Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Album Review: "The Knowledge" by Squeeze


Just over two years ago, Squeeze released Cradle to the Grave, which also served as the marvellous soundtrack to the BBC series of the same name. Prior to that, their last release of original material was in 1998. So one could argue that this is the first album of uninhibited songs in almost twenty years.

Now that's not to say Cradle to the Grave was without merit. It was a great piece. But here, we are truly back to Squeeze at their core. Even the cover itself somehow harkens back to the band's earlier days, while truly looking nothing like any of their earlier album artwork. 

The first two tracks on the album have served as the released singles so far. My favorite of the two is "Patchouli," a melancholy tune of remembering a love lost. The intro blends a late '60s sunshine/power pop vibe with some mild country sounds before heading into the vocals. "Innocence in Paradise," the album opener, begins more roughly, but rolls into a soft desert-ready psychedelic track about isolation. Difford's low backing vocals act as the audio shadow of the lone traveller. Both songs are both nostalgic and lonely, but "Innocence" definitely conjures up a visual.


On the third track, Squeeze announce that they are getting political. "A&E" (that stands for "accident and emergency" for those not from the U.K.) tells the story of a man taking his injured wife to the hospital and waiting "all night just to be seen" while "The nurses looked completely drained//but nice as pie and so composed." The narrator goes on to say that he's while he's not a politician, he can see that something is wrong with the healthcare system, and that "Mental health our doctors know//Is underfunded and unexposed." It's certainly an unusual subject matter for a song, but somehow makes the topic sit well inside the song without sounding contrived or stilted.

The political theme continues throughout the album, and is revisited, on "Rough Ride." The song is presented almost as a mini-musical, beginning with a chorus, and separating verses between Glenn Tilbrook and an operatic singer (Cara McHardy). Tilbrook bemoans the classist system, with particular sympathy for the young generation, for whom "Affordable housing [is] an unobtainable dream." The narrator also sings the very resonant line "My children are working all the hours they can//to live in this city we love//But they can't imagine a life like I've had//Either you're rich or it's tough." These verses are contrasted by verses from the opera singer who makes generalizations, and seems to represent the established, out-of-touch wealth. The choice of the opera singer is a smart choice artistically, although musically, it falls to the grating side as it attempts to fit where it doesn't belong. If one can look at it as an art piece rather than a pop song, one could argue that the point is that these ideas don't mesh well, creating the divide in our society.

Possibly the most overtly political message for Americans comes on "The Ones," in which the narrator complains that "Fake news keeps on coming." The narrator continues to discuss how misinformation is shaping our divided societies, a truth that had been becoming more and more evident in the real world. A meaningful sentiment from "Rough Ride" is echoed, "The young are working harder//for less than they deserve." While these are undeniably world issues, I can't help but feel that "The Ones" is as strong a take on American problems as "A&E" is on British ones. But "The Ones" is not without hope, that "the best is still to come" and recommends that we "Take care//Of the ones we love." This is all presented in one of the catchiest tunes on the album, and one of the stronger tracks, which very much beckons to the sound of classic Squeeze without sounding stale.

Another song that rings relevant with the current headlines is "Final Score," a track about a boy who was molested by his coach coming to terms with the abuse years later, and the coach unable to reconcile the thoughts of his sins. Pedal steel wails throughout the tune, giving it spooky country vibes. It's not the strongest piece on the album, but it does tell a powerful and unfortunately not unusual story in our modern world. 

Album closer "Two Forks," echoes "The Ones" seemingly in reference to a domestic partnership this time. The opening line is almost word for word the same, but the sound and subject matters of the songs are completely different. "Two Forks" is about the divide between two people, now separated, who were once close.

Between the politically-charged songs, there are a number of stories being told. "Every Story," sounding every bit the classic Squeeze tune, tells the story of a small community in which gossip spreads like wildfire. Indian harmonium and celesta give "Every Story" the feel of Squeeze circa the early '80s, as does the subject matter. 

On the other hand, "Please Be Upstanding" tells a story that may never have told in the band's earlier years, of a man sinking into depression, possibly fearing his wife is cheating, and learning that he has cancer. The full story is a little unclear, but the raw fear the man feels is exposed throughout, which provides a unique perspective. 

"Albatross" might be the most fun The Knowledge offers us, telling the tale of an old record collector. Bongos separate the song from the fray, but so does the playful nature. The method of storytelling on this particular track reminds me of one of Nick Hornby's characters on Lonely Avenue.  

All the songs on this album have merit. I am surprised by how many are openly political, not just because Squeeze have never been the most political band, but because of the perspective they have on politics. I interviewed Chris Difford earlier this year for Rebeat and I asked if he thought he could still accurately portray the working class, since he's been a musician for so long. Difford said "As one grows older, it’s harder to write in that style." But in listening to The Knowledge, it's clear that though his perspective on life has changed, Difford is not out-of-touch with the young working class. He and Tilbrook now look to them as their children rather than themselves, but they still recognize the struggles. The storytelling has now moved on to be about men their own age, but this keeps the perspectives as fresh as ever. 

The Knowledge is definitely well worth a listen if you're a fan of Squeeze. And if you've never heard of them before, I'd say it's still worth a listen, because the album speaks for itself without any knowledge of the band's earlier work. 

Squeeze are a pop/rock band from London, England.

The Knowledge is out now and can be purchased here.

Friday, July 21, 2017

I've Got This Covered: Tegan and Sara "The Con"

I've Got This Covered is the article series in which I go over an album and pick the artists I think should cover it either in the present day or as a theoretical in the past. This week marks the 10th anniversary of Tegan and Sara's breakthrough album The Con. Tegan and Sara have moved on to an electronic, '80s-inspired sound since the initial release of the album, and as such, I've imagined what it would have been like if '80s, female-centric acts could have covered Tegan and Sara tracks. Enjoy.

1) I Was Married - Siouxsie and the Banshees
In my heart, I would actually love to hear this song covered by Florence + the Machine, but since I had to pick a central theme for this premise to work, and everything about Siouxsie Sioux makes me think she'd be totally into singing a dreamy alternative song about gay marriage. Apart from having a sound that I can imagine the band taking on, Sioux herself seems to have come out as pansexual (although she doesn't identify it as such, but who needs labels, right?), so I'm sure she can appreciate and vy for all kinds of love.

2) Relief Next To Me - The Pretenders
I have trouble not focusing on the Jason McGerr drum part on this song, so I guess I'd be interested to hear Martin Chambers' take on it. Beyond that though, I would love to hear Chrissie Hynde's voice applied to this one. Hynde has a long history of often personal lyrics, so I'm sure this veiled, yet deeply meaningful tune would see new life with a Hynde rendition.

3) The Con - Lene Lovich
The title track is one of my absolute favorite songs on the album. It's a little manic, and has a lower range verse and a higher-pitched chorus. Perfect for Lene Lovich! Should it remain a duet? Maybe! But wouldn't it also be cool to just see what Ms Lovich could do with the vocal arrangements on her own?

4) Knife Going In - Kate Bush
I do have a bias toward the notion of Kate Bush covering anything and creating her own take on it. However, the vocals and the strange and haunting feel created by the Kaki King lap steel as well as the (albeit metaphorical) violence seem like something Bush could totally sink her teeth (albeit metaphorically) into.

5) Are You Ten Years Ago? - The Eurythmics
Let's give the most '80s-sounding song on The Con to The Eurythmics, a band with a strong female front-person who also mastered using electronic drums in a pretty organic way (sort of like the blended electronic beat and drums on this song). I would be very interested to hear what Annie Lennox's voice would sound like on this one.

6) Back in Your Head - Altered Images
Oddly, it's simply the rhythm of this song that brings to mind Altered Images for me. Still, I think Clare Grogan's floating voice would blanket this song well, as the rest of the band's electronic sounds provide an interesting spin on one of Tegan and Sara's most popular songs.

7) Hop a Plane - Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
The pop-punk energy could be perfectly played upon by Jett. Jett has the edge of anger in her music necessary for this track, and the Blackhearts could give it a great sound that is both an homage to the original and something totally new.

8) Soil, Soil - The Bangles
Yes, this choice goes more full-on pop than most of the others, for a somewhat sombre tune. But I can't help imagining something in the vein of "Hero Takes the Fall."

9) Burn Your Life Down - The Go-Go's
Another pure pop cover would come from these lovely ladies. I can just imagine Belinda Carlisle belting this one out with Jane Wiedlin joining in for the chorus. I'm sure the tempo would be changed just a little bit, and the song probably would have been a bit too dark for the '80s mainstream, but it could be a great pairing (I think).

10) Nineteen - Blondie
Who better to cover a fan favorite Tegan and Sara song than a band with a huge fanbase that is still considered outside of the mainstream? Think "Hanging on the Telephone."

11) Floorplan - The B-52's
So obviously most people think of Fred Schneider when they think of this band, but I would love to hear Kate Pierson or Cindy Wilson provide their take on this song which, like many B-52's songs, centers around a pretty strange metaphor. "Floorplan" also has some pretty exaggerated sentiments ("I want your lungs to stop working without me") that Wilson could definitely do justice to.

12) Like O, Like H - The Waitresses
My artist choice is probably a little polarizing, as I realize post-punk, early rap isn't everyone's cup of tea. But I feel that the application of Patty Donahue's monotone rapping would really enable the band to give this song an alternative life as an 80s track.

13) Dark Come Soon - Martha and the Muffins
Martha Johnson has a very brash tone to her voice that would well suit this pleading and (ill)advisory song. She can be "dark" if you will.

14) Call it Off - 'Til Tuesday 
There's an incredible dichotomy of strength and fragility in Aimee Mann's voice that would work perfectly for this track about ending a relationship despite feelings that it could have been a great one.


That's how I think it should go down. Questions? Better ideas? Drop me a comment. Or if you're one of the living artists listed above, feel free to make this happen.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Book Review: "Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff" by Michael Nesmith

There's a line in the Pretenders song "Every Mother's Son," which goes: "My small mortal eyes can see eternity//In the clouds that dissolve and then regroup endlessly." And why bring that up here? Because replace "clouds" with the term "bands" and you have the basic synopsis for this memoir of sorts. Michael Nesmith tells us from the fore that he is basing the novel around various groups or "bands" he has felt (or in some cases not felt) a part of. That is not to say musical acts, so much as groupings of friends, or of creative or intellectual minds.

Nesmith has had a profound impact on popular culture, from his involvement in creating MTV to parodying his own song "Joanne," to his creation of the social media/livestream service Videoranch (years prior to the rest of the internet catching up), not to mention the many timeless songs he wrote, long before Taylor Swift made "country rock" cool and trendy. Here, we learn not only about Nesmith himself, but often about those close to him: those who sometimes influenced or assisted in his projects.

Infinite Tuesday does not take place in a completely linear manner, as indeed our thoughts do not. Good books are frequently not a straightforward presentation of facts, and Nesmith (who has also written several other books and short stories) knows how to write a good book. It's a page-turner, one which had me at times wondering what was going to happen next- even though he was sometimes describing situations which were basically public knowledge.

The book also recounts Nesmith's creative and spiritual pursuits throughout his life. Monkees fans, if you haven't figured it out by now, don't expect that that 4-5 year period in his life was as important to him as it is to you. That's not to say he doesn't mention it. In fact, he explores that period of time over a few chapters, using a Pinocchio metaphor to explain the Monkees pursuit of controlling more of their albums, and takes us through the process from the early days. Little of the snark about his past that he has a reputation for comes forward in this book, which has a fairly wholesome feel about it.

That said, Nesmith does not paint himself in an unrealistic light. He willingly admits to both his infidelities and cruelness in his relationships, and to his angry temper (caused by what he names "celebrity psychosis"). He explores his journey away from and then deeply into the arms of the Christian Science church.

Nesmith takes us on a journey through many of his creative pursuits. One truly realizes the scope of what he has accomplished, and how most of his adult life has been struggling for people to understand the genius of what he's doing, since his tastes in music and comedy run to the slightly unusual. This is actually where the title comes from. As he explains, he and Douglas Adams both realized their unusual humor wasn't unique to them at separate times in their lives, when they saw a cartoon by Paul Crum, in which one hippo says to another "I keep thinking it's Tuesday."


When telling of his early life, Nesmith explains his relationships with his uncle, aunt, and mother. Through the book, Nesmith gives a few details about the life of his incredible mother, Bette Nesmith Graham, inventor of liquid paper, collector of fine art, and founder of several charitable foundations. He also explains some of his involvement with those foundations including helping to fund Sundance film festival and creating the Council on Ideas.

But the book isn't intriguing for its presentation of facts, so much as for taking you into Nesmith's head, and giving you an idea of how he thought and felt throughout his career. It's interesting to hear about not only the creation of "Rio" as an early music video, but the thought processes that led to Elephant Parts and The Prison.


Rhino released an accompanying soundtrack to this book, featuring some of Nesmith's songwriting over the years. It's somewhat fitting, because Nesmith wrote several pieces of literature and music to go together. The problem is, the album is somewhat short, and contains mostly Monkees songs that fans hear ad nauseum. Nesmith mentions "Pretty Little Princess," a song he played pre-Monkees, when he was touring around Texas high schools, and says it caused hysteria just after the Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan. Unfortunately, this song is not on the soundtrack.  It's not because it wasn't recorded, as it can be found on Youtube. I don't know the situation, but I assume Nesmith had little or nothing to do with the Rhino release, and I doubt Rhino knew very much about the book prior to the release, just judging by the song choices. Infinite Tuesday really gets you thinking about Nesmith's catalogue.

Overall, I highly recommend Infinite Tuesday. It's an essential read for anyone interested in Nesmith, and for anyone who just enjoys a good autobiography. It isn't detailed or comprehensive, but one really feels they have been brought into the inner circle of this very private man, for some stories about his life thus far.

Michael Nesmith.
Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff can be purchased here.


Sunday, April 30, 2017

State of the Music Address: April 2017


It's that time of year again, in which it seems like there's some really good stuff either out or coming out in the music world. Just in case I don't get time to cover it all, let me give you a quick rundown.

-First of all, Michael Nesmith just released Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff, and it's a great read. I'm doing my best to get a review published soon, but in case I don't manage to, I just want to say something about it.

-Lots of albums have been coming out lately. It's been enough in a short space of time that I'm having trouble keeping up with them all. Ray Davies released Americana, Dave and Russ Davies released Open Road, and Feist came out with Pleasure, her first album in six years!

-Procol Harum also came out with their first new album in fourteen years, which I reviewed over at Rebeat.

-Oh yeah, and last month I did an interview with Chris Difford of Squeeze, which was an absolute pleasure.

-7 Inches for Planned Parenthood is currently taking preorders for their exclusive boxed set to benefit the aforementioned Planned Parenthood.

-My radio show, One-Mind Tracks is live every Thursday at 7 and streaming online! This week we're listening to some tracks about May flowers.

-If you're in central Ohio, The Xx are playing in Columbus Friday, and we've got more upcoming shows from Spoon (with Tennis as the opener!), and an arena show featuring the unlikely duo of Tears for Fears and Hall and Oates. Later this summer, there's Deerhoof (at Ace of Cups), The Mountain Goats, and Portugal. The Man.

-As I mentioned briefly, I'm trying to get some reviews churned out quickly, as well as a few "One-Mind Tracks" style articles soon, to co-ordinate with the show. Stick around!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Following in the Footsteps: Kate Bush

No More Blood From a Clone is not dead! Here, in the triumphant return, we will explore the second in a series of articles about the influence artists have had on more recent artists. This week, we're looking at work which owes a good deal to Kate Bush. You can also catch a live show about this playlist Thursday at 7pm on 975wdif.com.

"Entre ánimas" by Virjinia Glück
It's hard to find much information on this Spanish artist, but it's clear in any language that she owes a lot to "Wuthering Heights," "Sat in Your Lap," and Bush's overall style. Not just in this song either. Almost anything I have found by her sounds similar to Bush.


"Icicle" by Tori Amos
The comparison between Amos and Bush is something of a joke in the Bush community, but it's still necessary to include for all of the non-Bush readers. I have opted for a less obscene track for the radio version of this playlist, but you can hear her influence most on "Icicle."


"Easy" by Joanna Newsom
Newsom was always known in the early years for her unusual voice and harp playing, but her musical skills are not limited. Have One on Me is a massive, three-disc album, with a great deal of Bush sounds. I think this one has the most in common with the earlier artist, bringing to mind "Feel It" or something from The Kick Inside


"Genius Next Door" by Regina Spektor
Before I go much further with these "easy" picks, let me offer up a much more thinkey Kate Bush-following piece. Bush was pretty straightforward with some of her lyrics, like "The Dreaming," "Houdini," and "Army Dreamers," but still others like "The Man with the Child in His Eyes" and "Suspended in Gaffa" are still shrouded in mystery. Apart from the whole woman-with-a-piano thing Spektor has going, she has also borrowed Bush's air of mystery without trying to become a witch/fairy hybrid. "Genius" is some fine songwriting, perfectly bringing to mind vintage small-town America, while telling the very strange story surrounding the town lake. It reminds me of Big Fish as told by a crafty songstress. Thus, much like Bush's works, it has an air of the literary and mysterious. 


"Wrecking Ball" by Miley Cyrus
To every person who just wants to cast this song aside because of Miley Cyrus, I beg you to listen to both the crafting of the song (which Cyrus surely had very little to do with) and the vocal chops (which are pretty much all her). Not only is the verse very Bush-esque, but Cyrus actually has a pretty rad voice. Just appreciate it.


"Clowns" by Goldfrapp
Goldfrapp have admitted to the influence, and while you can't always hear it strongly, I think this is a great example of the influence. It's somehow both more ethereal and more folky than you would expect from a Bush song, but not without connections.


"Horse & I" by Bat For Lashes
Around ten years ago, it seemed as though, as a female artist, you had two basic options: you could be Florence Welch or Adele. Opting for the former option prior to Florence and the Machine even making their first commercial release, Natasha Kahn was actually pretty original. So, of course, she drew comparisons to Kate Bush. Not undeservedly, however. She didn't gain much attention in the states until the very dream-like "Daniel" in 2009, which was often considered to be THE new Kate Bush song. However, careful listeners would have already heard the epic adventure tale told in "Horse & I," a song which audibly brings to mind "Experiment IV" in the strings.


"Breaking Down" by Florence + The Machine
While we're on the subject of Florence Welch, I feel I should mention what I consider to be her most Bush song. It's somewhere between a more melodic "Get Out of My House," "The Man With the Child in His Eyes," and "Them Heavy People." I don't care what comparisons people want to make between the two artists (both of whom I love), this will always be the Bush-esque song to me.


"Never is a Promise" by Fiona Apple
Another young prodigy, Apple brings to mind The Red Shoes with this song, particularly the video, which reminds me of "Moments of Pleasure," but there are touches of earlier Bush songs in the melody as well. She also heavily conveys that woman-with-a-piano vibe.


"Flash Me Up" by Happy Rhodes
With a very Bush-esque sound as well as vague lyrics, this isn't the only song I could have used by a longshot. I thought the performance/film aspect of the song might make it extra fitting though. Sidenote: there were a lot of 90s artists inspired by her as well as the recent surge.


"Fingers and Toes" by Alex Winston
Alex Winston shares both the classical training and vocal range with Bush, but definitely has a sound of her own. Still, I feel that fans of Bush who haven't heard of Winston yet are missing out.


"Charlie" by Milla Jovovich
Yes, that Milla Jovovich once made an album with some Kate Bush vibes. The actress and musician continues to release "demos" occasionally on her website, which she encourages fans to work on. 


"I'll Get You Back" by Kristeen Young
In the vein of "Sat in Your Lap," this song by former art student and pianist is both strange and catchy. Young has collaborated with Morrissey and David Bowie.


"Chloe in the Afternoon" by St. Vincent
Described by some as Annie Clark's attempt at The Dreaming, Strange Mercy, does have some of that distinctive sound to it. Never having delved much into St. Vincent, I can't help but agree on this track at least.


Special thanks to these articles, which I used as resources.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Album Review: "Good Times" by The Monkees


It's been almost 50 years since The Monkees was released, and 20 years since The Monkees most recent album, Justus was released. They've overcome Don Kirshner, seen Peter Tork leave the group, seen Michael Nesmith leave the group, completely disbanded, reunited (minus Nesmith), reunited with Nesmith, reunited without Nesmith, faced the passing of the great David Jones, and regrouped as Micky Dolenz, Tork, and Nesmith. Good Times serves as not only an anniversary celebration, but an attempt to bring back the "good times" feel of the group. 

Good Times has already received mostly positive reviews, and apart from reviewing it myself, I'd like to discuss for a moment what sets Good Times apart from their other post-1970 projects. 

Pool It!, released in 1987 featured Dolenz, Jones, and Tork. The Monkees had been seeing a massive popularity spike since their shows started rerunning on MTV, and a new generation of young fans had been created. However, while Pool It! is not entirely without merit, the album failed chart significantly, despite, as I mentioned, a pretty big fanbase considering they'd originally been popular twenty years prior. The songs on the album were neither written by the band, nor by the famed songwriters they'd worked with in the sixties (with a couple of exceptions). The backing was once again done by studio musicians, and for some reason, they chose to use an album cover that completely ignored what twenty years of aging had done to them. That said, the studio musicians and producer Roger Bechirian did a great job of making the album sound current. It's just that much of the charm the group had originally cultivated was missing. The musical integrity they'd fought so hard for was also out for the day, and this combination of factors really didn't make the album a great success. 

Flashing forward nine years to Justus, we see all four men reunited. As a condition of working on the project, Nesmith made sure The Monkees once again wrote and performed their own material. He also took over the majority of the production responsibility. Early work on the album was said to include tunes penned by various other writers, although it's still tough to know if those writers would have done any better or much worse than what the boys managed. As I've said in reviews before, it's tough to hold a reunion album or an album by an older artist to the same standards as you would a new "hip" band. With or without that information though, Justus did not turn out as a terrible album. What it lacks is the fun they seemed to be having on Headquarters, and the upbeat, yet often poignant songs of the sixties work they did. The album is very much a rock album, which is forgetful of the fact that the band's bread and butter was being a pop group, and what made their records special in the original era was the fact that many genres peeped their head in. Justus also suffered from strange and terrible promotion. The TV special designed to go along with it was released months later, and aired just once, never to be released on VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray. 

The point I'm taking forever to get to here is that Good Times is basically the third attempt to make a post-1970 album good and to make it work commercially. I got excited for the project immediately, and not just because it's The Monkees. Big names whose songwriting I've been a fan of for years started to get attached immediately, and that really made me much more enthusiastic for what was to come.

Good Times begins on a high note (figuratively), with the title track, "Good Times." Harry Nilsson recorded a very short version of this song during the two years he spent on the Tower Records label (available on Spotlight on Nilsson), and had been working on a version with Nesmith in 1968, which got shelved. Dolenz picked the session tape up for Good Times, and sings a duet with the late, great Nilsson, a good friend of Dolenz. The resulting track sounds as vintage as one might expect, but with a few modern touches courtesy of producer Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne).

Longtime Monkees fan and untraditional melodist Andy Partridge (XTC) provides the sunshine-pop tune "You Bring the Summer." "You Bring the Summer" brings to mind "Sunny Girlfriend" conceptually, as well as any 60s beach tune in terms of overall feel. All three living Monkees perform on it vocally, with Nesmith on guitar and Tork on organ.


Meanwhile, Weezer's Rivers Cuomo penned another summer anthem with "She Makes Me Laugh." Cuomo must have been channeling a lot of 60s sound, because you can hear it in Weezer's White Album (released in April) as well. I only bring this up because I could imagine Dolenz (or even the late Jones) singing the Weezer track "(Girl We Got a) Good Thing." All that said, "She Makes Me Laugh" comes out fantastically and also features contributions by the other two remaining Monkees.



By the time producer Adam Schlesinger's track "Our Own World" rears its head, it has become clear that the album definitely has a theme of sunny days running through it. Although "Our Own World" didn't receive as much press as some of the tracks with other names attached, it's really a great track for the group as well. If I have one complaint about it, it's that Schlesinger slipped a little more into his Fountains of Wayne roots for the production of this song than for the rest of the album.

Bringing in another of the composers that worked so closely with the band in the 60s, the group finished work on "Gotta Give it Time," a Jeff Barry and Joey Levine piece with elements that were recorded in 1967 (I'm thinking the backing track by the Wrecking Crew). The backing gives it an authentic vintage feel, but with it being less catchy than most other tracks on the album, one might be able to guess why it wasn't used before (or it may have been because of Headquarters, I'm not speaking in absolutes).

One of the most relaxed tracks on the record, and by far the most popular track has to be "Me and Magdalena." Written by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie, "Me and Magdalena" is totally congruent with Gibbard's work (particularly on Former Lives and the soundtrack to Arthur), while still being a perfect fit for Nesmith to sing. Gibbard is another longtime Monkees fan, and has been known to perform "Cuddly Toy" and "Look Out, Here Comes Tomorrow" in concerts. Nesmith vocalises the song with the sincerity he would give one of his own tracks while displaying a well-preserved voice.



A Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart tune "Whatever's Right" has an authentically retro vibe. Boyce and Hart originally recorded a version of "Whatever's Right" as the final track for The Monkees, but lead vocals were never added, and the song appears for the first time on a Monkees album here. Dolenz' sister Coco Dolenz and Bobby Hart both contribute backing vocals to the final 2016 recording.

One of the first obstacles that had to be overcome for Good Times was the fact that David Jones is no longer with us. There has never been a Monkees album without Jones and Dolenz, despite the varying degrees of Tork and Nesmith throughout history. Inclusion of Jones was achieved by digging up a semi-rare "Love To Love," formerly featured only on rarities albums or as a bonus track. Dolenz and Tork added new backing vocals and Schlesinger polished it up a bit. While I've been hearing "Love To Love" for years, I'm glad it was given a new feel for the new album.

Tork brings "Little Girl" to the table. Tork says he originally wrote the song with Jones in mind, as a follow-up to "I Wanna Be Free." Jones had wanted to sing it, but as fate would have it, never got the chance. The charming and sincere tune is a perfect fit for the album, and a great piece of work by Tork.



Paul Weller (The Jam) and Noel Gallagher (Oasis) collaborated on "Birth of an Accidental Hipster," a dreamy track that blends the voices of Nesmith and Dolenz together for a sound that could have been found on the Head soundtrack. Once again, Coco Dolenz contributes vocals, and Schlesinger provides impeccable production.

On "Wasn't Born to Follow," Tork again shows off an excellent voice as he leads a Gerry Goffin and Carole King tune. Much of the backing track was recorded in 1968, which can definitely be heard in the harpsichord, but modern touches have been placed on it.

The minimalistic "I Know What I Know" serves as the only Nesmith-penned track. His cryptic blurb in the liner notes could be taken to mean that he sees this song as something of a reunion song, or at the very least, that he dedicates this song to the reunion. Either way, the slow-paced song is moving, and a great song to be placed near the end of the album.

"I Was There (And I'm Told I Had a Good Time)" closes Good Times. Written by Schlesinger and Dolenz, the song title is a nod to a comment Dolenz frequently makes about his partying days of the late 60s and 70s. The track begins with something of a "Sgt. Pepper" sound. As hokey as the track could have been with the premise the title presented, it turned out very nicely. "I Was There" serves as a fantastic closer, as well as being the only track on which Dolenz performs drums.

Overall, Good Times provides a clean, sunshine pop sound. It's consistent in substance, without losing the variety in style that the original albums had. The decisions made for the album by Andrew Sandoval are near-perfect. They hit a great ratio of classic-era composers, modern composers who have drawn inspiration from the group, and songs written by the three living Monkees. The art direction of the album is a massive improvement over the last two as well, featuring illustrations reminiscent of Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, but with a very modern-looking cover nonetheless. My primary complaints with the album involve the high-concentration of songs on which Dolenz sings lead at the front of the album, and the scarcity of Nesmith songwriting and vocalisation on the album, the latter of which can easily be excused by the careful choice of a variety of songwriters chosen for the album, which I think keep each track new and exciting.

I personally, wouldn't be displeased if this were the final Monkees album, so that they might celebrate their 50th anniversary, but end their production of new music on a high-note. That said, getting another Gibbard composition, or something by Sam Means or Elvis Costello wouldn't hurt my feelings either.

I have this theory that certain albums are best listened to in particular seasons. Good Times was released at the perfect time, because it is a summer album if ever I heard one. It might not be a perfect record, but it's definitely the best since The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees. Totally worth a listen.

The Monkees in their heyday.

Good Times can be purchased here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Separated at Birth: 2 Songs with Bird Metaphors

If you haven't already heard the news, then I am very excited to announce that Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie and Andy Partridge of XTC have each written songs for The Monkees' forthcoming album Good Times. It's no huge surprise though, as both songwriters have long proven themselves to be big fans of the 60s group. I doubt that most would compare XTC and Death Cab, however, but that is what I intend to do.

In 1992, XTC released Nonsuch, which included a few compositions by Colin Moulding, along with the majority composed by Partridge. Among the Moulding compositions was "My Bird Performs."


Prior to presenting the track to the band, Moulding recorded a very simple home demo, which was later released publicly.



The track features a metaphor comparing a girl to a bird and expressing contentment with their situation. 

In 2008, Death Cab for Cutie released Narrow Stairs, which included the more morose song "Talking Bird."


"Talking Bird" also had a simple demo, recorded by Gibbard, and released publicly after the album came out.


Obviously, the fact that both songs had demos isn't much fodder for comparison, but the phrasing, even the reference to an "open cage," is very similar in both songs. The Death Cab piece almost plays as a later part of the same relationship, as though the songwriter got tired of the birdlike antics that were once more charming in 1992, but still loves the "feathered" protagonist.

Total coincidence, but I find it interesting when two fairly different songs share common themes. Stay tuned for more.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Top 10: Albums of 2015

Each year that passes leaves me increasingly worried that I've reached that age at which you can no longer appreciate new music. I had a lot going on in 2014, and ended up not even having a top ten albums, but merely singles. Luckily, my faith was restored in 2015, and I definitely have a top 10.

What's to say about 2015 in music? For pop radio, it almost seemed to be a year of breakout hits, one-hit wonders, etc, except that Taylor Swift, Justin Beiber, and Adele all dominated as well. The pop charts didn't do much to impress me, but that's not to say they were without winners. And there were plenty of independant pieces that totally rocked. Below are ten of my favorite albums from 2015.

10. Hypercolor by Carrick
Carrick Moore Gerety utilizes a great deal of pop-style production for his first major solo project. It lacks some of the soul of his work with Everybody Else, but his voice will make ANY track pretty good, and there is some definite songwriting prowess exhibited as well.

Key Tracks:
"I Get High"
"Beginners"
"All I Think About"

9. Still Got That Hunger by The Zombies
The Zombies toured this year to support their 1968 classic Odyssey and Oracle, as well as this crowd-funded masterpiece featuring 80% new material. I understand jazz saw a big comeback overall this year, and I hope the jazz-influenced stylings of this classic '60s group were not overlooked.

Key Tracks:
"Chasing the Past"
"Edge of the Rainbow"
"Maybe Tomorrow"

8. Kintsugi by Death Cab For Cutie
Perhaps it's the loss of Chris Walla that gives this album a more tired feeling, but it just didn't have what Death Cab For Cutie's previous albums have had. Still, it packs quite a few punches. It has more in common with Ben Gibbard's Former Lives than Death Cab's Narrow Stairs, utilizing his storytelling as he bemoans lost relationships and more. It's a step down from Codes and Keys, but still a nice piece of work.

Key Tracks:
"No Room in Frame"
"Black Sun"
"Little Wanderer"

7. Grand Romantic by Nate Ruess
I don't know why I was so hell-bent on finding flaws in Grand Romantic, but I eventually had to admit that even "Ah-Ha," which initially got on my nerves, is a solid and catchy tune. There were a couple of misses on the album, but overall, Nate Ruess blends pop and indie sounds together with his out-of-this-world voice for a wonderful album.

Key Tracks:
"Nothing Without Love"
"You Light My Fire"
"Great Big Storm"

6. Alone in the Universe by Jeff Lynne's ELO
Jeff Lynne's flair for production makes his new project sound as fresh and new as anything from this year, as well as remaining consistent with the earlier works of ELO. As I said in my review, this album features a hefty helping of slide guitar and songwriting that is not to be missed.

Key Tracks:
"When I was a Boy"
"Love and Rain"
"Ain't it a Drag"

5. Glean by They Might Be Giants
Still one of the most enjoyable groups out there, They Might Be Giants reintroduced their "Dial-A-Song" concept this year, which meant a new song every week. This provided them with a great deal of new material for GleamGleam is as varied in style as fans have come to expect from the group, yet all drawn together by the sound understanding of musical principles and songwriting that these gents have shown us year after year.

Key Tracks:
"Let Me Tell You About My Operation"
"Erase"
"Aaa"

4. Aureate Gloom by of Montreal
Only a mild step back from what I consider to be of Montreal's best work on Lousy With Sylvianbriar, Kevin Barnes faces divorce and another lineup of the band with his usual verbose and vitriolic tongue. With the backdrop of a funky throwback sound, Barnes also finds time to discuss politics and his own dark side. If you missed my full review, it can be found here.

Key Tracks:
"Last Rites at the Jane Hotel"
"Estocadas"
"Empyrean Abattoir"

3. The High Country by Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin
Featuring some of  Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin's catchiest lo-fi work yet, The High Country is not only one of my favorite albums of the year, but some of the strongest work by the band. As I stated in my review, they have retained the sincerity of their first album, Broom, and the earworm qualities they broke out in Pershing, but with a great deal of finesse. The High Country is totally one of my favorite albums of 2015.

Key Tracks:
"Full Possession of All Her Powers"
"Madeline"
"Step Brother City"

2. Guitars and Microphones by Kate Pierson
Very close to topping this list, Kate Pierson's debut solo album is a masterpiece. For years, she has played an important role in The B-52's, but as of this year, with the help of Nick Valensi (of The Strokes) and Sia, she is sounding her barbaric yawp as a solo artist. Despite the fact that she's a seasoned artist, everything sounds fresh. The upbeat nature of the songs makes them addictive, as does their catchiness and power-pop tendencies.

Key Tracks:
"Bottoms Up"
"Throw Down the Roses"
"Mister Sister"


1. Uptown Special by Mark Ronson
I deliberated for a long time on which album was my number 1, but Uptown Special totally deserves it. As I said in my review, this record combines different styles, recording artists, and moods into one stellar album with a throwback soul sound. The success Mark Ronson has seen with this album (#27 here in the U.S.) is not only understandable, but well-deserved. Uptown Special is a block party, a romp, and a piece of poetry, making it my favorite album of the year.

Key Tracks:
"Leaving Los Feliz"
"I Can't Lose"
"In Case of Fire"

Friday, November 6, 2015

Album Review: "Alone in the Universe" by Jeff Lynne's ELO


Alone in the Universe represents The Electric Light Orchestra's first album of new material in fourteen years. Back in 2001, when Zoom was released, low ticket sales led to the cancellation of their North American tour. This year, however, I think the world is more than ready to receive more of what ELO has to offer. Not only that, but Jeff Lynne's ELO is more than prepared to bring everything to the table.

Bands with distinct sounds, particularly ones that have been around over twenty years, with lengthy breaks in-between albums can sound stale, even when the music is structurally sound, or can sound tired, even with modern recording techniques. Yet as Alone in the Universe begins, all one can think of is that they are listening to a fresh new project.

The album begins softly with "When I was a Boy," a track that could trick the unsuspecting listener into thinking they're listening to a new Beatles album. Of course, we all know it isn't The Beatles, but ELO was created to (in the founders' minds) pick up where The Beatles left off. John Lennon and George Harrison were both big fans of the work ELO was doing as well, and Lynne even produced Harrison's Cloud Nine and Brainwashed. So it's not tough or wrong to hear a Beatles sound in their tracks. "When I was a Boy" marries the soft piano sound of Lennon's "Imagine" with Lynne's signature style of lyricism. Many of the techniques utilized on George Harrison's later 80s work (circa "When We Was Fab") are updated for the song as well. Through it all though, the soft embroidery of the typical ELO sound is sewn. One can't help but be grateful that Lynne's voice is holding up quite nicely, as it certainly does the trick for the song. One slightly notable difference that can be heard in the song, and album as a whole, which makes it more Harrison-esque, is that they have replaced many of the orchestral sounds with a slide-guitar.


Even the video brings to mind the "Free as a Bird" promotional film (a song Lynne also produced).

Alone in the Universe
is also the first ELO album since George Harrison's death, and one can't help but feel that his good friend Jeff Lynne has now more specifically attempted to pick up where Harrison left off. After all, Lynne and Dhani Harrison completed Brainwashed, the last of Harrison's unfinished work.

If you're wondering about this theory, I recommend you listen to "Cloud Nine," the title track of the aforementioned Harrison album before checking out "Love and Rain," another gorgeous Lynne composition. The two songs aren't twins, but they are certainly estranged brothers. A sombre tone accompanies another of many Lynne tracks with a rain motif.

Or course, the sun returns for "Dirty to the Bone," a very ELO composition, which gives a 70s sound a modern feel. Although slightly lacking in energy and lyrics, "Dirty to the Bone" is really a reminder of what ELO have innovated on their own, as is "When the Night Comes," another track with retro vibes restrained by modern production.


"Sun Will Shine on You" is a very different piece for Lynne vocally, beginning with a near-acapella intro compared to the band's usual sound. The positivity of tracks like "Mr. Blue Sky" is echoed with a more acoustic vibe. The verse works slowly and quietly, sympathetic to the sadness the subject of the song is experiencing, while the chorus becomes uplifting each time, offering a very friend-like pep-talk out of sadness. Yet again, the Harrison-like slide guitar tiptoes around in the background.

In the spirit of more energetic earlier ELO songs, "Ain't it a Drag" also borrows from fifties sounds. Lynne has never been the most energetic songsman, but here the reservation is definitely a plus. He doesn't try too hard to sound young or hip, and that is often the saving grace of this album.

Next, Lynne sings what could surely become someone's wedding song with "All My Life," a beautiful ELO ballad, followed immediately by a breakup song, "I'm Leaving You." "I'm Leaving You" is oddly pleasant for the subject matter, but is still one of the weaker tunes on the album.

"One Step at a Time" sounds the closest to the late 70s work of the band, with only a few modern touches (including a guitar bridge, which is more of a drawback than anything). Overall though, "One Step at a Time" is quite solid.


Closing the album is the title track, "Alone in the Universe." It begins slowly, with the sound and energy building. It's a great wrap-up for the album, bringing everything together with the musical poetry Lynne has such a knack for.

Lynne is the only founding member of ELO to work on Alone in the Universe, making Jeff Lynne's ELO a polite (and possibly lawsuit-preventing) way to title the group who did work on it. Lynne's production and arranging can be heard in everything he involves himself in. I know there are those who dislike that fact, much as Phil Spector's work is often disliked. But I feel Lynne has flair. Alone in the Universe is a great new piece for fans of the band. In addition to that, anyone who has been jonesing for new George Harrison material should also give the album a listen. I can't guarantee that all Beatles fans will love it, but Harrison fans will sense his presence, and feel the appreciation he would have had for the album.

This is of course, simplifying all of the album's complexities down to a couple of caricatures, which isn't fair. The album soars as any new album is capable of. The songs are artistic in their composition. The sound is congruent with the band's earlier work, while moving onward, looking to the future without trying too hard to be modern. I can only hope this album will be successful enough for more endeavours by Jeff Lynne's ELO in the near future.

Producer and founding member of ELO, Jeff Lynne.

Alone in the World is out November 13th and can be purchased here.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Separated at Birth: 2 Videos That Include Several Genres of Dance

It's not all about setting here at "Separated at Birth." Sometimes, it's the central idea of a video that is repeated or happens to be similar to an older one. So it's a similarity in concept we're talking about today, with just two videos from the last ten years.

In 2007, KT Tunstall was somewhat successful with her track "Hold On." The video involves some kind of strange time machine that takes Tunstall through different moments in the evolution of dance, making her the center of each genre.


There are certain quirks to Tunstall's performance, including being seemingly confused about some of the dances and singing despite the dancing and genre changes.

Flash forward to last year, in which Taylor Swift released one of her many responses to haters with "Shake it Off."


It's interesting that the overall concept not only seems similar, but that something about the personality is comparable.

In reality, I'm sure it's just a coincidence, but it certainly seems like these two videos were separated at birth. Stay tuned for more musical artifacts that were separated at birth.