job of it.

Kearney pulled out his two singles at the end of the main set ("Nothing Left to Lose" and "Undeniable"), and the audience really reacted to both of those. We had maybe 800 people, and they were pretty into it at that point, even if a significant fraction were local high school girls. I'd call it a fun time, even if it wasn't down my aisle of style. Clearly, it attracted other people well enough.

[Retrospective Scores:
Mat Kearney: D
Tyler Burkum: C
Jesse Irwin: D]


P.S. I know I said my next review would be David J's Embrace Your Dysfunction, but I felt like writing this spur-of-the-moment before finishing that. I also decided to forego reviewing my own performance Wednesday at the Red Sea with the Awesome Black Hole, as that might be a little too indulgent.

[Note (2014.06.03): The original version of this review was posted with a general score of C, although this was quickly amended to a D.]

Sunday, September 23, 2007

David J - Estranged (2003)

When people ask me what my own music sounds like, I never know what to tell them. I like a lot of bands, but I don't quite sound like any of them. Then one day I realized that there was a man out there doing the same sort of thing I do – only he'd been doing it for about twenty years before I began. He isn't a big name, but he should be. After all, David J has not only had a long solo career with many a collaboration (Alan Moore comes to mind), but he was the bassist of Bauhaus and Love & Rockets, two of my favorite bands. (He also sang Bauhaus' "Who Killed Mr. Moonlight", wrote many of their songs, wrote and sang about half of L&R's, played bass on a few Jazz Butcher albums, and DJs.)

I love David J's work. Bauhaus is a fantastic goth-rock post-punk band and Love & Rockets is a fantastic psychedelic post-punk, semi-new wave, semi-goth rock band. And then there's his solo music, which tends to be subdued, acoustic or clean electric, with limited accompaniment and clever lyrics. His first album was rather dark and unpolished, but he quickly developed his own style and started releasing albums at the rate of one every four years or so between his other bands. After a long silence from his 1992 album, the breakup of Love & Rockets in 1999, and a brief Bauhaus reunion in the same time frame, J finally released Estranged, written and recorded around 2000 but unreleased due to lack of a label until 2003. It stands as his most complete, lasting, and solid piece of solo work.


Artist: David J
Album: Estranged
Release Date: Sept. 9, 2003
Label: Heyday
Producer: David J

Tracklist:
01. The Guitar Man [Bread cover]
02. Mess Up
03. Pulling Arrows from Our Heels
04. Ruined Cities
05. Static Cling
06. In the Great Blue Whenever
07. Crashed
08. If Anything Should Ever Happen to You
09. The Ballad of August and June
10. Bring in Your Absence
11. Trophy Wife
12. Arc of Return
13. Estranged
14. Time in the Sun

Analysis:
Estranged starts with a cover of Bread's 1972 soft-rock hit "The Guitar Man". The song features Dave Navarro of Jane's Addiction on lead guitar and several other musicians filling up the space of the song. It's one of the most composed pieces on the album and even has a touch of country. The song works well, in part since the lyrics are right up J's alley, about a rock star who stands as an icon and gradually fades from view, and although "the crowds are gettin' thin / ...he never seems to notice." Also relevant, considering the literate and witty nature of J's own words, is this bit: "You want to squeeze the meaning / Out of each and every song / Then you find yourself a message / And some words to call your own / And take them home."


"The Guitar Man" was released as the title track of an EP, as was the second track of the album, the lilting but catchy "Mess Up". The song pulls along with some swinging drums and a nice jumping bassline. The lyrics seem to be about a relationship that the narrator inevitably will ruin: "I'll mess up your life / Lead your pony astray," and so on. In the final bridge, though, J sings, "The last thing that I want to do / Is mess up your life".


"Pulling Arrows from Our Heels" is a fairly sweet song. A typical J acoustic-guitar-and-obscure-lyrics structure is combined with a fantastic string arrangement. The song sounds somewhat reminiscent or rueful, and I like it a lot. It is followed by "Ruined Cities", which is driven by an electronic drumbeat. The strong chorus melody and string combination work well, much like the subtle overdubbed picking pattern on some of the verses. The lyrics just rattle off cities that apparently have been destroyed in some post-apocalyptic landscape, but then a bridge crops up with a total Beatlesque melody with backing "la la la"s. The beat changes and it sounds like a twisted 60s song for 30 seconds. It's great.

"Static Cling" is somewhat more restrained also, consisting mostly of acoustic rhythm and a pedal steel lead. Somehow the traditionally-country instrument doesn't feel out of place at all, even when an overdriven guitar lead pops in. The lyrics concern a relationship that seems to remain inevitably together despite troubles, sort of like static. "But didn't we start some beautiful fires", J sings while a second vocal track sighs dramatically.

"In the Great Blue Whenever" has some more subtle pedal steel but also has a little shuffling drum sound here and there. Piano bits and wordless vocal overdubs add to the mix. The lyrics mix a bit of military and pilot imagery with the idea of flying off and leaving someone behind. It's sort of dramatic, though, since the chorus is the melodic "And I'll see you sometime in the great blue whenever." "Crashed" also uses some flight imagery about wasting around in motels and cars, presumably presenting a critique of concert tours or something. Hard to tell. The choruses again use backing vocals and extra little guitar parts and sounds, but the whole song is done with a fuller feeling, incorporating bass and restrained drums.

In "If Anything Should Ever Happen to You", J sings about relationship difficulties while accompanied by his acoustic guitar and some great tremolo guitar. The bridges have a great keyboard that's arpeggiated and a bit spacey. The choruses amp up for just a second with J singing the title and then "it would crucify me" while a slightly overdriven guitar chugs three chords. "The Ballad of August and June" doesn't stand out too much, but it's still a good piece. A pedal steel works great as both for small solos and lead parts. J sings about a relationship as it flows through the seasons and months.

"Bright in Your Absence" has much more of a folk-country piece due to the strong pedal steel, the melody and chord structure, the drumbeat, the guitar solo, and the lyrical theme of driving in to the town saloon. However, the lyrics deviate quite a bit. It starts with the weird "I embrace my dysfunction and drive into town" and chorus is equally strange: "You're bright in your absence / You shine in that place / That screams, there's no mercy / For playboys in space / Bright in your absence / You glow in that vacuum / Where no life can exist". It recalls the earlier J song, "Space Cowboy" but remains yet weirder. To top it all, it ends with a three-minute segment featuring weird spacey synthesizers, an electronic drumbeat, and J's repeated delivery of "I embrace my dysfunction".

"Trophy Wife" is also a bit more country-esque, somewhere between "Static Cling" and "Bright in Your Absence". The lyrics are again a sort of subverted country theme: J sings about wooing a girl but uses the metaphor of a trophy wife very literally. It starts with "I placed you on a pedestal / And that's an uncomfortable perch". It's fairly unclear if J is singing more about materialism (the "trophy" part) or an actual relationship (the "wife" part). The juxtaposition drives both in.

"Arc of Return" begins with a pleasant picking pattern and then becomes a sort of 3/4 shuffle until the chorus comes in, a driving 4/4 affair with a rapid strumming pattern, a dramatic piano part, and a dramatic chant under the lyrics. The bridges also change pace into a more straightforward 4/4 bit with a muted trumpet part and a bit of organ. I think the whole thing is something of a metaphor for trying to escape from a relationship but ending up right back where you started. The dynamics of the song keep it moving well.

"Estranged" is perhaps the most straightforward song, just J and his guitar, strumming nice little patterns. The lyrics seem to deal with trying to leave behind a relationship but being unable to: "Every time I turn away from you / I face you". Things can't have gone well, as evinced by the confused chorus: "How can the sea leave the shore? / How can the starts be rearranged? / How can soul mates become estranged?" The bridge is hilarious and beautiful: a warm sort of nature-reminiscent background sample with a full synth flourish welcome the emotion of a metaphor for how J feels about his former lover: "And your world is a green world / With oxygen and water / Suitable for evolution / Of a carbon based life form like me". What? I love J's lyrics (see also: "I am frozen peas / You are the sun". "Time in the Sun" is short conclusion where J sings "Every disease has it's time in the sun".

Review:
J (solo) has always liked his acoustic and clean guitars, and he often adds his own basslines and gets friends to add additional guitar parts and drums, but every once in a while in his past you can hear traces of classical, electronic, a little folk, and even a dose of country. Estranged actually takes advantage of the country elements, but does not abuse them at all – pedal steel parts can be found sitting comfortably in a few songs, and only one song has a standard country feel ("Bright in Your Absence") – and it's still done rather tongue-in-cheek.

A lot of sides of J come out on this album, but the common thread is his somewhat morose, thoughtful, and moving sort of ballad thing. Many songs fit into this category, from "Pulling Arrows from Our Heels" to "In the Great Blue Whenever" to "Estranged". Most of the songs can be described as beautiful, melodic, singer-songwriter things (only better than the image that might construct). Most of these more subdued songs seem to focus on relationships and the difficulty of getting past a broken one, making me suspect that J went through such a situation not long before (or while) writing the songs.

J is far from not willing to rock, though. "The Guitar Man" is a full-blown affair, and several others drive along with some electronic bits or stronger guitar or drums. More than straight-up rocking, though, J seems to have enjoyed playing with dynamics and sudden changes in this batch of songs. "Ruined Cities" sounds like a dark semi-electronic piece until the weird Beatlesque bridge crops up, "If Anything Should Ever Happen to You" picks up considerably a few times just for two lines, and even "Estranged" has the sudden romantic vision of a vast-sounding bridge.

Despite the dynamic nature of many of the pieces, I feel like this is J's most consistent record (which really mostly just implies that the songs are all consistently good). His overall sound remains similar, but he has grown with his choices of accompaniment and arrangement since his first solo outings. It's funny to think that someone who contributed so much to the dark, gothic rock feel of Bauhaus and the trippy psychedelia of Love & Rockets could also make such melodic, restrained, largely-acoustic music, but clearly he can. "Who Killed Mr. Moonlight", the sole J-sung Bauhaus song, and the folkier tunes of Love & Rockets' Earth.Sun.Moon album help bridge the gaps, though – J has always had an eye for melody and complex, interesting structures. Estranged is probably J's most interesting album, and likely his best.

Score: A

P.S. Estranged was released with a limited edition bonus album, Embrace Your Dysfunction. After selling them all years ago, J recently found some more, so I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to buy one. I'll probably write a short-ish review of it soon.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

They Might Be Giants / Oppenheimer - Live 2007.09.15

Band: They Might Be Giants
Venue: The Pageant
City: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: September 15, 2007
Opening Act: Oppenheimer

Review:
I don't remember the exact setlist or anything from the show, but it was pretty great. (For someone else's transcription of the setlist, see This Might Be a Wiki.) I went with a large group of people based around my band and met a few other friends who went afterward (specifically, the dudes over at Highway 61 Revised, who also wrote a short review). Oppenheimer, a Northern Irish sort of electro-indie pop duo, opened. They played about nine fast songs and got a little bit of crowd movement. They relied heavily on samples for most of their tracks, but the live parts (drumming, singing, guitar, and some keyboard) were spot-on.

Once the band came on, the crowd was pretty excited. There was some movement with the dancier songs. The mood was good but seemed calmer than I would have expected – and I think the two Johns that compose the core of They Might Be Giants reflected that. Flansburgh, who handles the guitar, seemed in a mostly good but slightly sedate mood, while Linnell, the keyboardist/accordionist, seemed a bit more down. He didn't really smile much, but he did perform well. The two Johns traded singing roles and were accompanied by another guitarist, a bassist, and a drummer, all three of whom seemed to be having a good time.

I enjoyed it all pretty well. The song selection included plenty of old favorites ("Ana Ng", "The Guitar", "Birdhouse in Your Soul", "Why Does the Sun Shine", "Istanbul", "Dr. Worm", "Particle Man", etc.) and was mixed with some back catalogue fun, like the really weird "Spider", and a bevy of songs from the new album, The Else. The classics were all done really well, but typically extended or toyed with just a little bit to make them interesting (which, by the way, is exactly what I like bands to do with their standby classics). "Why Does the Sun Shine" included a little bit about something like the atom-smashing reactions on the sun being caused by "a failed foreign policy, a failed domestic policy, and a failed presidency", which got a large round of applause. "Istanbul" was preceded by a long and impressive acoustic guitar solo by the second guitarist.

I did miss out on a lot of what seemed to be in-jokes and obscure references, since I'm not an obsessive fan but dig their material. There was a big thing about Buddy Ebsen and pretending to call him from beyond the grave, and I really couldn't figure out what was going on too well. I didn't feel too alienated, though, because they did joke about Mississippi Nights, the now-gone St. Louis venue that the band had played at several times before. The music was good, and when the humor came out here and there, they were usually funny (although I had expected even more humor), so all was good. They make for a really fun show.

Score: B+
[Retrospective Score for Oppenheimer: B-]

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - B-Sides and Rarities (2005)

Okay, I have to apologize. My goal was a post a week, minimum, and I haven't posted for something like three weeks. I do have excuses: 8 long days of Orientation training, 3 days of University Center training, four very, very long days of actual Orientation, five days of classes, student government work, homework, and work at the UC, and two days of hanging out with friends. Now I'm here. Time to move on and write a review.

This is a triple album, but it is a compilation. I won't go in-depth into every song like I often do, since that would take forever. However, the tracklist is going to be huge. Sorry. I'm really obsessive about finding out exactly when and where every track of a compilation was originally released, and since it does require a lot of research sometimes, I figure I may as well present my findings. Also, note that I bought the album for like $22, which is really cheap for three and a half hours of music.


Artist: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Album: B-Sides & Rarities
Release Date: March 22, 2005
Label: Mute
Producers: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Flood, Tony Cohen, Gareth Jones, Victor Van Vugt, Nick Launey

Tracklisting:
Disc 1:
01. Deanna → Oh Happy Day [Acoustic; partial Edwin Hawkins Singers cover; outtake, 1988 / The Good Son bonus 7", 1990]
02. The Mercy Seat [Acoustic; outtake, 1988 / The Good Son bonus 7", 1990]
03. City of Refuge [Acoustic; outtake, 1988 / The Good Son bonus 7", 1990]
04. The Moon Is in the Gutter [In the Ghetto b-side, 1984]
05. The Six Strings That Drew Blood [Tupelo b-side, 1985]
06. Rye Whiskey [Traditional cover; Reflex magazine flexidisc, 1989]
07. Running Scared [Roy Orbison cover; The Singer b-side, 1986]
08. Black Betty [Leadbelly cover; The Singer b-side, 1986]
09. Scum [Flexidisc sold at concerts, 1986 / Your Funeral... My Trial bonus track, 1986]
10. The Girl at the Bottom of My Glass [Deanna 12" b-side, 1988]
11. The Train Song [The Ship Song b-side, 1990]
12. Cocks 'n' Asses [The Weeping Song b-side, 1990]
13. Blue Bird [Straight to You / Jack the Ripper b-side, 1992]
14. Helpless [Neil Young cover] [The Bridge tribute/charity compilation, 1989 / The Weeping Song b-side, 1990]
15. God's Hotel [KCRW session 1992.08.12; Rare on Air Vol. 1 compilation, 1992]
16. (I'll Love You) Till the End of the World [Until the End of the World soundtrack, 1991 / Loverman b-side 1994]
17. Cassiel's Song [Faraway, So Close soundtrack, 1993 / Do You Love Me? B-side, 1994]
18. Tower of Song [Leonard Cohen cover; I'm Your Fan tribute compilation, 1991]
19. What Can I Give You? [French Henry's Dream bonus promo, 1992]

Disc 2:
01. What a Wonderful World [With Shane MacGowan; Louis Armstrong cover; single, 1992]
02. Rainy Night in Soho [With Shane MacGowan; originally recorded by The Pogues; What a Wonderful World b-side, 1992]
03. Lucy [Version #2] [With Shane MacGowan; What a Wonderful World b-side, 1992]
04. Jack the Ripper [Acoustic Version; Straight to You / Jack the Ripper limited 7" b-side, 1992]
05. Sail Away [Do You Love Me? B-side, 1994]
06. There's No Night Out in the Jail [Chad Morgan cover; unreleased Australian country music covers compilation, 1993]
07. That's What Jazz Is to Me [Red Right Hand b-side, 1994]
08. The Willow Garden [Traditional cover; Where the Wild Roses Grow b-side, 1995]
09. The Ballad of Robert Moore and Betty Coltrane [Where the Wild Roses Grow b-side, 1995]
10. King Kong Kitchee Kitchee Ki-Mi-O [Traditional cover; Henry Lee b-side, 1996]
11. Knoxville Girl [Traditional cover; Henry Lee b-side, 1996]
12. Where the Wild Roses Grow [Unreleased version with original guide vocal by Blixa Bargeld, 1995]
13. O'Malley's Bar [Part 1] [Mark Radcliffe session, 1996.02.26]
14. O'Malley's Bar [Part 2] [Mark Radcliffe session, 1996.02.26]
15. O'Malley's Bar [Part 3] [Mark Radcliffe session, 1996.02.26]
16. Time Jesum Transeuntum Et Non Riverentum [Featuring the Dirty Three; Songs in the Key of X compilation, 1996]
17. O'Malley's Bar [Reprise] [Mark Radcliffe session, 1996.02.26]
18. Red Right Hand [Scream 3 Version] [Unreleased version recorded for Scream 3, 1999]

Disc 3:
01. Little Empty Boat [Into My Arms b-side, 1997]
02. Right Now I'm a-Roaming [Into My Arms b-side, 1997]
03. Come into My Sleep [(Are You) the One That I've Been Waiting For? b-side, 1997]
04. Black Hair [Band Version] [(Are You) the One That I've Been Waiting For? b-side, 1997]
05. Babe, I've Got You Bad [(Are You) the One That I've Been Waiting For? b-side, 1997]
06. Sheep May Safely Graze [Outtake, 1996]
07. Opium Tea [Outtake, 1996]
08. Grief Came Riding [No More Shall We Part limited edition bonus track, 2001]
09. Bless His Ever Loving Heart [No More Shall We Part limited edition bonus track, 2001]
10. Good Good Day [As I Sat Sadly by Her Side b-side, 2001]
11. Little Janey's Gone [As I Sat Sadly by Her Side b-side, 2001]
12. I Feel So Good [J.B. Lenoir cover; The Soul of a Man soundtrack, 2003]
13. Shoot Me Down [Bring It On b-side, 2003]
14. Swing Low [Bring It On b-side, 2003]
15. Little Ghost Song [He Wants You / Babe, I'm on Fire b-side, 2003]
16. Everything Must Converge [He Wants You / Babe, I'm on Fire b-side, 2003]
17. Nocturama [Rock of Gibraltar limited 7" b-side, 2003]
18. She's Leaving You [Nature Boy b-side, 2004]
19. Under This Moon [Breathless / There She Goes, My Beautiful World b-side, 2004]

Analysis:
This will be a bit interesting, since this album covers the entire career of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, from the first to the latest single. Every b-side (but one) is contained here, plus rarities and some unreleased material. I'll mention the standouts and discuss some in generalities. I won't do too much lyrical analyzation, since most of Cave's lyrics aren't anything special, but a few are. The album is mostly chronological, and I'll attempt to follow the flow.

The album starts with three acoustic renditions of album tracks (and a fourth follows later). None are really revelatory, but they are interesting, particularly the version of "Deanna" which, although merely labeled as such, is really more of a cover of "Oh Happy Day". Apparently the band would play the songs together live, but this version is basically just a couple verses of "Deanna" and repeated parts of "Oh Happy Day".

Then we come to the earliest b-sides, including several covers. "The Six Strings That Drew Blood" typifies some of the darkness (and weirdness) of these songs (and Nick Cave's early career in general), but it is actually a Birthday Party song. The Birthday Party was Nick Cave's previous band, and they recorded a version of the song that went unreleased until 2000. I like the Birthday Party version better, as it feels more structured, more driving, more No Wave, which is exactly what that band was (No Wave, that is, not structured). "Rye Whiskey" is a traditional foolish tune about booze, but the melody is oddly catchy. "Running Scared", a Roy Orbison cover, is far better – it starts calm but gradually builds up to a dramatic, all-too-soon finish.

"Black Betty" and "Scum" are two more examples of Nick Cave's more abrasive side. Those who know Cave know that he has a very beautiful, tuneful, melodic side, often accented with strings and piano, as opposed to harsh guitars and heavy percussion. Both sides are often sexual, with often seems to reveal a certain lack of lyrical creativity, but Cave can strike upon novel thoughts here and there. These songs fail at that, but "The Train Song" is worth noting. It is the first song here to be noticeably pretty, with the aforementioned piano and strings, with that certain Nick Cave nostalgia about the whole thing. (Note the irony of the a-side of the single, "The Ship Song".) The song is merely a lament for missing a departing train with a presumed lover on board – nothing really new, but it works anyway.

Don't get too offended by "Cocks 'n' Asses" – it's just a long instrumental with barnyard sounds and a heavy piano riff. Typical Cave humor. "Helpless" is a pleasant cover of a Neil Young song, but just like Patti Smith's more recent cover (see my recent post), it doesn't really take the song anywhere new. It's a hard song to take anywhere new, though, as it is just three chords, a slow rhythm, and nostalgic lyrics about "a town in north Ontario". However, I'm a total sucker for Neil Young, so I like it anyway.

"God's Hotel" is a pretty obscure rarity, but it's pretty funny. It fits another Nick Cave mold, that of the uptempo, mostly-acoustic, sing-song-y, maybe humorous song. The song follows a structure of Cave singing, "Everybody's got (insert something)", the rest of the band repeating the something, and Cave singing his part again, adding, "in God's hotel" and then explaining why. It starts off normal with a bit of Cave-humor, but gets funnier/weirder as it goes along.

"(I'll Love You) Till the End of the World" is from the similarly-titled Wim Wenders film, and alternates between spoken-word semi-apocalyptic verses and plea-for-help singalong-y choruses, all the while loaded with sweet violins. "Cassiel's Song" is from another Wim Winders film, and although also slower and more melodic, it lacks the scope and larger vision captured by "Till the End of the World".

"Tower of Song" is a Leonard Cohen cover and perhaps the weirdest cover I've heard of the song. The original is a long song about growing old as a musician, and it pulses along with a sweet Cohen vocal. The Jesus & Mary Chain did a cover in their typical style (loud, driving, droning guitars, drum machine or close enough, and a vocal delivery with a sort of sleazy snarl), but the Nick Cave version is far more abstract. It simply breaks down all over the place: the instruments stop or spaz out, and Cave more or less keeps singing. It alternates between doing the song justice and being almost annoying destructive and weird. (Fittingly, Cave changed Cohen's lines of "I said to Hank Williams, 'How lonely does it get'? / Hank Williams hasn't answered me yet" to "I said to Leonard Cohen...") Cave is a clear Cohen fan, but this is a strange tribute that's a bit hard for even me to take.

Disc two starts with the entire "What a Wonderful World" single. This includes the sappy, over-sugared, over-played Louis Armstrong title track, done as a duet with the lead singer of the Pogues, Shane MacGowan. The thing about Shane, though, is that although he is fairly well-known as a good musician and songwriter, his singing is notably bad. Maybe it's an acquired taste. It doesn't bother me overmuch, but it is weird. The single also includes a Cave-sung shortened version of the Pogues' "Rainy Night in Soho" and MacGowan-sung version of the Bad Seeds' "Lucy". Both are of a similar style to the a-side: kind of over-sweet and lyrically devoid of true creativity, but far from worthless.

"There's No Night Out in the Jail" is an Australian country tune recorded for an unreleased covers album of the same national genre. It is light, lilting, and one of the first b-sides to feature organ, which becomes more and more of a continual theme in the Bad Seeds. "That's What Jazz Is to Me" is one of two improvised b-sides of "Red Right Hand". (The other, "Where the Action Is", remains available only on the single.) Its thoroughly-explored theme is jazz, but the music is a deconstructed, loose jam sort of based on jazz structures and sort of not.

"The Willow Garden" is a traditional cover but sounds suspiciously similar to the Kylie Minogue duet "Where the Wild Roses Grow". Several other similar originals and covers all appear together, as they were released as b-sides to singles from the Murder Ballads album, a fantastic album with a eponymous theme. My favorite of the selections from that time period is the guide vocal version of "Where the Wild Roses Grow". Apparently, the band had Blixa Bargeld (the band's German guitarist, also the singer of Einstürzende Neubauten) sing Kylie's parts before she recorded her parts. It's hilarious to hear Bargeld's spidery voice singing about being a lovestruck and murdered woman.

Much of Disc 2 is devoted to a four-part radio session version of "O'Malley's Bar". The normal, uninterrupted version is available on Murder Ballads, and this version is only mildly different. It is a long sort of storytelling piece, which can make it uninteresting to listen to if you aren't listening to lyrics, since the music barely changes over 15 minutes. The disc finishes with "Time Jesum Transeuntum Et Non Riverentum", a string-laden, semi-apocalyptic spoken-word piece recorded with the Dirty Three (who share violinist Warren Ellis with the Bad Seeds), and a version of "Red Right Hand" recorded for Scream 3 (but unused), with alternate lyrics (which I find a bit poorer than the original version, since the original's tell more of a story).

Disc 3 contains songs mostly of the more melodic, fuller sound typical of the albums released later in the Bad Seeds' career. It works almost as an album itself, since the themes and general sound flow fairly well together. Many are slower, more moody and peaceful songs, like "Little Empty Boat" or "Grief Came Calling", but a few groove ("Come into My Sleep") or rock ("Babe I Got You Bad") a little more. "Sheep May Safely Graze" is an interesting slower piece whose lyrics seem to warn against destroying the threats to a lazy life: "All you can hear outside / Is the roar of a city being razed / That's just the powers that be / Making it safe to graze". "Good Good Day" carries along with a bit of rocking, but then a cover of "I Feel So Good" breaks the mood and throws out some loud blues. I really like a lot of these songs, like the philosophical "Everything Must Converge" and the gradual build-up and dramatic refrains of "Swing Low". The last two tracks, b-sides of the less precise, louder, simply put, punkier Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus fit the mold of the album(s) whose singles they were recorded for – they break the peaceful mold of Disc 3 with a louder, clearly rocking drive.

Review:
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds have evolved over the years, but Cave's lyrics haven't really. He likes what he likes – love and murder (so clearly described by his mid-90s albums Let Love In and Murder Ballads), and the band often selects covers that fit the mold, especially traditional songs with a dark slant. The Bad Seeds have evolved over the years – both in personnel and in sound. The earlier songs tend to be more dissonant, harsh, heavy, guitar-laden, and dark, while later songs are often melodic, peaceful, strings-laden, and a bit slower. That is a generalization, and the latest album pair breaks that mold. The band has always used both elements throughout their career, but favoritism has emerged and changed over the years. The use of piano and the lyrical themes have remained constants.

These things apply directly to the b-sides presented here, since these b-sides (and rarities) span the entire career of the band. There are quite a number of really good songs here, although some (especially on Disc 3) tend to blend together, for better or worse. The four segments of "O'Malley's Bar" strike me as a low point due to their lack of difference from the regular album version despite extended length. The version of "Red Right Hand" also contributes to the same feeling, making the end of Disc 2 feel a bit dry.

B-Sides & Rarities is worthwhile for even mild fans of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds due to its high value per song, but the quality does hold up. Not every song in the band's entire catalog holds up to the same high standard, but most do, and the same can be said for this collection. It is very much an alternate summarization of the band's career, which is very interesting both as an alternate version and a summation. The choice of covers, improvisations, and otherwise weird pieces shows the band's more strange side, something typical of b-sides and outtakes, but nonetheless always fun. I think Siouxsie Sioux, in the liner notes to the Siouxsie & the Banshee's b-side box set, said something to the effect that she always liked buying singles almost more for the b-side than the a-side, since the b-side would show the band's true side – what they sounded like when having fun, experimenting, under pressure, or just being weird. Such is likely the case here.

Score: B