Tuesday, July 30, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Steve Martin "Let's Get Small"

Got me a $300 pair of socks....
3 Out Of 5 Stars

With the 70's, comedy albums made a radical shift. The rock and roll generation didn't have the mindset for the starchiness of, say, Bob Newhart, or the homilies of Bill Cosby. The sex and drugs and rock and roll world needed their jokes to come at them more like a progressive rock album, just in monologue form. They also took advantage of the studio technology. The first of these artists came in the likes of Firesign Theater or Cheech and Chong, who used recordings like sound stages to set up elaborate long form jokes and characters. Then there was the other side of that coin. Enter Robin Williams and most importantly, Steve Martin.

Martin flipped the 70's upside down. Instead of the dopey world of Cheech and Chong, Martin came to the stage as the most uptight of WASP's, with a shiny white suit and surreal sideshow sight gags. Like Monty Python did to TV, martin went to that backdrop, and he exaggerated the absurdity of being this vanilla wafer of a guy to the point that his routines became like rock songs. By making a name for himself with his appearances on Saturday Night Live, where his banjo and bunny ears were delivered with a straight face as compared to the rapid-speed freakishness of John Belushi and the rest of the original cast. He was acting like he was clueless among the hippest, but you were in on the gag. By 1977, Martin was one of the hottest of the new breed of stand-up comedians and "Let's Get Small" was recorded.

These were such 'hits' in the late 70's that every high-schooler and college kid had most of the catch phrases memorized. You couldn't go an hour without hearing somebody set themselves up to say "Excuuuuuse Meeeee!" Or sing the bits off of "Theme From Ramblin' Man." His shows were like concerts for his acolytes. This was a great album for parties in that, like a classic rock album, everyone knew the words. Since 1977, though, the style has worn out, and jokes involving Jimmy Carter or the gay jokes will likely draw a blank stare from anyone under 50. Still, "Let's Get Small" is like a classic rock album. Those hits you all drunkenly shouted along to in college thirty some years ago still can elicit a nostalgic chuckle or two, but getting your teenage grandkids to laugh along might be a challenge.


Monday, July 29, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Tom Morello/The Nightwatchman "One Man Revolution"

Tempering The Rage, Unslaving The Audio
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Tom Morello's first album under his Nightwatchman persona was out to destroy his old reputation as an electric guitar gunslinger for Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave. While he keeps the political bent of RATM in full blast, he's decided that a whisper will work better than a scream. So now he's channeling Woody Guthrie, Pete Seger and Bruce Springsteen ala "Ghost of Tom Joad." This is one wicked lefty political diatribe, and Morello is relishing the part.

I really enjoy what Morello is doing with this phase of his career. I've seen him live twice now, and he's got one charismatic stage presence. However, his songwriting here is not as good as the albums that followed. While I do not underestimate his commitment to this new-found folk music, there's only about half that really catch fire. There's too many songs that merely offer up slogans instead of songs, an issue that he'd overcome in spades by "The Fabled City" a couple of years later.

It's the songs that hit the bulls-eye that really impress. The title song blasts through any complacency the acoustic guitar based songs might lull you into. "The Gardens of Gethsemane" is a powerful narrative of a revolutionary on the prowl, haunted by "I've seen the things I should not see." Offering no viewpoint, you have to ascertain for yourself what kind of man he's singing about. With a haunting guitar whispering behind Morello's strumming, it packs a velvet wallop. "One Man Revolution" needed more of these songs. Like I also said, by "The Fabled City," his songwriting had evolved to the point where every song was an acoustic hand grenade. I'll recommend this to current fans of the likes of Steve Earle or Billy Bragg, but better was on the way.


Sunday, July 28, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Brett Every "Tales of Ten Men"

Another Hit for Heartbreak Radio
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Australian Brett Every crossed my radar a few years ago when I made a post to a blog asking why we still had not found a gay Bruce Springsteen. Which is funny, because Brett isn't anything like The Boss. But he also isn't anything like your typical "gay musician," where everything is in hardcore dance electronica or is some sort of dance diva. Which makes Brett something of an outcast in gay music circles. He writes more in a personal style, and "Tales of Ten Men" is exactly what it's title implies, complete with an extra four songs. Heartbreak, separation, new love, getting back together, and even desperation (a bluesy live cover of Concrete Blonde's "Joey") are all on a first name basis.

Recorded rather spartanly, with sometimes nothing more than his strummed guitar or a piano and maybe a muted trumpet or chorus, "Tales of Ten Men" takes on fellows of many stripes. Some of the songs are new takes from previous discs. Two of them better their originals, especially "Mr Smith." Sung by the young lover to the upset father of his lover, it has a pain to it that the first version on "Fairy Godmother's Gone to Vegas" didn't. Then one of the 'bonus' tracks pays homage to Blanche Deveraux, his "Golden Girls" hero. Originally on "Camping Out," this live version seems a bit more tongue in cheek. But there's nothing cheeky about "Sydney," a heartbreaking look at a relationship that's drifted apart. With Every's bar-soaked voice, there's a certain desperation in the recognition that, while the love hasn't gone bad, it's just gone away.

The best is saved for the first of the first of the 'bonus' tracks. "It's a Beautiful Day" is a wonderful song that celebrates a pair of men getting married.

"And the Prime Minister said
by this beautiful law that
whatever beliefs,
we believe in love more."

It's enough to make a grown man pull out the Kleenex, I tell ya. "I hear music from the neighbors. Tom Waits, Bette Midler and they're singing the same song..." kind of sums the guy up in his own words. If you haven't found your way to Brett's music, this is a good primer.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: The Producers "You Make The Heat"

1 Out Of 5 Stars

After waiting years, all while clutching my old vinyl and long out of print double CD in my unrelenting grasp, I was really excited that the long awaited digital release of The Producers' two Portrait/CBS albums would be an upgrade to my valued treasures. My LP copy of "You Make The Heat" was signed by the band after I saw them in a small theater in Central PA, where "She Sheila" became a major requested hit.

But this. This is wretched. It's beyond wretched. It's an insult to The Producers and the fans that have anxiously been waiting for "You Make The Heat" and were unable to acquire it any other way. How bad is it? There's digital distortion and drop-outs all over the cursed thing. In the worst violation of a great new-wave classic, "Dear John" sounds like someone took an old, sun baked cassette off a hot dashboard after the car stereo had mangled it and creased up the tape, then posted the results here. I'm not exaggerating. It's that staggeringly awful. One can only hope that someone at CBS or the maybe even band themselves (although my guess is that CBS screwed them out of creative approval long ago) comes in, deletes this demolishment of a terrific album, and replaces "You Make The Heat" with the respect and remastering it deserves.

It pains me to say, but avoid this at all costs. As to The Producers themselves, I'm sorry that, once again, CBS made hash out of your work.

Get a good download of "She Sheila" here.

Addendum: I got an e-mail from the official The Producers' Facebook Community Page informing me that, as I suggested, the band has no control over what CBS does with these albums.


Friday, July 26, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: 10cc "The Very Best of 10cc"

It's Just a Silly Phase I'm Going Through.
4 Out Of 5 Stars

I have posited on other album reviews that I believe 10cc to be the kind of band Monty Python would have dreamed up if they'd decided to take on modern pop in the 70's, instead of the wonderfulness of The Rutles. Graham Gouldman, Eric Stewart, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme were already experienced pop writers and performers in other peoples' bands before they joined forces as studio musicians in what was basically a bubblegum hit machine studio. From those beginnings, they became one of the most respected bands of the 70's, seeming to effortlessly blend elements of pop music with progressive rock all while maintaining an often dry wit and cheeky humor. This single "Very Best Of" disc gathers the best of their 45's from their first six studio albums and bonuses you the Godley and Creme hit "Cry."

The band's origins as writers for hire on on display for the songs from their debut, "Donna," "The Dean and I" and "Rubber Bullets." The first two are borderline parody in that they so closely approximate bubblegum singles that it's hard to believe that anything would come of merit in the future. "Rubber Bullets," while still aping the Jailhouse Rock genre, satirically upends the style by having the song delivered from the standpoint of the prison staff. ("I love to hear those convicts squeal, it's a shame these slugs ain't real.") If there was any indication of the brilliance to come, that was where you'd find it.

By "Sheet Music," the band was going full-steam. "Silly Love" and "The Wall Street Shuffle" threw so many styles in the blender that trying to explain the band was an impossibility, even if American audiences weren't catching on as yet. But by the next album, "The Original Soundtrack," that would change. The double bladed "I'm Not In Love" floated all the way to number two in 1975 and broke the band in the states. Sung from both sides of the story, the singer delicately kisses off a love affair - or is he? and that made the enigmatic song such a charmer. The goofy "Life Is a Minestrone" is also included, but the album is sold short.

Having finally broken the states, the band delivered their artiest album yet, with "How Dare You!" While "I'm Mandy Fly Me" and "Art For Art's Sake" were both brilliant singles (and "I'm Mandy" may have been one of the best 'mini-opera' songs of the decade), they missed the top 40, but are definitely among the band's best. That also was when creative tensions caused the rift between Godley/Creme and Stewart/Gouldman to reach a breaking point. Stewart and Gouldman decided to keep the name 10cc and soldier on with "Deceptive Bends." They were obviously eager to please, because the ultra catchy "The Things We Do For Love" became the band's second top ten single and "People In Love" (which tried very hard to find the clever spot "I'm Not In Love" achieved) squeaked to number 40.

Sadly, it seemed that each team needed the other more than they wanted to let on. "Bloody Tourists" tried to capture the old magic, but the main single, "Dreadlock Holiday," was the first time the humor sounded forced. "For You and I," the album's ballad, just couldn't quite match the majesty of earlier, similar songs. Further albums went to a different label, but it didn't much matter as they continued on a slide of diminishing returns. Godley and Creme became video pioneers, directing for the likes of Duran Duran and The Police. It's no surprise then, that their big hit as a duo, "Cry," rose on the charts on the back of an eye-popping video. It was one of the first videos to use the face-morphing technique that eventually became famous on Micheal Jackson's "Black and White."

What makes the addition of "Cry" such a delight is that it that it makes "The Very Best of 10cc" a true representation of the band's work. These were all delightful singles and, at their absolute best, 10cc rivaled any of the 70's hitmakers for style and creativity.


My Amazon Reviews: The Motels "Shock"

Going Into Shock
3 Out Of 5 Stars

The final Motels album of the 80's was also their slickest. There were still plenty of great songs and Martha Davis' amazing voice. But "Shock" is also loaded up with drum-machines and very dated sounding synths. There's very little organic sounding to the album. That doesn't mean the songs are forgettable, there are a few that rank with the band's best. The top 40 single "Shame," the dance ready title track, and "Icy Red," which could have given the late 80's Heart a run for their money. But for my money, Martha's solo album, "Policy," was a better album.

Now onto the reissue itself. Culture Factory is doing a service by getting many of these out of print albums back onto the market. But like so many of the reissues of older albums, they lift the volume well past what it needed to be. They did the same to The Romantics' debut. I don't find the volume to be anywhere near the tragedy a few of the other reviewers here have noted. If you were never able to procure a copy of this in its limited release long ago, or the BGO release, this version of "Shock" will do just fine. Get it before it goes out of print, too.


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Boys Like Girls "Crazy World"

A second chance at the first time?
3 Out Of 5 Stars

I can't remember a three album arc like the one taken by Boys Like Girls in recent memory. Starting life as a hooky emo-power-pop band with their gold selling debut, their second album had some more of the same, but you could feel the slickness settling in (especially when the ubiquitous Taylor Swift stopped by for a duet). Now they're up for the third album, "Crazy World." If you fell in love with the band that played "The Great Escape," that band is gone. In it's place is a slick pop band with more in common with Train or Matchbox 20, while getting up to their ankles in country pop.

"Crazy World" is plagued by some of the problems the other two albums did; the songwriting remains inconsistent but often hits a hook that you can't get away from. Heck, they even crib from the Backstreet Boys in "Life Of The party" when they announce "Boys Like Girls is back!" There's also the big love ballad, complete with strings and over-emoting, in "Hey You." It's such a formulaic piece that I can see it picked up for an episode of "Glee," and that's not necessarily a compliment.

Then there's those aforementioned forays into country-pop. If the title "Red Cup Hands Up Long Brown Hair" doesn't automatically give it away, one listen and you'll be wondering why they just didn't hand it over to Taylor Swift or Lady Antebellum and be done with it. Same with the title track, which is one banjo short of being ready for Jason Aldean. They've moved away from their roots entirely, but still deliver the guilty pleasures of a ballad like "Stuck In The Middle" or (despite my previous misgivings) the title song.

I still think Boys Like Girls have a future. They've crafted enough memorable material over three albums to have a decent best of at their disposal. They just have to decide who they want to be. "Crazy World" is like a ride on a schizophrenic train.