Friday, July 10, 2009

Taylor Swift - Taylor Swift (2006)

Taylor Swift - Taylor Swift (2006)

After the barrage of indie rock I've listened to it was a nice change of pace to try out Taylor Swift's bustin' and honkin' debut record. So lets set the record straight for the moment. Taylor Swift deserves a ton of credit and a ton of critique at the same time. On the one hand, I have to hand it to the girl for being the most successful indie act of the moment, having written the bulk if not most of the songs on her debut album, being only 18 years-old and not making a big deal out of that fact unlike judges on some popular American karaoke Idol related show, and for having some really good songs on here that transcend the genres that we have created. By that same token, I offer up this criticism as well. For one, this is the most un-country album you'll ever hear, don't let the track "Tim McGraw" fool you into thinking otherwise, this is a pop album with country twang, plain and simple, Taylor's young age also gives way to some very trite lovey songs, and what works on here works, but just because it works doesn't make it the most amazing thing since, well, Tim McGraw. Silversun Pickups just proved that to me.

Lets start with the positive, seeing as I usually go the other way around. The first track on this album kills. You could not get someone who hates Tim McGraw more to actually like a song about said man, but here it is. What could be a very corny song, as Swift has a tendency to do, instead becomes something very meaningful in all of the high school drama that it is. Two young lovebirds love Tim McGraw and will always think of each other when they hear him. Sounds so juvenile and yet so grown-up at the same time, and it's done well. Hats off to Taylor as well for having the guts to open with slow simmer of a number instead of, say, the rousing hoot-n'-holler that is next song "Picture to Burn" In all fairness, Picture is just as good as Tim. It shows more of Swift's humor and willingness to poke fun at the pop-country genre she is stuck in.

Breakthrough single "Teardrops on my Guitar" is good yet may suffer from too-many-choruses. The song is overdone in so many ways and in many ways parallels "Tim McGraw" without matching the meaning of the opener, instead going for the more melodramatic and juvenile version of that song. Closer "Our Song" does what Swift does well time and time again, which is to take the corniness of her genre and high school problems and use that to her advantage. When she belts out "'Cause it's late and your mama don't know..." she not only sounds like she's having more fun than half the singers out there but she means it as well. Like she'd be fun to hang out with.

Oh but how I wish I could say the same thing about the rest of the album. There's just too much here that goes nowhere. Most of the songs on the album state what they're about in the title alone. This method works in reverse too. When I listened and didn't know the name of the song I was listening to, I waited until the chorus rolled around and just figured whatever line was at the very end or sang the most was probably the title I don't think I was wrong once. The songs that make up the bulk of the album are well-constructed and do their job, but none are nearly as memorable as the songs I've already mentioned. This is where Swift's youthfulness and inexperience show that more is needed to really hold up so many songs. She hits all the marks one should (Ballad: check. Fast song: check. Sad song: check) but does nothing to imbue any new creativity to said songs.

I admit that I'm happy she doesn't lean into Carrie Underwood style of country pop, relying on the genre so much that you're no longer talented in any way in it, but help is needed. "Tied Together With A Smile" has some of the worst analogies I've heard in some time ("but he leaves you out like a penny in the rain"? Please), "A Place in this World" is entirely forgettable, and I don't even remember the final tracks of this album. "Stay Beautiful" at least changes up the tempo mid-way through that the variation makes for variety, despite that it comes off as clunky. Swift has got the skills to pay the billz all right, but right now we're looking at some great work coming out of a mediocre album. Swift also suffers from the common theme of young female singers, that of singing with such an over strained voice that it makes the listener argue if you're trying to whisper or you're losing your voice. Just sing! And try not to be boring.

Standout Track: "Tim McGraw"
Overall Rating: 5.8

T.S. T.R.I.V.I.A.:

* Taylor Swift is quite swifty. In the lyrics in the cover booklet she capitalized certain letters in each song to spell out a message. Here are the goodies one gets when looking at them:

1."Tim McGraw": Can't Tell Me Nothin'
2."Picture to Burn": Date Nice Boys
3."Teardrops On My Guitar": He Will Never Know
4."A Place In This World": I Found It
5."Cold As You":Time to Let Go
6."The Outside": You Are Not Alone
7."Tied Together With a Smile": You Are Loved
8."Stay Beautiftul": Shake 'N Bake
9."Should've Said No": Sam, Sam, Sam, Sam, Sam, Sam
10."Mary's Song (Oh My My My)": Sometimes, Love is Forever
11."Our Song": Live in Love

* Album killed on the Top 100 Billboard Country, holding #1 for 23 weeks and reached #5 on the Billboard 200.

* Album had 5 singles total from it, making Taylor Swift the first country female solo artist to spawn 5 Top 10 singles from debut album since the chart's inception in 1964.

* Has gone 4x Platinum, a rare in one in this download age.

* Single "Tim McGraw" was written by Swift when she was 16 in math class. She says it was about her boyfriend of the time who would eventually have to leave for college and their breakup.

* Single "Teardrops on my Guitar" is about a real student, Drew Hardwick, that Swift knew and had a crush on when she was a Freshman in High School.

* When "Our Song" hit number one it made Taylor Swift the youngest artist to achieve a number one song while being the sole writer of said song. She also claims it was written for a 9th-grade talent show. Guess other people's baton numbers and "Achy-Breaky Heart" covers will have to pale in comparison.

Silversun Pickups - Carnavas (2006)

Silversun Pickups - Carnavas (2006)

What a boring album this is. So many of the songs range around the 5-minute mark without any warranting whatsoever. I can liken it to the feeling of when you have another hour at work and you keep looking at the clock with the thought "Aw, come on, it's got to be over now!" going through your head. On a Friday. Before Christmas. Well, maybe not that far-fetched, but similar regardless. Silversun Pickups have all the cred and talent behind it, but man what a boring album.

Case in point: Pick any of the first 5 tracks on this album and tell me something memorable about them. I think most people who defend this statement will immediately argue "Well Thought Out Twinkles" and how it simmers and pops and has a nice proggy sound to it. It does the job of being a prog track with all the bells and whistles, going through the motions and being all starry-eyed like I would imagine the Silversun Pickups are given the fact that half their debut deals with stars and space and time and the usual. So tell me what makes this song about stars and space and time and the usual different from the billions of others about the same thing? Or at least the same ground that a better band, say Modest Mouse or The Pixies might handle better? Not that those are bands that deal with same subject, let alone are in the same league as Silversun Pickups. Just what sets this band apart?

Ah, but therein is your answer. "Lazy Eye," quite possibly one of the best proggy-alt tracks I've heard in recent years, really does do all those things right and does absolutely nothing new at the same time. Everything builds and builds as it should, bearing under a steady guitar riff with slight variation and lyrics that aren't too inspiring, but in those moments and the loud sonic shift that explode in the middle does the band actually sound like it's having fun. Most of the songs on this debut sound like the band can't wait for the song to get over either. They go nowhere and do nothing, unlike "Lazy Eye," which builds and builds, explodes, then settles down again, akin to "A Day in the Life" by The Beatles or "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen. It proves that the formula can actually work. But only sometimes.

The second half of the album is the more memorable half, which is a shame, because it's hard to wade through the first half of boredom and slow peaks. Slow does not equal boredom, but it doesn't help it either. "Three Seed" proves that the band doesn't have to have a fast part to have a successful track, instead choosing to rhythmically branch out in a song as it moves along. Closer "Common Reactor" is equally one of the best on the album, a fitting closing that seems spacey and very colorful as it builds to what sounds like a very fitting end to the album of a quiet explosion.

Silversun Pickups have a nice enough sound that they should be able to create something very unique with it. Little Joy was a band that has a unique Spanish Strokes sound to them that do end up being successful on their debut album despite not breaking barriers. Silversun Pickups seem like they're on the verge of breaking some kind of barrier with the songs on here that are good but overall they don't know what to do with their goods either. They're lost in though and trite lyrics being laid down over monotonous guitar riffs and drum builds that don't really take the mind anywhere, no matter how high it may be. They're on the right track to being something important, but don't let that mistake their talent for quality.

Standout Track: "Lazy Eye"
Overall Rating: 5.0


* The title of the album comes from an homage to singer Brian Aubert's Greek heritage.

* "Lazy Eye" is a playable in song in both Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero: World Tour. The song also hit #5 on the Billboard Modern Rock singles. The song also got used in such hit shows as The O.C., Criminal Minds & Reaper.

* The cover of the album comes from editing of a Darren Waterson image entitled "Summit."

* "Well Thought Out Twinkles" became a huge success in Peru (bigger than "Lazy Eye"), coming in at #2 on the year-end list there. Go figure.

* The music video for single "Little Lover's So Polite" was directing by none-other than thespian-turned-rapper Joaquin Phoenix.

* The original name of the band was A Couple of Couples, due to the fact that most of the members had previously played in other bands with one another and was how the band was formed. The band's name comes from a liquor store not far from where they lived in L.A. across from The Silverlake Lounge and near Sunset Street.


Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Ra Ra Riot - The Rhumb Line (2008)

Ra Ra Riot - The Rhumb Line (2008)

Ra Ra Riot have a name that will make people either roll their eyes in boredom for every indie name that has gone before it or make people tilt their head in interest. Can a band name really instigate a reaction to their sound before hearing one note of the album? If I told you that some band called Pearl Jam or The Mars Volta existed you'd come away with some sort of reaction too, but a band's name can sum up their sound many times. Either of these two camps that give the album a chance will probably come away with the same reaction regardless, indie rock being indie rock doing something indie.

That last line technically made no sense (my sophomore English teacher would have torn me a new one), but it actually does if one has listened to Ra Ra Riot's "The Rhumb Line." This is an album full of so much sound and grandiose movements that it wants to be so epic and exciting in that way that only the general genre of indie rock is and catch them all in some beautiful cavalcade of sound. Some of the songs work with this as the driving force behind most of them to some degree, but as an album the concept fails as each song tries to sound more daring and louder than the previous. I'm not trying to imply some old-man kind of "turn that music down" reaction. This deals mainly with lead singer Wes Miles tendency to over sing almost every song on the album in a Keane-esque way.

That's just the tipping point. Everything on the album seems overdone. The mixing, the lyrics, instruments, from the manipulative string section that accompanies most of the album to the useless piano that just repeats melody after melody. After just listened to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart's debut album, I would listen to each track and be shocked that the song was already over, enjoying it so much. With Ra Ra Riot it was usually the opposite, each song overstaying its welcome and lasting so much longer than my iPod claimed it to be.

The reason why this album fails so much isn't because it sounds bad (even though it does). It's because the album wants to manipulate the listener so much into how he/she should feel during each part that it becomes boring. Similar to the most melodramatic movie that Lifetime will put out this year, each song is so predictable in not just terms of notes and instruments (here's where the strings come in, and now a solo part), but it hardly seems shocking when some of the trite lyrics roll around. Some sample lyrics: "If you were here/Winter wouldn't pass quite so slow" ("Winter '05"), "When I look in your eyes/What am I supposed to do?" ("Too Too Too Fast"), or one of the worst of the bunch, "When I look into your eyes/I tend to lose my thoughts" ("Can You Tell"). On two of those songs alone he talks about looking into eyes. Two of the songs?!?!

The one song on here that really stands out is one of the singles "Dying Is Fine." Only this song on the entirety of the album really works to the benefits of the band's style. The overboard of instruments and emotions that is found on most of the songs actually work to the benefit of the constraints, taking something as lame as the words "Dying Is Fine" but making it actually sound sad and meaningful. By no means are Ra Ra Riot untalented and bad musicians. Quite the contrary. The music is well-performed and there is a good band here somewhere underneath all of the manipulation and predictability that is just dying to come out. The lyrics get corny in ways that are bad and good some times, but with some work and toning down this could be a band to watch. Until then...

Standout Track: "Dying Is Fine."
Overall Rating: 4.0


* Ra Ra Riot's rise to fame is quite impressive. After 6 months of working they already got notice from Spin Magazine and were opening for the likes of Art Brut, Editors and Tokyo Police Club.

* The band's original drummer, John Ryan Pike, went missing June 2, 2007. The following day his body was found in Buzzard's Bay in Fairhaven, believed to have drowned.

* Single "Drying Is Fine" was inspired by the E.E. Cummings poem "Dying Is Fine)But Death."

* "Suspended in Gafa" is a Kate Bush cover.

Still Alive

To anyone that does read this I am still alive and working on this project. I have been listening to stuff but having a hard time to chronicle any of it on here due to wedding overload. So there is plenty to come. Although it would be nice to know if anyone is reading this. If you stumble across here please leave a comment and tell me what you think, always nice to hear from anyone.

The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart - The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart (2009)

The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart - The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart (2009)

The first notes I took while listening to The Pains of Being Pure At Heart's self-titled debut album are just the words "explodes nicely." On subsequent listens that statement really rings true for the whole album. I don't mean to imply that each song gets loud in a Megadeth sort of way but more that each song has certain characteristics that don't just become head-bopping rock n' roll music for the teen crowd, but they all have these subtle explosions of instruments and voices throughout each song that sounds quite nice. Quite nice indeed.

But it's more than just a nice explosion that makes TPOBPAH (easiest abbreviation since The Presidents of the United States of America) a great start to a good band, it's their unique sound. It's easy to classify as indie rock I suppose, but that's a bit of an understatement. It's not really Rock either, and even has elements of pop in it (just listen to lead track "Contender" and tell me it doesn't sound like it could be in the top 40 (well, a good top 40)), but their sing-songy rock style is admirable. Each song has these minor explosions of music that set one apart from the other, but none jar the listener, they are just their style. This sounds vague, but trust me, listen to the album and it will be there.

One of my nitpicks I have about a lot of albums is that they just get boring after a while. It seems to be the common theme that even good bands and good albums have. That's not to say that the songs are bad, but it often seems like the band/artist have run out of ideas at a certain point and are having a hard time executing new original material near the album's end. TPOBPAH is one album that avoids this problem. Never do any of the songs slow down to the point of being boring or repetitive, but instead remain steadfast. Listen to "Young Adult Friction" with its great breakdown in the middle and you'll see what I mean.

The band sounds like they're from another era entirely. It's modern I guess, but they combine multiple genres of the last couple decades it's hard to classify, and that's a good thing. They have the best of the 80's fuzz guitar going for them, the laid-back singing of the best 90's indie bands, and lyrics of the best 70's pop. "Everything With You" is one of the best songs of the year, with beautiful lyrics detailing the greatest of relationships when one can do everything and nothing exciting with someone and still be happy. That song alone sums up what The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are all about.

Standout Track: "Everything With You"
Overall Rating: 8.7

Some Trivia For People:

* Band name comes from unfinished children's story that friend of the singer Kip Berman wrote.

* The moral of said story was that the time and adventures one has with one's friends when young is the most important thing in the world, which the band found fitting for their outlook on life too.

* Kip says that "Contender" is about himself being a loser, seeing a band like Exploding Hearts while working at a call center and feeling like he'll never make anything of himself.

* The songs have characters, but none are fictional nor non-fiction. Most are based on the band's own adventures in life, but none are completely fabricated either.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Of Montreal - Cherry Peel (1997)

Of Montreal - Cherry Peel (1997)

Of Montreal is one of those bands that's impossible to ignore. Their albums just scream so much color that their charm is easy to be seen even by the most apprehensive listener. I can understand completely how someone can hear one of their albums and be turned off, but at the same time I think something is completely wrong with you if you are turned off by their music. It's that much fun.

Their debut album, Cherry Peel, isn't in the same league as some of their other music. Kevin Barnes knows what's been done in music before and is constantly trying to evolve their sound to not just explore new directions in the genre but to also entertain the listener in ways they usually aren't. Most music can get boring fairly quickly, regardless if it's pop music or even indie music. It can get repetitive and boring fast. Barnes is aware of this limitation and doesn't want to fall prone to it. Most of his songs never sound the same and are so colorful that one hears something different with each listen. Their first album works more as a sign of things to come, but that doesn't mean it isn't catchy in its own regard.

The main thing that the album lacks is the wall of sound that they would later do so well. The band practically craves to have overproduction done to them, to have even more instruments and sounds coming out all the time to further compliment the music, and yet this album is fairly lo-fi. The songs are still plenty fun. Opener "Everything Disappears When You Come Around" is classic Of Montreal, complete in its lovelorn lost and colorful tone. Both it and the following track, "Baby," showcase what the band does best, writing indie pop songs that are also poetic.

All of the songs have a quality to them that sets them apart from the others. "I Can't Stop Your Memory" stutters in a nice way and has a great middle section. "Don't Ask Me To Explain" hints at things to come, what Kevin is trying to achieve. The distorted acoustic and great vocals deliver well (reckoning a good-era Weezer perhaps?). The highlight of all these tracks is "Tim I Wish You Were Born A Girl." The song isn't creepy but genuine and beautiful, one of the most creative love songs in some time. All of the instruments enter and leave the song like a stage show, gradually adding to the song and resulting in the best track on the album.

But of course the whole album doesn't hold up. I can't gush the whole time when there are a few clunkers. "In Dreams I Dance With You" suffers from the lo-fi sound. The song is begging to have more production added to it, the lo-fi-ness taking away from its quality. A lot of the songs, while good in nature, just don't remain memorable after one listen. That's not to say that there isn't anything to be gained from multiple listens to the album, but in comparison to what's to come they simply remain okay songs in the long run.

Cherry Peel is a great debut to a great band. It hints at what's to come and it's a good thing that Of Montreal changed their style up in the next few albums. There is a sound here that is working really well, but it can't seem to find its voice yet and the right production to handle it. But even what is here is still very good and is interesting to see where the band had its origins.

Standout Track: "Tim I Wish You Were Born A Girl."
Overall Rating: 8.0


* The band's name changes in interviews with lead singer Kevin Barnes, but it mainly comes from a failed relationship he had with a woman from Montreal.

* The band's sound can be heard evolving on this album. Most of the songs deal with personal issues and loves lost, but on later releases Of Montreal would involve more in-song dialogue and characters.

* One of the rare Of Montreal albums with cover art NOT done by Kevin's brother, David. Possibly done by photographer Tim Root with the help of David Barnes.

* Bar/None records are also known for some other obscure bands, such as releases by They Might Be Giants, Yo La Tengo, Puffy AmiYumi and Orange Juice's Edwyn Collins.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Nine Inch Nails - Pretty Hate Machine (1989)

Nine Inch Nails - Pretty Hate Machine (1989)

I've got to hand it to Trent that the man was definitely ahead of his time. Listening to Pretty Hate Machine 20 years after its release (20 already?!), it doesn't sound like a product of the 80's more of the mid-90's. But it really came out just at the end of the decade and left a huge mark on music as we know it, almost just as huge of an impact that Nirvana had on Alternative music. That doesn't necessarily mean that the album has held up well over the years, but it's still impressive.

A lot of the songs pack the punch that would later lead to the Industrial genre. "Head Like A Hole" is one of the best songs Nine Inch Nails ever recorded and is a great opener to the album. It's become the anthem of the 90's, the fight against the corporate machine and expression of never trusting that which is given to you. It sets the tone for the album right away and gets things going. Following song "Terrible Lie" keep things going at a heavy pace, taking inspiration from the other sounds of the 80's while gradually leading to a new genre of music as the album progresses. But most of the fun ends there.

Many of the songs are just to much of the more of the same. It's a shame that the originality that the album starts with doesn't transpose to the rest of it. "Down In It" quickly mucks things down, with a lame talk-rap in the middle of it that Reznor likes to riddle throughout the album. "Something I Can Never Have" also fails on many levels, just sounding corny and awkward in retrospect. It makes it hard to realize that this was such a revolutionary album at the time, but becoming the machine of Nine Inch Nails that would dominate the 90's. In retrospect it sounds more like a sign of things to come, a blueprint for the genre that was yet to be realized.

The one other shining spot on the album is the wonderful "Sin." Again, it's another track that goes to the dark side that Reznor may like to go to one too many times in his music for the sake of just selling albums, but the songs works so damn well that you can't hold it against the guy, just like most of Nine Inch Nails' best work (see: "Closer"). It's a sign of things to come, but for now it's a few great songs surrounded by a lot of mediocre ones. I gives a point for each good one and nothing for the whatever ones.

Standout Track: "Sin."
Overall Rating: 4.0


* Was out of print from 1997-2005 due to a falling out between Trent Reznor and publishing label TVT Records. Rykodisc remastered it for the 2005 release.

* Half of the album comes from demo entitled Purest Feeling.

* Trent Reznor famously recorded the whole album by himself while working as a janitor at Right Track Studio. During the night shifts he would develop his music and did most of the work on his own. He refused to record the album with a band, unheard of at the time.

* Reznor's original touring band consisted of Richard Patrick, future singer of Filter. He opened for The Jesus and Mary Chain.

* The booklet with the album includes lyrics that aren't part of the songs.

* The album's singles surprisingly did incredibly well on the Billboard top 100. Which list? The Hot Dance/Club Play, with "Sin" ranking the highest at No. 10.

* The reason Trent Reznor chose the name Nine Inch Nails was based on the fact that it could be abbreviated easily, despite rumors that have circulated stating relations to Jesus' Crucifixion or Freddy Krueger's nails.

* Trent Reznor likes to attach a number to all of Nine Inch Nail's releases under the name "Halo." This album is Halo Two, with Halo One being the being Pretty Hate Machine early imports. This was done so fans could keep the releases in order.

* In Trent's words, here is what the cover of Pretty Hate Machine is meant to resemble: "The cover of _PHM_ is a photo of the blades of some sort of turbine stretched vertically so they would look somewhat like bones or a ribcage."