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Devoted Sighs
The Orange Humble Band: Assorted Creams
Perhaps oddly, given how much time I spend in record stores, I do not respond to personality or creativity in them at all. My ideal record store would be divided into exactly two sections: the large one would simply have at least one of every piece of music currently in print anywhere in the world, organized in meticulous alphabetical order by artist (compilations separate), with the store's positions on any controversial alphabetizing issues clearly outlined on a poster on the wall somewhere; the small one would have additional copies of all new releases and import arrivals from the past two weeks, which may be kept in totally random order, as far as I'm concerned, since I'm going to flip through all of them anyway. Any other detail is irrelevant; I would cheerfully put up with knee-deep sewage in the aisles, as long as the CD bins were kept clear of it. I don't care what's playing on the stereo, I don't care if they hold in-store concerts (as long as they don't happen on Tuesday evenings), I don't care if they also sell incense or magazines or Altoids. All I ask is that they sort things predictably. Admittedly, sorting odd band names can entail tricky judgment calls, but I opt, in all cases, for literal-minded clarity. Whatever it says on the cover of the disc, that's how it should be shelved. We may both know that differentiating between a Guided by Voices album and a Robert Pollard solo album is semantic sophistry, but I expect to find the "solo" albums under P, all the same. I recognize that most record stores have constituencies other than me to consider, for whom a little cross-referencing serendipity may be commercially advantageous, so I don't object to putting a few additional copies of appropriate albums in other related spots, but here is, I think, a reasonable caveat: if an album is obscure enough that you only have one copy of it, then I'm probably the one who's going to buy it, so put it where I can find it. I must have checked the T bins at Newbury Comics for four weeks running before accidentally discovering that the British band theaudience had been para-cleverly shelved under A, and I don't know why I was looking in the Posies bin, at all, when I came across a much-sought-for copy of Assorted Creams, by the Orange Humble Band, in it.
To be fair, though, anybody even fractionally less pedantic about shelving rules than me would probably regard this album as at least a justified exception to the general practice. Ex-Posies singer Ken Stringfellow provides the lead vocals, and if you took this disc out of the Assorted Creams package and stuck it in a blank slipcover with an effusive promo blurb on the front about Stringfellow, freed from the constraints of the Posies, finally getting to explore his pop vision on a scale that does justice to its ambition, as well as its charm, I'm pretty confident that nobody would guess the truth from just hearing the music. (I suspect that Stringfellow's actual solo album, This Sounds Like Goodbye, would encounter far more skepticism.) The Posies' experiments with bigger production, the velvety Dear 23 and the raucous Frosting on the Beater and Amazing Disgrace, mostly just made them sound fuzzier, so it makes perfect sense to assume that Jonathan Auer had been vetoing Ken's more adventurous arrangement ideas. Finally, Ken can indulge impulses like the churning half-Green-Day, half-Jellyfish sparkle of "Fanclub Requiem", the ringing barroom piano and cracking snare of "Sleepin' in My Caravan", the Connells-ish chime of "It Doesn't Matter", the tense Sister Lovers stasis of "Spindizzy" and "Hello Emptiness", the sentimental retro strut of "Little Picture Story Book", the hi-hat patter of the sunny "Katie Said So", the Velvet Crush-like warmth of "Cherrytime", the goofy power-pop exuberance of "Rainin' Like Soft Fun", the swirling Matthew Sweet pastiche "Think I'm Gonna Get You", and the Richard Buckner-on-Prozac twang of "Apple Green Slice Cut". Without Auer there aren't, unsurprisingly, the Posies' heart-rendingly earnest harmonies, but Stringfellow gets somebody to help out, and at least three of these songs ("Anywonder How", "Can't Get What You Want #1" and the slow finale "Through Your Veins" are the ones I have in mind) could have fit in on the final Posies album, Success, without much alteration. The only remotely apparent cause for suspicion is that the lyrics, if you pay attention to them, display none of the Posies' trademark fascination with the romantic charm of everyday routine, but maybe that, too, was really Auer's doing. Certainly, as I bask in these songs, I don't much care. Stringfellow's presence was the only reason I was looking for this album, in the first place, and I would be very surprised if anybody who buys it out of the Posies' bin is disappointed.
But in fact, if facts matter to you, that isn't what this album is. Stringfellow does sing the leads, but the Orange Humble Band's real owner is Australian guitarist Darryl Mather, formerly of the Lime Spiders and the Someloves, who is credited with all songwriting, the "concept", and co-production. The harmonies are by second guitarist and second producer Anthony Bautovich, and the third guitarist and producer is power-pop patron-saint Mitch Easter. And as similar as Mather and Stringfellow's songwriting is, musically, their lyric styles are wildly different. It's more than a little tempting, frankly, to say that the principal difference is that Stringfellow is much better at it. Read on paper, these fifteen songs cover a narrow spectrum from trivial to senseless. The package does include a lyric booklet, but all the credit information and interesting art is on the slipcover or the CD sleeve, so my recommendation is that you don't even take the booklet out of its pocket; there were several places where I didn't know what Ken was singing, but in no case am I happier after finding out. Once I understand this, though, and stop expecting these songs to be narrations of the negotiations for the Gadsden Purchase, I actually start thinking that the lyrics are, in their own way, remarkable. Part of the charm of the Posies was the way they used their music to ennoble the contrasting stories in their songs, but Mather seems to me to be attempting the opposite synthesis, writing lyrics that are just as kaleidoscopic as the music. Arguably Jellyfish and the Three O'Clock have tried this before, but without nearly this degree of mellifluous stream-of-consciousness purity. "Break up the surf / And paint it back" look like convenient syllables on the page, but coming out of the speakers they seem to me to capture exactly the sense of reality constantly dissolving and reforming that the music is singing about, too. I can't figure out who "It Doesn't Matter" is supposed to be addressed to, even with the refrain "As your sister would always say", which ought to be a clue, but it somehow feels to me like the sort of song that ought to have a sister in it. "Can't Get What You Want" consists almost entirely of repetitions of "Can't get what you want / So you've chosen me as your second best", but sometimes it makes more sense to soak in something than to analyze it. The ocean imagery of "Through Your Veins" will probably sound bizarre to anybody who hasn't clung tenaciously to a childhood love for Jules Verne ("Let the waters run through your veins" is anatomically inadvisable), but there's the Chills' "Submarine Bells" for regional precedent. And "Almond eyed and / Starbright gaze, / Charming thoughts, / Devoted sighs" is a summary of the pure-pop aesthetic almost succinct enough to be a fanzine title.
Goo Goo Dolls: Dizzy Up the Girl
How the sort of giddy pop the Orange Humble Band, the Posies and their stylistic allies play has evaded mass popularity, I can't explain, but if you allow a variation that crosses it with the affectionate, knowing weariness of the Replacements and enough production gloss to remind me more than once of Boston, you get something like the Goo Goo Dolls. "Name", the hit from their previous album, A Boy Named Goo, still seems to me, after three years and enough repetitions to get sick of it if I'm ever going to, like as perfect an embodiment of melodic bliss as American mainstream rock is capable of, a candidate for the same grudging hall of fame that holds Extreme's "Hole-Hearted" and Boston's "More Than a Feeling". It's a function of my elitist pig-headedness, I'm sure, that I was never able, no matter how many times I listened to it, enthralled, to translate my undeniable love for A Boy Named Goo into respect for the band. Mention their name to me and I frown reflexively, and it takes a conscious act of will to remember that I actually like them. They are not bright, or innovative, or inspiring, or challenging, they are ordinary in the most precise sense of the world. Reshuffle history and every working-class city in this country probably has a struggling club-band that could step into the Goo Goo Dolls' place. But if you let me just listen to their albums, and don't make me justify them with theories, I completely forget why that was supposed to constitute a criticism. Is ordinary American radio music so awful that it isn't worth having somebody do it well? Are only demented freaks worth befriending? There are days when I want to seal myself inside a discarded refrigerator and blare Mecca Normal until the oxygen runs out, but so too are there days when I wish I had an enormous convertible, a thousand miles of empty road, and speakers bigger than the tires, and the Goo Goo Dolls write songs for that aimless, untroubled, self-contained journey, anthems that wind-noise can't faze, that absorb radar, that make whatever speed my car wants to go seem like the rate we were meant to travel. These songs are what I mean, as much as anything, when I say that I believe making music is what humans do best, because the Goo Goo Dolls don't sound like they're especially good at it, and yet they sound so wonderful.
So I evaluate their new album with much simpler, and arguably more humane, criteria than I do records I claim to respect. Dizzy Up the Girl doesn't need to mean anything, bare any soul, shatter any illusion. It doesn't have to be audacious, experimental or even coherent. It doesn't need any album virtues, at all. It just needs to have a few more songs that stop time, for me, the way "Name" did. It's got eight: the pulsing, murmuring, soaring "Dizzy"; the serene, jangly "Slide"; the frayed, expansive, Rolling-Stones-ish "Broadway"; the humming, graceful "Black Balloon", like a cross between Bruce Hornsby and Radiohead; the dense, measured, swelling "All Eyes on Me"; the delicate, breathy "Acoustic #3"; "Iris", their string-lined lament from the City of Angels soundtrack; and the finale, "Hate This Place", whose chorus may be the best example on the album of a mindlessly simple sequence of notes that I nonetheless can't pry out of my head, and which also reminds me, at times, of Tommy Keene (who actually plays on this album, I just now noticed in the credits). There are some other songs on the record that I forget as I hear them, faster ones mostly, without the proper bruised elegance, but the eight I like are more than enough for me to point the car toward Buffalo, or Madison, or St. Louis, and chase the sun until the radio dial is my only light.
Eve 6: Eve 6
My album-buying policy is basically this: if I have any reason to suspect that an album might not be terrible, I'll buy it. Since ninety percent of everything is crap, this means I usually don't buy CDs I know literally nothing about, but if you haven't tried funneling the bulk of your income into music-buying for two or three years, you probably underestimate how many albums one person can come across that can't be offhandedly dismissed. Combine this hair-trigger approach to consumption with how seldom I listen to the radio (no time; I've got all these CDs to listen to), and I'm left with the strange effect that most of the albums I buy I've heard nothing from before I get them home, and of the ones I have heard something from, it's usually a song I caught the last half of, once, the day before. So I often don't find out until long after I've bought the record whether the song I heard is destined to get played on the radio just that once, or a million miserable times. Some purchases, inevitably, come to seem like mistakes (I wince every time I remember that I own a copy of Third Eye Blind), but the successes easily outnumber the disasters (Little Earthquakes and Jagged Little Pill, two albums I expect will make my best-of-the-decade list, both found me this way), so I keep trying.
In busy new-release weeks, the half-song I heard has to have really inspired me, but in slow weeks, especially if the album in question is on sale for less than ten dollars, I'll buy things that I have strong misgivings about even before I take the shrink-wrap off. "Inside Out", the Eve 6 song I heard half of, sounded worryingly like "Semi-Charmed Life" crossed with Green Day, but I'd been humming the "find nothing but faith in nothing" and "rendezvous then I'm through with you" parts of the choruses for hours by the time I got to the store, so I waived my better judgment. The rest of the album, it turned out, reminded me more of Green Day crossed with Our Lady Peace than crossed with Third Eye Blind, but I don't like any of those bands, and as I'd half expected, "Inside Out" went on to be reasonably popular, so I probably didn't need to own the record to hear it. Onto my shelf it should have gone, never again to escape.
But I kept not taking it out of my high-rotation pile, thinking "I'll listen to this just once more, first", and eventually I've decided that that must mean I kind of like it. The thing I hate about Green Day is their puerile sneer, and the thing that bothers me about Our Lady Peace is their singer's glum Eddie-Vedder-ish braying, and Eve 6 seem to me to play the two bands' strengths against each other's weaknesses, so that Green Day's speed-punk roots undermine the OLP gloom, and Our Lady Peace's vocal earnestness tones down Green Day's fake-English-accent, songs-about-masturbation garishness. The blasting guitar of "How Much Longer" buffets the vocal melody appealingly; "Inside Out" is hardly a moral manifesto, but at least it doesn't turn out to be about cocaine; "Leech" lays distorted washes of guitar over a thudding drum march; "Open Road Song" comes closest to Green Day, but mitigates its Buzzcocks urges with choruses that sound more like Dramarama; and "Tongue Tied" replicates most of what I like about "Inside Out". And if that's only really half the album, then half an album is probably all the half-chance I gave it earned me.
Alexi Lalas: Ginger
And then there are the albums I buy despite, or even because, I can't imagine them being anything other than awful. Alexi Lalas is only famous, currently, as a soccer player, and as a manic soccer fan, especially in New England, I have to have mixed feelings about him. In his favor, he has been a significant force in bringing media attention to soccer in this country, if through nothing else than his hair color, and he remains the only American to have played in Serie A in Italy, still the most prestigious soccer league in the world. He has always been quick to point out that he isn't a particularly skilled player, but on his good days he can be a dominant, intimidating force on defense, capable of leveling opposing forwards just by glaring at them, and willing to break their ankles if the glare stops working properly. Unfortunately, the two seasons of games he played for the New England Revolution included far too few of his good days, and way too many of his bad days, on which he looks outpaced, clumsy, thuggish and all-too-easily demoralized. I would have kept him, if I'd been in charge, but in between seasons two and three he was traded to the Metrostars in a three-way deal that brought the league's leading goal-scorer, Raul Diaz Arce, to New England. Hindsight suggests that this was a bad idea: the Revolution finished season three in dead last, their porous defense cultivating a talent for giving up hat-tricks to opponents' second-string forwards, and Diaz Arce looking after his own statistics by scoring the lone Revolution goal in a tiresome series of 4-1, 5-1 or 6-1 losses. Alexi and the Metrostars, to be fair, did only a little better, limping into the playoffs on a late-season skid whose inertia the panicked hiring of international coaching mercenary Bora Milutinovic failed to reverse. National team coach Steve Sampson left Alexi on the bench throughout the World Cup debacle, as well, which can't have helped his public profile, although it probably did help his soccer reputation a little bit.
But you can't play professional soccer all your life, and Alexi, to his credit, has a back-up plan. He makes records. Ginger is his third one, as long as you don't focus on the fact that I've only ever seen the first two offered for sale in mail-order soccer-equipment catalogs. The history of albums by sports stars is not especially proud, but athletes can take comfort in the knowledge that at least they don't, like actors who wish to make albums, have to do so with the specter of William Shatner hanging over their heads. And as a soccer fan, I figured I could extract at least a sliver of thrill from hearing a clumsy, overproduced rap about soccer, for once. Possibly with Mia Hamm singing backup.
To my intense surprise, there's nothing gimmicky about this album, at all. Except for a few soccer-related entries in the thank-you list, the album contains no references to Alexi's other career, and if you heard this album without knowing who was responsible, I don't believe you would ever guess that the author's chief notoriety is not in this field. There are no clumsy, overproduced raps, no star-turns by people with the same agent, propping up the nominal protagonist. Assuming the printed credits are trustworthy, Alexi wrote the songs, produced the record, and sang and played everything except the drums and a few guitar solos. It's a resolutely mainstream album, and Alexi doesn't demonstrate much more subtlety in writing lyrics about troubled relationships than he does in playing defense, but I doubt there are very many professional musicians who play soccer as well as Alexi writes songs. "Goodnight Moon" has faint traces of Michael Penn; "Pretty Mess" has a languid, Oasis-like slouch; "Drive-By Serenade" is a pretty, mid-tempo ballad; "This Should Be" sounds a bit like Tommy Keene in places; "Vacancy" is gentle, drifting and melancholy; "What I've Done" is light-hearted and surging; "Half a Chance" tentatively essays a little country saunter; and "Pop School", which would have to be the single, if there were a single, does a credible job of finding the midpoint between "So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star" and "Blitzkreig Bop". Anybody would be happy to be this good at what they do second best.
Patty Smyth: Greatest Hits
I don't think it qualifies as a music career, but John McEnroe, by virtue of having married Patty Smyth, does get his last name hyphenated into the credits for the two new songs on this, Patty's new best-of compilation. Those two songs are why I bought this album, despite owning all Patty's other records: "Wish I Were You" (from the movie Armageddon, a sticker on the front claims, but I don't remember it) misses her old frantic intensity a little, but is pretty all the same, and nowhere near as dull as "Sometimes Love Just Ain't Enough", her 1992 duet with Don Henley (which is here, too, of course); the confident "Carnival Lights", with a five-piece Latin percussion ensemble and nine-piece horn section, is similarly restrained, compared to Scandal's old theme-song, "The Warrior" (also included), but it makes me think, for the first time since 1987's Never Enough, that Patty might have a musical maturity to grow into, after all. The other gift for fans is a perky, previously-unreleased song from 1985 called "Everyone Gets Older", which sounds exactly like a song recorded in between Scandal and Patty's solo career ought to, only with more drum-machine bongos.
The other Smyth compilation I have, a Sony Special Products disc called Scandalous, is the cheesiest major-label release I've ever seen, bar none, so it's a welcome relief that this one was clearly assembled by somebody who likes Patty, not a junior accountant killing time until his severance pay runs out. There's a short bio in the booklet, and an amusing collection of photographs (although not as amusing as the one they used on the cover of Scandalous, in which Patty looks like a disgruntled eleven-year-old prostitute). The selection of songs represents the chronology pretty fairly, using two tracks from the original Scandal EP ("Love's Got a Line on You" and "Goodbye to You", which you can be forgiven for having forgotten are different songs), four from Scandal's album, Warrior, ("The Warrior" itself, "Say What You Will", "Beat of a Heart" and "Hands Tied"), four from her first solo album, Never Enough, which I adore ("The River Cried", "Heartache Heard Round the World", "Isn't It Enough", and her cover of Tom Waits "Downtown Train", which is probably my second or third favorite cover in the world, depending on how I happen to be feeling, the moment you ask me, about Big Country's version of Roxy Music's "Prairie Rose" and Kate Bush's cover of Elton John's "Candle in the Wind"), and three from 1992's Patty Smyth, which I found drab and disappointing ("Sometimes Love Just Ain't Enough", "I Should Be Laughing" and "No Mistakes"). Never Enough remains one of my picks for the best demonstration of virtuosic 80s-style big production, courtesy of Rick Chertoff and William Wittman, so a four-song subset of it will never please me too much, but if you accept the premise of a compilation, the only two omissions I seriously regret are Scandal's marvelously naive version of the Journey song "Only the Young", from Warrior, and Patty's cover of Magnum's stately arena-metal waltz "Les Morts Dansant", from Never Enough (her version is renamed "Call to Heaven", although I doubt Patty's demographic is any less likely to know French than Magnum's). People whose memories of New Wave are starting to decay are reminded that "Harden My Heart", "Suddenly Last Summer" and "Love Is a Battlefield", no matter how glaring their absences from this compilation seem to you, were all by other bands.
Tommy Keene: Songs From the Film
It feels like a long time since The Warrior and Never Enough, to me, so it's a little alarming to be reminded that Tommy Keene's pop masterpiece Songs From the Film, which I still think of as very contemporary, originally came out in 1986, in between those two Scandal/Smyth records. Its reissue on CD means that I have to draw up a new in-need-of-reissue list, as this was the only thing left on the last one I made. Geffen themselves took responsibility for transfer, which was unexpected, I thought, given how many years they procrastinated, but by way, perhaps, of apology, they have added nine bonus tracks to the original twelve-song album. The only jarring one is "Take Back Your Letters", an innocuous Places That Are Gone-era out-take that is only unsettling because they opted to sequence it in the run of Songs From the Film tracks, instead of afterwards, where it belongs. The other songs appearing here for the first time are the sketchy "We're Two", the subdued "Faith in Love" (both from the T-Bone Burnett/Don Dixon-produced sessions for the album that Geffen scrapped when they signed Tommy), and a scratchy, booming cover of the Flamin' Groovies' "Teenage Head". The remaining five tracks are five sixths of the post-Songs EP Run Now, omitting only the live recording of Lou Reed's "Kill Your Sons", which would have been redundant in this context, since the studio version appears earlier in the disc. I've never been quite as fond of the four Burnett/Dixon songs on the EP as I am of the shinier-sounding material on Songs From the Film (produced by Geoff Emerick), but "Run Now" itself (produced by Bob Clearmountain) has always felt like a spiritual epilogue to the album, and I'd have considered Geffen generous if they'd added nothing else. Songs From the Film seems more influential to me every year, of late, so if you're interested in the early history of American Southern-axis alternative guitar-pop, my personal four-album introduction to which would be this, REM's Murmur, Let's Active's Cypress/Afoot and the dB's' Like This, you now have one fewer logistic obstacle to your study. Of course, now the CD editions of Like This and Cypress/Afoot are both back out of print. It's like they don't want us to know.
Bob Mould: The Last Dog and Pony Show
The Last Dog and Pony Show isn't a retrospective or a reissue, but Mould has declared it to be his last distorted-electric-guitar album, or at least his last occasion for a distorted-electric-guitar tour, so I've switched into nostalgia in anticipatory advance. With the exception of "Megamanic", which I recommend that you skip, even the first time through, the songs here don't sound much different, on the whole, from the ones on Mould's last album, just called Bob Mould, but this was the tour when I finally got around to seeing him in concert, for the first time since Hüsker Dü, so these songs will forever more be the ones I associate most closely with the singular, cathartic, physical sensation of standing in the audience while he plays. The volume is (was, will have been) incredible, bracing enough that if I hadn't looked around at the other people, I wouldn't have believed my face wasn't stretched out in a jet-acceleration grimace, and we weren't all leaning forward at a thirty-degree angle, held up by the pressure of the sound, but both Mould's voice and his heavily-overdriven guitar employ very limited dynamic ranges, so the noise is extremely uniform and oddly comforting, like a firm, prolonged hug, or like being sat upon by a plush two-hundred-pound teddy bear. He's sort of cuddly-looking, himself, these days, standing at one side of the stage pouring the noise onto us. There wasn't much dancing, certainly no violence, no attempt to reflect his energy back at him. It's easy to understand why he might want to stop doing this. For an hour and a half, we stood there, feeding on his strength. We must have really needed it. For an hour and a half, caught in its crush, we let the sound drive every other thought out of our bodies, and by the time he stopped playing, and we walked back out onto the snarled streets, the incidental clamor of the rest of the world sounded like profound peace.
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