Friday, April 26, 2013

Bob Dylan's Top-Five Songs Beginning with "Q"

UPDATE:  On August 12, 2010, I abandoned this project in the hopes that Dylan would hurry up and write a bunch of songs whose titles started with V, X, and Z.  Not really.  I abandoned it because I’d been in a serious automobile accident (admittedly, a motorcycle one would’ve been much more to the point) and because I’d fallen back in love with a woman I’d dated circa Shot of Love.  Tending to both situations, as well as keeping the twin plates of my two jobs spinning atop their precarious poles, seemed more important than proving that, like a few million other people, I’d spent a lot of time listening to Dylan.  Now, however, finally re-settled (in China of all places), it’s time to resume pressing on.  

1. "Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)” (Biograph version) (1967).  Where were you during the week that Biograph and Spin’s cover story on Dylan simultaneously appeared?  I was in Seattle, and the story that Rubin Carter had finally been sprung due to a lack of still-living witnesses was front-page news for a day.  Manfred Mann’s second cover version of this song had recently celebrated its seventh birthday.  (It’s now about to celebrate it’s thirty-fifth.)  Why wasn’t this version included on The Basement Tapes?  It’s so much better than the version on Self-Portrait.  Self-assured lower-register vocals, Garth Hudson at his organ-grinder best--not until Cornershop tackled it on Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast (2009) would the song qualify so effectively as anyone’s cup of meat.  

2. "Queen Jane Approximately” (1965).  Does A.J. Weberman think this song is about marijuana?  He should.  Mary (a “Queen” as in “the mother of Our Lord” ["Duquesne Whistle"]) Jane was certainly the easiest way for someone “sick of all this repetition” (folk music circa 1965) or sick of “advisers [Albert Gro$$man?]” who had “heaved your plastic” (vinyl, kids) or tried to “convince you of your pain” to bliss out.  “Queen Jane is a man,” Dylan famously told an interviewer in 1965--probably in the sense that the “man” in “Man of Constant Sorrow” (Bob Dylan, 1962) is also a “maid” (Judy Collins’ A Maid of Constant Sorrow, 1961) and that “A Man Needs a Maid” (Neil Young’s Harvest, 1972).

3. "Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)” (Self Portrait version) (1970).  As I type, word on the street, spurred by the Record Store Day release of the “Wigwam/Thirsty Shoes” seven inch, is that a “naked” version of Self Portrait is soon to comprise the next installment of The Bootleg Series.  ’Bout time.  Let’s face it: The only reason people consider Self Portrait one of The Worst Albums of All Time is that it bore the name “Bob Dylan” at a time during which that name signified the height of counter-cultural umbrage.  Well, it’s high time we stopped that signifyin’ and admit that if anyone of us mere mortals were to have recorded Self Portrait we’d have friends coming out of the woodwork if not crawling out their windows.  And, as far as we’d be concerned, all the tired horses would have riders named Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death.

4. "Quit Your Lowdown Ways” (1962).  “If you can’t quit your sinnin’,” sings Dylan seventeen years before Slow Train Coming, “please quit your low down ways.”  The Whitmark Demos contain one version, The Copyright Extension Collection Volume One another.  On both young Bob not only sounds like a hillbilly but also makes sounding like a hillbilly seem just the thing to slap a wayward Chosen People (whether Israelites or Calvinist Christians) upside the head.

5. “Queen Jane Approximately” (Dylan & the Dead version) (1987).  I attended the Eugene, OR, concert at which this performance was taped, but anyone who saw even one of this tour’s shows can tell you: Dylan was a mess.  In front of football-stadium crowds, he called out songs that he and the Dead had barely or never rehearsed, mumble-sung more self-parodyingly than ever, forgot whole verses of classic songs, and donned a bandana.  But he also stayed onstage as a rhythm guitarist and background vocalist for his set’s inevitable encore, the Dead’s then hit “Touch of Grey.”  “I will survive,” he sang, and thus proved prophet material yet again.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2012: A

AMADOU AND MARIAM: Folila (Nonesuch)

Some critics have their panties in a wad over the fact that Bertrand Cantat, one of the featured co-stars on this Malian duo’s latest motherlode of infectious global blues, has done time for killing his girlfriend lonesome-death-of-Hattie-Carroll style.  On one level, the umbrage makes sense.  But on another--the one that matters most (or at least more)--it’s beside the point, which would seem to be the sheer joy that Amadou and Mariam, even at fifty-seven and fifty-four respectively, still take in making music that you don’t have to speak the languages they sing in to love.  Thankfully, it’s a point that the other cameo makers (Theophilus London, Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears, Santigold, members of TV on the Radio, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs) obviously got.  


Critics won’t admit it, but in perfecting the art of playing down to the masses for fun and profit, these prog-rock veterans (average age: sixty-two) have made some catchy music.  They’ve also made albums like this one--reasonable facsimiles of what made them famous, recycled and reshuffled so that even their biggest fans will be hard pressed to tell you which ’80s Asia songs the new ones sound like.  Alas, they’ll be equally hard pressed to tell the new songs apart.  Some will blame the similarity of the tempos, others the similarity of the melodies, still others the similarity of the song lengths.  No one, however, will have a stronger case than those who blame the clichés, without which John Wetton would apparently have nothing at all to sing.

lIllinois Entertainer Reviews 2012: B

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2012: B

That’s Why God Made the Radio 

From a collective that hasn’t seriously tried since 1985, this album is hardly a washout.  But it could’ve been stronger.  Joe Thomas, who oversaw some of Brian Wilson’s lamer ’90s music, has co-written almost everything, and, well, Van Dyke Parks he ain’t.  “Spring vacation, good vibration, / summer weather, we’re back together,” “We’ll find the place in the sun / where everyone can have fun, fun, fun”--heck, Thomas might not even be Eugene Landy.  There are, however, pleasant surprises:  Mike Love’s “Daybreak over the Ocean,” Brian’s reality-TV commentary “The Private Life of Bill and Sue,” and the concluding three-song suite, in which Brian finally admits “Summer’s Gone.”  Of course, the harmonies are pleasant too, especially with sideman Jeffrey Foskett keepin’ the high notes alive.  But they’re no surprise.

Future This 

Don’t let the band’s name fool you.  This spacey, studio-belabored, mid-tempo pop couldn’t have less to do with Robbie Robertson or The Basement Tapes if it had been arranged by Lawrence Welk.  And don’t let the album title fool you either.  The “future”?  This?  British combos have been working variations on these aural templates since Margaret Thatcher.  Milo Cordell has implied that he and his partner Robbie Furze enlisted the producer Paul Epworth (Adele, Foster the People) in part because they like the Now That’s What I Call Music! series as much as anything officially hip.  But a producer seldom makes or breaks an album.  Words and hooks--better ones than the Big Pink is currently coming up with--help too.  Suggested title for the followup: Past That.

El Camino 

The best way to play devil’s advocate with Black Keys fans used to be to ask them whether Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney would’ve discovered the nobly savage possibilities of the electric, two-man band format if Local H and the White Stripes hadn’t discovered them first.  If fans answered that one convincingly in the affirmative, the next step was to ask them whether Auerbach and Carney would’ve discovered the liberations of basslessness if it hadn’t been for Alien Sex Fiend, Jucifer, and the Jelly Roll Kings.

But thanks to El Camino there’s now a better question, namely, whether Auerbach spent the previous six albums preferring riffs to melodies because he knew that 1) melodies would require him to sing, 2) when he’d sing he’d tend to sound like Bono, and 3) when he and Carney would play melodies as opposed to riffs they’d tend to sound like either Bono’s band or the Clash.   

If the answer is “yes,” then kudos to Auerbach for finally surrendering to his inner U.K. rocker (perhaps at the behest of this album’s producer, Danger Mouse) and going with a flow that was probably the only way for the Black Keys to escape the rut into which they’d pounded themselves.  “Lonely Boy” is a better followup to “Vertigo” than U2 has managed so far, and “Dead and Gone” is a better followup to “London Calling” than the Clash will ever manage again.

Unlike Bono, Joe Strummer, and Mick Jones, however, Auerbach has yet to get the hang of writing lyrics worth anyone’s attention.  “Hey my my she’s gonna take ya / Way down down she’s bound to break ya” (“Money Maker”), “Like being cooled by the rain / in the eye of the storm” (“Stop Stop”), and the many other similar El Camino lyrics are functional enough (i.e., they scan), but they won’t stick in the head, get scrawled on restroom walls, or start fights.  They will, in short, age badly.

What might age better is “Little Black Submarines.”  In fact, as a melodic and stylistic fraternal twin of “Stairway to Heaven” (right down to its meditative acoustic first half and frenzied electric second half) it has done much of its aging already.  And even if as a Led Zeppelin re-write it’s therefore as anachronistic and derivative as many another Black Keys song, at least it’s anachronistic and derivative in a new way.


Using fourteen credited singers to make most of this album’s substantial vocal noise renders this Aussie rocker vulnerable to comparisons with the Polyphonic Spree.  Pounding most of this album’s songs home with a percussion ensemble that may as well be the Royal Drummers Of Burundi renders him vulnerable to comparisons with Adam and the Ants.  Sounding like a Polyphonic Spree/Adam and the Ants hybrid renders him capable of passing his lyrics off as one more aurally impressionistic brick in his wall of sound.  Good thing too.  Were his music ever to go into heavy rotation, a refrain such as “This crap tastes good ’cause they play it, / now you’re sayin’ what they’re sayin’” (“Dread Is This Place”) might strike those singing along to it on the radio as awkward.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2012: C-F

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2012: C-F

Sacred Fire EP 
(Collective Sounds)

If Jimmy Cliff were as great as his Rock and Roll Hall of Famer status suggests and not an overrated reggae journeyman, these five songs might seem like a condescending sop to fans willing to lap up anything bearing his name.  As matters stand, however, Sacred Fire comprises his most consistent twenty minutes since 1980’s underrated I Am the Living.  Too bad a third of it’s given over to a version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”: Other than making the protagonist’s blue eyes brown, its main accomplishment is interrupting the flow established by the Clash cover (“Guns of Brixton”), the Rancid cover (“Ruby Soho”), and a Cliff original (“Ship Is Sailing”) that makes having many rivers to cross seem like not that big a deal after all.

He Is My Story: The Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes 
(Tompkins Square)

How obscure was the piano-pounding gospel shouter Arizona Dranes?  So obscure that Michael Corcoran, the author of the Dranes biography that accompanies this compilation of her music, has only come up with forty-two pages on her despite years of investigating.  Granted, the story is interesting, if only because it traces rock-and-roll to black Pentecostals and therefore implies fascinating truths about America.  But decades of Dranes’ life itself remain elusive.  As for the lovingly speed-corrected remastering of the 78s that Dranes recorded, it sounds about the same as what Document Records captured on Dranes‘ Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order in 1994--as much naked Holy Ghost enthusiasm as the Chicago recording studios of the late 1920s could handle without going up in flames.

Worshipping the Dollar 
(Sunday Best)

Considering that in “West End Story” the featured rapper Akala says global poverty goes unnoticed because “we’re too busy blingin’,” you get the impression Dub Pistols are against the monetary idolatry referred to in this album’s title.  On the other hand, the hedonistic, cocaine-fueled fantasy narrated in “Mucky Weekend” by its featured rapper, Rodney P, could only come true with lots of surplus cash.  So call this bi-racial London-based ensemble ambivalent about the filthiness of lucre in general but rock-solid sure about its cleanliness when used to finance reggae-rooted beats as deep and crisp as the many that proliferate throughout this relentlessly catchy recording.  Really, “Bang Bang” (featuring Kitten and the Hip) is what Madonna was aiming for on MDNA’s “Gang Bang” and almost hitting.

Grand Hotel 
(Rock Ridge)

Don’t hate the explorers in this club because they’re dutiful--to picking up where ’60s AM radio left off, to imagining what Brian Wilson might’ve accomplished if he hadn’t turned his brain to mush, to making music the likes of which hasn’t been heard in nearly fifty years simply because they want more of it.  If on 2008’s Freedom Wind they were practically Beach Boys clones, this time, by adding and combining other influences, they sound determined to prove they’re no mere novelty act.  Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (the title cut), the Turtles (“Any Little Way”), Climax and the Association (“It’s No Use”)--actually, Climax was a ’70s band.  Hmmm.  These guys had better be careful or they’ll be channeling Three Dog Night before they know it.

Faithful Man 
(Truth & Soul)

It’s understandable that those mourning the departures of Solomon Burke and Howard Tate might find solace in Lee Fields, a dogged journeyman with an equally dogged, if relatively small, core of fans who’ve long considered him the heir apparent to the old-school-soul throne.  The problem is he’s more like Percy Sledge--same upper-range intensity, same sense of strain while going to emotional extremes--but without anything as riveting as “Take Time to Know Her” or “When a Man Loves a Woman.”  What’s almost riveting is his cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Midnight Mile.”  It begins with the pitter-patter of the percussion riff from Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain.”  It ends without Fields ever once having given Mick Jagger reason to look over his shoulder.

Illinois Entertainer 2012: Green Day

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2012: Green Day


“I'm not growing up,” sang Billie Joe Armstrong at the outset of Dookie eighteen years ago.  “I'm just burning out.”  As his recent much-publicized rehab stint suggests, he wasn’t kidding about the latter.  And judging from his lyrics on iUno!, the first installment of Green Day’s gradually unfolding triptych of new releases, he remains committed at forty to the former as well. 

Grownups, after all, don’t worry about “taking down all [their] enemies” or refer to them as a “fucking useless ... bunch of shit-talking drama queens” (“Loss of Control”) even if a fucking useless bunch of shit-talking drama queens is, in fact, what those enemies are.  Neither do grownups insult former lovers by exclaiming “Thought you were falling in love, / but now you're sucking on a doorknob / that I slammed in your face”:  Grownups know it’s doors and not doorknobs that one slams.

Of course, if the more than fifty million units that Green Day has sold worldwide mean anything, it’s that lots of people don’t mind the inarticulate expression of an American idiot as long as he and his bandmates remain adept at setting them to skeletal, tightly wound hooks that play like recycled Kinks or Ramones.  And, from start to finish, iUno! plays just that way.    

“Sweet 16” plays even better.  Three minutes of wistfully romantic bubblegum sunshine, it could very well become a high-school-reunion anthem for generations who pooh-pooh “Jack and Diane” as their parents’ music.  

And therein lies this album’s rub.  Try as he may to hold on to sixteen as long as he can, Armstrong can’t help hearing time’s footsteps or pining, if only subconsciously, for a conservatism at odds with the profanity he sometimes overuses in a desperately unbecoming attempt to sound hip.

In “Nuclear Family” he likens the “breaking down” of that most fundamental social unit to a “Chinese drama and conspiracy,” neither of which, apparently, he considers a good thing.  And he doesn’t sound any happier in “Kill the DJ” about walking through Central Park only to find that it has turned into “Sodom and Gomorrah.”  

“I don't want a suicide, I don't want this to end,” he sings on “Lady Cobra,” a leaked track from iUno!’s soon-to-be-released follow-up, iDos!  “I just want to be your friend.”  Maybe life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone after all.   

¡Dos! & ¡Tré! 

By now it’s obvious that Green Day should’ve culled the best cuts from its ¡Uno! ¡Dos! ¡Tré! trilogy and made one killer longplayer.  But they didn’t, so listeners will have to do it themselves.  The obvious winners from iUno! were “Sweet 16” and “Nuclear Family.”  As for iDos!, it mostly finds Billie Joe, Mike, and Tré, diligent wind-up toy that they are, ramming their heads into the pop-punk wall, oblivious to the fact that it’s their heads and not the wall that’s sustaining the damage.  Or maybe they’re not oblivious.  “I'm too mental to go crazy,” goes “Lazy Bones,” the best song on this triptych linchpin and the closest these guys will probably ever come to a common man’s fanfare.  “I'm too drunk to be pure, / and my mind is playing tricks on me, / And I can't sleep tonight.”  Oblivious or not, however, the brain damage is real.  How else to explain Armstrong’s describing iDos! as “garage rock”?  Green Day might be panning for Nuggets, but at least half of what it ends up with on iDos! is pyrite.  (Oh, and it’s the one that should’ve been called ¡Tré!, as Tré Cool’s drumming makes it go to the extent that it can actually be said to.)  So what of ¡Tré!?  In the grand tradition of saving the best for last, it may as well have served as the template of the whole shebang.  Yes, it’s that good.  The stand-out cut is “Drama Queen,” perhaps the only time Green Day has waxed slow and acoustic and lived to tell the tale.  In it Armstrong, the real-life father of two boys, nails the mixed emotions of every father whose teenaged daughter’s uniquely feminine problems put her just beyond the reach of anything he can do to help. 

Illinois Entertainer 2012: H-M

Illinois Entertainer Reviews: H-M

Standing at the Sky’s Edge 

You can’t fault Hawley, a forty-five-year-old rocker with a baritone voice, for sounding like Iggy Pop from time to time.  In fact, if only because he has rewritten the lyrics of the Stooges’ “1969” and called the resulting song “Down in the Woods,” Hawley himself seems to invite the comparison.  No sooner does he invite it, however, than he comes up with “Seek It,” a softly sung, medium-tempo number with which Michael Hutchence himself might have someday been pleased to follow up “Beautiful Girl.”  The songs that avoid easy comparisons do so by marinating in psychedelic drones emanating from the sounds of guitars feeding back.  As for the title cut, it suggests that maybe Hawley and not Ian Astbury should be fronting the Doors these days.    

Unfinished Business 

Wanda Jackson is seventy-five, making her, along with Bob Dylan, Ian Hunter, Leonard Cohen, and three of the Beach Boys, the latest septuagenarian to release an album of new material this year.  And while you can’t say she outdoes Dylan or Cohen, she sounds livelier than Brian Wilson, Mike Love, and Al Jardine and wrestles Hunter to a draw.  What she sounds most like is Maria Muldaur, a similarly still-vital rootsy interpreter with whom Jackson shares a passion not only for Jesus (hence this album’s inclusion of Townes Van Zandt’s overtly gospel “Two Hands”) but also the blues (Sonny Thompson’s “Tore Down”), country (excellent originals by Greg Garing and producer Justin Townes Earle), and vintage rock’n’roll (“It’s All Over Now”).  All right, Rolling Stones, the ball’s in your court.

World, You Need a Change of Mind 

Fans of Adam Bainbridge’s dreamily futuristic R&B disagree about whether it’s rooted in the '70s or the '80s, probably because it’s rooted in both.  In “Gee Up,” for instance, Bainbridge urges listeners to “get up” and “get down” to a disco vamp worthy of Studio 54.  But it’s the cassingle era that permeates “Anyone Can Fall in Love” (which pays homage to DeBarge), “House” (ditto Spandau Ballet), and his gently iconoclastic electronification of the Replacements’ “Swingin’ Party.”  Meanwhile, don’t rule out the '60s--in “Bombastic” Bainbridge includes John Lennon and Brian Wilson in a list of musicians for whom he “can’t wait any longer” but from whom he also doesn’t “want any more.”  Whether because they’ve already given him enough or because they’ve given him too much remains unclear.

Given to the Wild 

For this album’s first six songs and a few thereafter, The Maccabees do all that they can to sift the U2 out of Coldplay until all that’s left is a nimbus-like shimmer.  Sonically impressive, the demands of the sound also require the lead singer Orlando Butler to go all castrato and enunciate like just another instrument.  Not until Track Seven, “Pelican,” rolls around do less dreamy elements like stuttery guitars, crisp drums, and intelligible lyrics come into play.  And catchy though it is, the song also exposes Butler as the worst kind of not-too-deep thinker--one who thinks he’s deep.  “One thing's for sure,” he sings, “we're all getting older.... / Before you know it, pushing up the daisies.”  Translation: Life’s a bitch, then you die.  We know.

The Abbey Road Sessions 

Forget comparisons to Madonna or Olivia Newton-John.  Minogue’s merely scoring five top-forty hits in the U.S. while being one of the biggest pop stars everywhere else for the last quarter century makes her, if anything besides herself, the female Cliff Richard.  That comparison means, among other things, that Minogue has a voice worth hearing these in de-electronicized orchestral versions of her greatest hits.  Her voice isn’t as smooth or elastic as Richards’, but, because she’s a woman, it doesn’t have to be. The fairer sex has means of conveying vulnerability--breathiness (“Slow”), poutiness (“I Should Be So Lucky”)--of which even the most sensitive male singer can only dream.  The obligatory refurbishing of “The Loco-Motion” (#3 U.S., 1987) is the only track that feels de rigueur.

Illinois Entertainer 2012: P

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2012: P

(8 Ft.)

After the stripped-down self-indulgence of Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radio Head on Her Magical Ukele and Several Attempts to Cover Songs by the Velvet Underground & Lou Reed, this return to studio form by the former Dresden Doll is a welcome reminder of how powerful she can be when she gets serious from within walls of sound.  She can still come off exhibitionistic: Complaining and boasting about her own sensitivity for seven minutes in “Trout Mask Replica,” she makes one wish she’d cover “He Hit Me (and It Felt like a Kiss).”  But give her points for universalizing the tragic-comic details of performing-artist promiscuity (“Do It with a Rockstar”), hating omnipresent cameras (“Smile [Pictures or It Didn’t Happen]”), and leaving her ukelele at home.

Put Your Back N 2 It 

With society’s increasing tolerance for homosexuality has come a corresponding tolerance for homosexual love songs, but tolerance and enjoyment are two different things.  And therein lies Mike Hadreas’s--a.k.a. Perfume Genius’s--challenge.  From the swim-team pecs on Put Your Back N 2 It‘s cover to the “Hood” video in which Hadreas cuddles with a porn actor, there’s none of the ambiguity that gay singer-songwriters have traditionally used to help straights universalize a gay song’s dramatic situation.  So if anything is going to put Perfume Genius over, it isn’t the quiet desperation of Hadreas’s vocals but his music’s gauzily sad, lazily hymn-like languor, about which the following observations: Fans of Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks music will love it, and, compared to Justin Vernon, Hadreas sounds like Bruce Springsteen.

Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974-1984 
(Chocolate Industries)

You want obscure?  How about this--seventeen songs by fifteen acts, none of whom have a Wikipedia entry and only four of whom merit a mention at  The subtitle sets the stylistic and chronological parameters, but “blaxploitation-film soundtrack” would’ve done just as well.  Amid spacey soundscapes, slinky-moist synthesizers punctuate reified ghetto emotions recollected in tranquility: “Can’t pay the rent, can’t drive my car without money” (Spontaneous Overthrow, “Money”); “Gather, all you saints of God, / it’s time to go with Jesus Christ” (Otis G Johnson, “Time to Go Home”); “When you’ve got a freaky feelin’, baby, and you discover that your body is willin’, ... are you ready to come” (U.S. Aries, “Are You Ready to Come”)?  It wasn’t recorded inside Sly Stone’s head, obviously, but it could’ve been.

This Is PiL 
(PiL Official)

The former Johnny Rotten inaugurates his first Public Image Ltd. album in twenty years by declaring, “This is PiL,” pronouncing it “pill” and even spelling it out.  Then, one song later, atop an uptempo Middle Eastern reggae beat, he declares “I am John, and I was born in London! / I am no vulture, this is my culture!”  Obviously, the hiatus has him worrying that people may have forgotten him although he has long been to punk what Jerry West is to the NBA logo.  Whatever.  The insecurity has inspired him and his latest cohorts to record music as aggressive and skeletal an any bearing the PiL imprint since Album if not Metal Box.  Drums, bass, guitar noise, misanthropy, and whatever the ridiculously catchy “Lollipop Opera” is rule.  And then some.

Illinois Entertainer 2012: R

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2012: R

Between the Times and the Tides 

That the guitars are still sonic and the vocals still youthful is practically all that’s noteworthy about this ninth solo album from Thurston Moore’s and Kim Gordon’s erstwhile bandmate.  “Xtina As I Knew Her” borrows its melody from Neil Young’s “Like an Inca” and “Lost (Plane T Nice”) its riff from New Order’s “Age of Consent” as surely as “Tomorrow Never Comes” borrows its overall vibe from The Beatles‘ “Tomorrow Never Comes,” and the two acoustic songs drag.  But it’s the lyrics, especially coming from a published poet, that disappoint the most.  Whether recycling clichés or forcing rhymes, Ranaldo has nothing to say and no special way to say it--unless inadvertently shilling for Skittles in “Off the Wall” by citing a rainbow “shattered into pieces” on the floor counts.


If last year’s seventy-eight-minute, twenty-seven-track Rarities/B-Sides was too much of a good Raveonettes thing, this tirty-one-minute, nine-track album is too little.  No sooner does Observator establish what the Everly Brothers would’ve sounded like if one of them had been a sister and both of them were trapped in a David Lynch film than it ends.  Fortunately, it establishes something else too: namely, that as long as co-producer Richard Gottehrer is on hand to help Sune Rose Wagner transform the musical ideas he comes up with when he goes on drug-and-boozed-fueled benders into flattering soundscapes for Sharin Foo’s singing, Wagner should be drugged, drunk, and depressed more often.  As for Foo, especially on “The Enemy,” she’s a lover, not a fighter.

Listen Up! 

Listen Up! isn’t bad as album titles ending with exclamation points go.  But Now That’s What I Call Music! would’ve fit this album too.  Not that Reinhart sounds like all things to all people.  Her un-Auto-Tuned voice is her own no matter which pop-R&B style she’s inhabiting.  But she delivers in abundance and enthusiasm what it has become fashionable for female singers to sound as if they’re delivering only under duress: a nuanced grasp of the dramatic trajectory of the songs she’s singing.  Getting from the flirtatious bounce of “Oh My!” to the soulful heartbreak of “Undone” is impressive.  Getting from the proto-disco of “Now That You’re Here” to the blue-eyed gospel of “Walking on Heaven” is practically miraculous.  And, man, can she sing.

Illinois Entertainer 2012: S

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2012: S

Anarchy, My Dear 
(Equal Vision)

Max Bemis has referred to himself an “ADD-infected, clumsy, and right-brain- centric dolt of a man,” and on Anarchy, My Dear he proves it.  Or, rather, careening within post-punk parameters of his own devising, he proves it again, having already given abundant evidence--both in and outside the nuthouse--that he contains self-contradictory multitudes.  This time he has “Randy Newman in [his] head” (“Night’s Song”), a welcome addition that sharpens his humor ( “Don’t want to hear about how the latest Rihanna single / is a post-modern masterpiece”), his misanthropy (an entire song wishing Stephen Hawking dead), and his pop sense (“So Good” and “Overbiter” could qualify for Now That’s What I Call Music).  All this beause of Randy Newman?  Heck, wait ’til Bemis discovers Angry Samoans.

Can’t Take a Hint 

The first requirement of satirical songs is not that they work as satire but that they work as songs.  If in addition they’re funny and-or insightful, all the better.  The ten acts referred to as “featured” on this album’s cover (most notably Fountains of Wayne, Dr. John, and Judith Owen) guarantee sufficient musicality.  Whether any of the cuts, however, would’ve provided, say, The Book of Mormon with serious Grammy or Tony Awards competition is dubious, mainly because of the obviousness and safety of Shearer’s targets.  Sexually predatory priests (“Deaf Boys”), Madonna (“Like a Charity”), Sarah Palin (“Bridge to Nowhere”), Joe the Plumber (“Joe the Plumber”)--will it come as a surprise to anyone that Shearer is against them all?  What is surprising: the lameness of his Ian Dury impersonation.

(Big Beat/Atlantic)

Bangarang is not only this EP’s title but also what this EP’s music sounds like.  In fact, “bangarang” would make a better name for the entire hyper-electronic genre of which Skrillex is currently the best-selling example than “dubstep.”  Listeners needing more explanation might imagine minimalism, hip-hop, Keith Emerson’s synthesizers, machine guns, and jackhammers force fed into a garbage disposal then trash compacted until even such lyrics as poke out--“Bass makes that bitch come” (“Kyoto”), “Come on, baby, light my fire” (the Doors-featuring “Breakn' a Sweat”)--function more as aural shards than sentient expression.  The pummeling can get dull, like a wind-up toy ramming repeatedly into a wall.  It can also get impressive, as if Skrillex just might break on through to the other side.

Hundred Dollar Valentine 

It must be nice to have Chris Smither’s chief aesthetic problem, which is that he’s so consistent and consistently good at what he does his albums have begun to sound nearly identical.  What he does, for those who don’t yet know, is set existential conundrums to brisk, acoustic folk-blues and sing them in a warm, husky baritone soaked in stoicism with his tapping foot for a heartbeat.  What’s new this time is that he has finally eschewed covers, thus quashing doubts about whether a verse like “They say the good die young, but it ain’t for certain. / I’ve been good all day, I ain’t hurtin’. / And anyway I’m too old to die young” is his own.  And if you like that one, there are plenty more where it came from.

Radio Music Society 
(Heads Up International)

After her “Best New Artist” Grammy in the wake of Chamber Music Society, Spalding could’ve played things safe and merely reprised that album’s jazzy, non-verbal charms.  Instead, she has created an elastic jazz-pop tour de force, assembling a cast of dozens (four drummers alone, Jack DeJohnette included) and replacing the vocalise with lyrics.  Some of them, such as those in “Black Gold” advising African-Americans to boost their self-esteem by pondering ancient Egypt, are embarrassingly naive.  And “Vague Suspicions” and “Endangered Species” barely make sense.  But “How can we call our home, the land of the free / Until we've unbound the praying hands / Of each innocent woman and man” (“Land of the Free”)?, especially as Spalding sings it, ain’t bad for an Afrocentric “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Illinois Entertainer 2013: U-W

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2012: U-W

Seven Deadly 

One of the highest compliments anyone can pay a hard-rock album these days is to say it would sound good in an episode of Supernatural, and with “Burn Your House Down,” this twenty-first studio LP by Phil Mogg and Co. passes that test.  It’s truly amazing how far falsetto background vocalists going “Ooo, ooo” over minor chords and a mid-tempo beat can go toward diminishing one’s fear of the reaper--the other mid-tempo cuts might as well be Bob Seger B-sides by comparison.  Fortunately, loud and-or fast rules.  “Fight Night” makes watching boxing on Tijuana TV sound like a joyride on the highway to hell.  And “Wonderland,” powered by Vinnie Moore’s precision riffs, will have headbangers old enough to know better risking air-band whiplash.

Yin & Yang 
(Cherry Red)

PiL’s Metal Box is one of the greatest sounding albums ever, and Wobble (on bass) and Levene (on guitar) were at its core, throbbing and scraping away as if there were no other way out of the punk cul-de-sac that John Lydon yowled about atop them.  There  wasn’t.  And now, thirty-three years later, Wobble and Levene have picked up where they left off.  Lydon’s not aboard, but, when verbal bile must be spewed, Wobble does a close-enough-for-antichrist impersonation--especially on “Jags & Staffs,” the spoken bits of which recall PiL’s “Religion I.”  As for the duo’s re-forging of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’s weakest link (“Within You Without You”) into a throb-scrape template, it could’ve kept Lester Bangs brooding deep into the night.

Illinois Entertainer 2012: Christmas

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2012: Christmas

On This Winter’s Night 

The quality of Lady Antebellum’s early singles was so high that it was possible to entertain fantasies of the trio’s becoming the Fleetwood Mac of twenty-first-century country-pop.  Alas, no longer.  Fleetwood Mac would never have made a Christmas album, but if it had, the album would’ve been a lot less bland than what Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley accomplish by carrying these (mostly) well-known tunes in holly-bedecked buckets while unimaginative, yuletide-lite arrangements play in the background.  Why, competing against this year’s crop of new Christmas releases alone, they’re outperformed by Rod Stewart (“Blue Christmas”), Tracey Thorn (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), and the Polyphonic Spree (“Let It Snow,” “Silent Night,” “Silver Bells”).  And they never stood a chance with “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”

Christmas with Scotty McCreery 
(Mercury Nashville/19/Interscope)

Spending Christmas with Scotty McCreery wouldn’t be so bad.  A small-town boy at heart, he’d probably take you on a tour of his North Carolina environs then invite you to dinner with his family (who’d no doubt be playing his renditions of “Jingle Bells,” “Holly Jolly Christmas,” and “Winter Wonderland” on the Bose).  Then maybe you’d go with everyone to church.  You could even pew up next to Scotty during the singing of “O Holy Night” and “The First Noel” and verify whether his baritone twang as captured on his recordings is Auto-tune free.  Finally, later on by the fire, after the eggnog had kicked in--but only then--he’d sing “Santa Claus Is Back in Town” and his grandma would roll her eyes.  But she’d be smiling.

Merry Christmas, Baby 

It would be easy to dismiss Stewart’s Christmas project as his having discovered that it would allow him, at sixty-seven, to mine the Great American Songbook--a source that has enabled him to sell nearly eight-million albums--one more time.  And a cynical ploy it may be.  The strategic duets (Cee Lo Green, Michael Bublé, Trombone Shorty, Dave Koz, the long-deceased Ella Fitzgerald) certainly suggest as much.  But, although Merry Christmas, Baby’s secular chestnuts outnumber their sacred counterparts approximately three to one, Stewart sings each of the latter as if deep down he senses the significance of the Incarnation.  He certainly puts as much loving care into “This, this is Christ the King” as he put into “People get ready for the train to Jordan” twenty-seven years ago.