Category Archives: Album reviews

All the Rage: Overdue Appreciation for Elvis Costello’s Criminally Overlooked 1994 Album, Brutal Youth

brutalyouthMy sophomore year of college was a disaster. My parents split, my grades nosedived, I changed majors twice and my great-grandmother (whom we cared for) was hospitalized a few times. Early that school year, my friend Byron gave me a tape of Elvis Costello’s supposedly difficult and mediocre album, Brutal Youth.

I found much for me to connect with in the music, but in retrospect, I can see that I got it a little backwards.  At the time, I was digging deep into the discographies of my Christian rock heroes, Terry Taylor and Randy Stonehill.  As a result, I initially thought Costello sounded like Taylor from an early-nineties Daniel Amos record.  Now, I realize that I got it the other way around; it’s Taylor who occasionally sounded like Costello.  I was also impressed at Costello’s old-timey, pre-rock songs on the album.  On songs like “Favourite Hour,” his wide vibrato reminded me of my grandfather’s own canyon-wide vibrato.  Basically, I hadn’t heard much like Costello’s music and attempted to fit what little I knew of his work into my small, but quickly-burgeoning, schema of musical awareness.

So anyway.  Lyrics are rarely the first thing to pull me into a song, but I felt a connection to Costello through his humor.  I still chuckle at the chorus of “London’s Brilliant Parade” when he sings, “Just look at me, I’m having the time of my life/ Or something quite like it.”  While the record may not have been an ideal introduction to his music, the lyrics are certainly indicative of Costello’s playfulness with dysfunction.  He doesn’t always portray himself as the good guy, and he treats experience with jest.  “I’m just about glad that I knew you once and it was more than a passing acquaintance,” he sings.  Then he adds, “I’m just about glad that it was a memory that doesn’t need constant maintenance.”  On (probably) my favorite song, “This is Hell,” Costello describes hell as the opposite of all good things.  In the final verse, he sings, “‘My Favorite Things’ are playing again and again/ But it’s by Julie Andrews and not by John Coltrane.”  I think his writing is probably an acquired taste for most, but it immediately connected with me.

Between my commutes to UMKC and the hospital to see my great-grandmother, I spent a lot of time in the car that year.  I remember one month in which it seemed like Brutal Youth was playing non-stop.  There are so many reasons for this that don’t make sense with digital music.  Sometimes only certain tapes would sound okay on my crappy car stereo, and sometimes I was so busy that I didn’t have time to grab another tape before I left the house.  But more often than not, Brutal Youth just felt right, and I know that I listened to the tape 100 times in one month alone.

When I started a band fifteen years ago, I chose to name it after one of the quirkier songs on the record, “My Science Fiction Twin.”  Not only does the name obviously identify me as an Elvis Costello fan, but it also reminds me of that formative time in my life.  I made big decisions, lost relatives and formed new relationships.  Some of whom remain good friends with me to this day.

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The most important Miles Davis record (for me).

During my last few years in college, I’d occasionally housesit for a professor and his wife. These jobs provided opportunities to escape my stressful home life and for me to catch up on reading and cable television. During one of my stays at their River Market loft, I watched a documentary on sixties’ psychedelia. I don’t remember much about that VH1 show, except a closing montage of classic psychedelic albums. Taking its place among the famous British invasion albums was Miles in the Sky. At that point, I knew nothing about Miles Davis, except that he played trumpet. But the cover was so cool that I knew I needed to locate it right away.

When I found the CD, I was shocked by what I encountered. The drums in stereo sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before. Perhaps, more precisely, Tony Williams’ cymbal playing was unlike anything I had heard before. At times, it almost sounded like the band had two drummers.

While not my favorite Davis record, it’s certainly the most important for me. It propelled me into his and his bandmates’ catalogs. It also introduced me to long songs; this was at least two years before I discovered progressive rock. Unlike most albums, the surprising thing about Miles in the Sky is that I can listen to it today and have some of the same impressions as when I first played it.

The first track, “Stuff,” was my first encounter with jazz fusion. It was also Miles’ first real foray into fusion, with electric keyboard and bass. Wayne Shorter’s tenor saxophone sounds so distant, so cold and harsh. (Later, I’d learn he was playing through an amp.) Ron Carter’s bass playing on this track still blows my mind. Playing more in the mid-range of the instrument, he often implies the groove instead of explicitly stating it.

“Paraphernalia” was my first dive into the deep pool of Wayne Shorter compositions. Now, it sounds to me like so many of his other great compositions. Back then, however, its floating, esoteric melody just seemed weird. Inviting, but still weird. I believe too much ink has been spilled debating whether he’s a better writer or improviser; this song proves he’s great at both. I think his solo may be as memorable as the head. Of course, it helps that he uses the old trick of restating bits of the melody in his solo, which helps ground his improvisation.

The most swinging cut on the album, “Black Comedy,” inspired me to play drums. I’m sure I’ll never play like Tony Williams, but I sure can pretend. I was immediately taken by his overuse of the high-hat and weird turnarounds. Probably the most accessible (or short) track on the album, this track found its way onto numerous mix tapes in college.

The last song, “Country Son,” is so weird. Without any discernible melody, the master and alternate takes included on the CD sound completely different. The meandering feel of the composition seems emphasized by Davis and Shorter, who sound like they’re wandering around the studio as they play.

All that said, maybe Miles in the Sky sucks and you should check out Kind of Blue or Bitches Brew first. I just feel too close to the record to be objective. Because it was in constant rotation around the time my parents split, it just sounds to me like their divorce. I feel a longing in its grooves and an aching transcendence in its melodies. And that’s why, after amassing most of his catalog, it continues to the most important Miles Davis record for me.

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Pop music is difficult to execute well. Many times accessibility trumps creativity and bands leave me wanting. But some do it well, even while toying with popular, ephemeral sounds and studio chicanery.

This is clearly what Matt Bronleewe, Dan Haseltine and Jeremy Bose attempt with The Hawk in Paris. They clearly don’t desire to forge new musical ground. In fact, they sound like a bunch of middle-aged guys trying to re-create the magic of their favortie eighties synthpop bands. (Definittely not a bad thing.)

The swagger and spaghetti Western guitars in title track, “Freaks,”obviously owe a lot to Depeche Mode. “Birds on a Wire” seems to take more chances, dropping out the beat in places and adding flourishes of acoustic guitars, while invoking some of Simple Minds’ mid-to-late eighties work. Kitsch weighs heavy on the last track, “Wake Me Up,” tipping its hat to the way Pet Shop Boys’ early work mixed R&B with pop. The auto-tuned vocals and lyrics (“I don’t wanna have another dream without you.”) further add to the band’s shtick.

With the promise of two more EPs this year, I’m excited to hear what The Hawk in Paris delivers. As a rabid fan of Simple Minds, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, Camouflage and New Order, I welcome anyone who seems to get synthpop. Sure The Hawk in Paris is referential and invokes some obvious influences, but I think that’s the point. And I love it.

Buy it now.

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Cocteau Twins
4AD – 1986

We were newlyweds, and my wife asked my friend, Joel, what Cocteau Twins album I needed the most (that I didn’t already have).  He suggested Victorialand because “the first song is nothing but major sevenths and reverb.”  She bought the album, and it quickly became one of my favorite in the band’s catalog.

It is certainly a strange album, even for the band already known for its creativity and unique sound.  First, the band recorded without one of its guitarists, Simon Raymonde, who was working with This Mortal Coil (on its beautiful Filigree & Shadow album).  It seems that the band’s other guitarist, Robin Guthrie, saw Raymonde’s absence as an opportunity to experiment.  The album features more acoustic guitars than usual, all drenched in reverb and delay.  Second, on all but two songs, there are no rhythm tracks.  Not even the band’s signature, harsh drum machines.

Glancing at the song titles reveals this is a concept album about ice and snow.  (And knowing that Victorialand is an Antarctic region certainly helps.)  Matched with equally icy and shimmery guitars, it’s one of the better executed concept albums I’ve ever heard.  Every time I listen, my head swirls in the whirlpool of chorused guitar strums and eighth note delay.  It really is euphoric.

All that said, I know that getting into a band like the Cocteau Twins can take a lot of work, even for fans of 80s British alternative.  While folks who dig Cocteau Twins usually enjoy bands like The Cure and New Order, I’m not sure the reverse could be said.  Sure, the bed of chorused guitars would be familiar to fans of “A Forest,” but Elizabeth Frasier’s vocals can be bone-chilling and even downright weird.

She clearly uses her voice like an instrument. (Bjork fans would be accustomed to this.)  Frasier sings in English, but she clearly obscures the words so many verses resemble elvish.  Only occasionally can the listener perceives a few words.  Sure that description sounds so weird, but listening to Victorialand, it makes so much sense.

I’m sure the album is on Spotify, or perhaps you could piece it together with YouTube videos.  In any case, please take the time.  The band is so important to the development of dream pop that you have to, at the very least, investigate it.  (So fans of The Sundays and The Dream Academy take note!)  Victorialand is an especially fitting album on these cool, autumn evenings.

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So Lonesome I Could Fly

A friend loaned me this Marti Jones CD, My Tidy Dolly Dream, a while back. And while it’s not something I’d typically seek out, there’s something about it the keeps drawing me back. As is my habit, this isn’t a review, but rather a bulleted list of thoughts and reactions.

  • Jones is married to Don Dixon, producer of power pop groups (that typically have a certain, jangly, Southern gothic bent) like R.E.M., Guadalcanal Diary and The Smithereens.
  • Overall, this record reminds me a lot of Carolyn Arends’ Travelers. Jones (and Dixon, who co-wrote and produced much of the album) has obviously absorbed a lot of the Beatles and Byrds albums. These influences, paired with acoustic instrumentation, bring to mind Sam Phillips, another chick singer who came of age in the eighties and married a big-named producer.
  • It sounds like Jones entered the studio with a bare-bones band, recorded basic tracks, then allowed Dixon to overdub one really cool instrument later. Sometimes it’s a weird tape-affected keyboard, sometimes it’s just layers of background vocals. In any case, it feels almost live and not overdone.
  • I’m always  leery of people like Jones who made albums in the 80s and have since tried to fleece their flock. In her and The Smithereens cases, however, they don’t seem to have forsaken pop hooks along the way. (Does anyone remember God Save the Smithereens??! What a great record. I do wish, however, that the band would return to recording original material.)
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Burning Like the Midnight Sun

If I wasn’t already keenly aware of this, the past year and a half has taught me the importance of community. Sometimes community is some hard-to-define big concept. Other times, it’s just a buzz word with little substance.

If I’ve learned anything about community, it is something you can attempt to manufacture, but you can’t limit. I’ve been intentional in how transparent and loving I am to and for friends, but I haven’t been able to accurately predict the trajectory our fellowship has taken. I certainly never saw just how meaningful some of those relationships have become.

It seems that Steve Hindalong, The Choir‘s lyricist and drummer, has learned similar lessons from his relationships. (To be fair, I’m pretty sure he figured it out a long time ago. Just listen to his song, “Love Sanctifies,” from his lone solo album.) Whereas many bands its age might sing about friendships in a jovial, danceable manner set to a 12-bar blues progression, The Choir nestles the sobering and joyous in a bed of lush, psychedelia.

Again, this is nothing new. In fact, much of the album resembles the band’s 1988 album, Chase the Kangaroo. As always, the swirling guitars please any fan of The Church, The Psychedelic Furs and Hammock. Sometimes, the songs even veer into jangly dreampop. Again, none of this is new.

The group seems to utilize more of its palette’s available colors throughout the record, too. This time around, Dan Michaels contributions on sax and lyricon is much more prominent on more tracks; Marc Byrd also seems to play more of a role. Byrd was a full-fledged member on the last album, Oh How The Mighty Have Fallen, but he seems to have contributed much more to the sonic landscape this time. Tim Chandler, who has influenced my bass playing more than anyone else, plays some of his most characteristic bass lines since Diamonds and Rain.

The star of the album to me, however, is singer/guitarist Derri Daugherty. Insensitive vocalists in other bands routinely ruin perfectly good themes of love, spirituality and friendships, but he handles them delicately. Daugherty just seems to sing better on each record.

There’s no way I can be totally objective about The Choir, as the band was one of my very first good musical discoveries. Katy and I have attended a couple of its shows. Heck, my father-in-law DJ’d at Dan Michaels’ wedding reception. The band’s albums have served as a soundtrack to many difficult and joyous occasions for some of my friends, family and myself. Something tells me this will be yet another one we play to remind us of what is important.

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Review: The Sexy Accident’s Mantoloking

I’ve been a fan off Jesse Kate’s music for some time now.  His work with The Sexy Accident reminds me of indie rock’s glory days of the mid-90s.  (I know we’ve already discussed this, Jesse, but I really mean that in the best way possible.)  The drums and vocals sound real, and the band’s performances show just how little overdubbing it does with guitars.  We need more bands that ditch laptops and just rock.

Anyway, my thoughts on their new album.

  • Overall, it’s much, much better than the last one, Kinda Like Fireworks.  I have to think the improvement is due to the addition of a second guitarist.  Jesse doesn’t have to try to play everything at once.
  • It was apparent on the last album, but it’s pretty obvious now just how intentional the band is in nailing down a specific sound.  This really isn’t a diverse album; there are no surprise forays  into electronica.  It pretty much just sounds like a David Gedge record.
  • Some of the songs are semi-autobiographical, yet armed with enough made-up stuff to throw off the listener.
  • I really, really dig that Johnny Marresque guitar at 1:40 in “I’m Just Trying to Help (Me Like You).”
  • The band plays in some uncommon time signatures, yet it  still sounds more like Guided By Voices or The Wedding Present than King Crimson.  This is a testament to their efforts to stay accessible.
  • I like the percussion and stereo-panning tricks in “Buy Me Out.”  It just goes to show how cool chicanery can be if judiciously used (as opposed to the technological onslaught of bands like Bloc Party).
  • I’m still undecided with how I feel about “Failing to Play Nice.”  It seems honest, but maybe too sprawling.  It kinda seems like a hiccup in the middle of the album, but then other times, I enjoy the change of pace.
  • The most rewarding thing about the Mantoloking, for me, is Jesse’s lyrics.  (He’s explained them all in ridiculous detail on the band’s blog.)  I can tell he must be thoughtful, yet super-sarcastic, like me.  He pokes fun at the typical, gushing love song, spending all his time in “I’m Just Trying to Help (Me Like You)” focused on what the girl needs to do and look like to gain his love.  Lines like, “If you want me to come back to you/ Here’s a list of some things that you could chose to do/ Like learn to pick up for your man/ And have you considered a spray-on tan?”  He gets a little more serious and dark on “I Tried Again” with some quasi-Morrissey-like hopeless romantic lines,  “I get bored if I’m not adored/ So I’m looking for a mess/ You’re the one I like the best.”
  • The album is not too long.

So if any of that intrigues you, just download the album for free from the band’s website.  I also saw a few physical copies available at Prospero’s.

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Review: Pacifico’s Thin Skin and an Open Heart

So this is the first album review for Radio Free Raytown.  I have been frustrated by writing reviews for other publications in the past, so now that I have my own thing going here, I’ll do it the way that makes sense to me.  As always, please let me know if this format is valuable.

Artist:  Pacifico
Album:  Thin Skin and an Open Heart
Label: Allalom Music, 2009

  • Pacifico is the project/band of Matthew Schwartz.  I identify with a guy writing pop songs but never having a consistent band with whom to record and play.
  • The album would be at home amongst albums by Jimmy Eat World, Copeland, Richard Swift, Death Cab for Cutie and Starflyer 59.
  • Speaking of Starflyer 59, the album was produced Jason Martin and features other members of that band, and it sounds like it was recorded immediately after Dial M was recorded.  Same drum sounds, mixing and everything.  That’s not totally a good thing, as Schwartz veers into some Kinks-like territory toward the end, and some looser production should have been in order.
  • The first song, “(Prelude),” sounds way too much like a Richard Swift song.  And that’s a good thing.
  • The song title, “Caroline, Oh,” is cute.
  • “We Are the Easily Forgotten” is the best song on the album.  Super catchy.  Check it out.
  • Schwartz’s vocals are almost always doubled, and there are usually many more layers by the time he reaches his choruses.  I would like to hear him a little more bare; push back the instruments and allow a lone vocal to shine.  From my own recording experience, it seems like his singing to the other vocal layers stifles his desire to convey more emotion, at times.
  • “Salvation Army” sound a lot like a Sam Billen or Death Cab for Cutie song.
  • Overall, it’s a catchy and pleasant album.  I’m kicking myself for missing the band play at The Beaumont last week.

If you want a copy of the album, Allalom Music is selling it for $12 (including shipping and handling).  It will also be up on iTunes soon.

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