Monday, June 30, 2008

The Beatles - Revolver (LP, 1966)

If anybody wants to punch me in the back of the head for not owning a proper copy of Rubber Soul, feel free. I will take it like a man. Don't bother with fair warning. Just lay into me. I deserve it.

When it comes to narrowing down the Beatles catalog to their finest slab of wax (impossible, but it is a wonderful conversation to have), there are viable arguments to be made for nearly every post-Rubber Soul album (you rarely encounter people flush with vigor over Yellow Submarine). But, more often than not, at least in printed publications, it comes down to Sgt. Pepper's or Revolver. This argument often carries over into which is not only the best Beatles album, but which is the best album. Ever. Whichever side you're on (although being unbending and adamant about either is annoying), at least we can agree that this is one of the most important albums ever recorded.

When you listen to it, there's nothing that would indicate otherwise. This is, not surprisingly, another Beatles album that is years ahead of its time. I can't imagine what it must have been like to hear "Tomorrow Never Knows" for the first time in '66. It's ambitious as shit now. And, it offers further proof that, between the years 1965 and 1969, John Lennon was one of the coolest guys on the planet. Need more convincing? Of course not, but indulge me: Listen to "I'm Only Sleeping," three of the most untouchable minutes in the entirety of The Beatles, not to mention 60's rock.

This is, of course, not meant to exclude McCartney from the groupe de cool. If there's one thing wrong with "For No One" (and there's not), it's that it's a minute too short. "Good Day Sunshine" might tip the scales as a bit too happy-go-lucky, but the uncharacteristically dour nature of "Eleanor Rigby" more than evens it out. Additionally, "Here, There, and Everywhere" is an oft-overlooked McCartney standout.

I could sit here and praise this record all day. It's Revolver, for chrissake. You know the drill.

One final thing: "Taxman" is a stellar opener, written, of course, by George Harrison. Then ol' George manages to slip not one, but TWO more original compositions in before it all plays out. Nice work, Georgie boy.

"I'm Only Sleeping"

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Beatles - Help! (U.S. version) (LP, 1965)

Chronologically, this is the first Beatles release I own, but it's their fifth official LP. As you can see, I've got some work to do in the early Beatles dept. Rest assured, I'm working on it, and I am filled with the appropriate amount of shame. So, having said that, our journey through the catalog of the Fab Four starts, somewhat randomly, here.

I own the U.S. (red Capitol label) release of this album, and it differs a bit from the U.K. version, most glaringly in the omission of both "I've Just Seen A Face" and "Yesterday." This version, being the soundtrack to the film, remains faithful to that description and includes only Beatles songs that are actually heard in the movie, as well as bits of the score, performed by the George Martin Orchestra.

Sounds iffy, but it actually makes for a fun record. The orchestral parts are well placed and kept fairly short, and their experimental nature does a fine job of reflecting the transitional period that The Beatles were in at the time (though they didn't write the pieces, the use of sitar smells faintly of Rubber Soul). The number of Beatles tracks here numbers seven, but they're all winners.

Listening to any Beatles record is great, because you get to rediscover tracks like "The Night Before" (a peppy pop number clearly written by McCartney), a song that will never get its just due because it's sandwiched between the title track and "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away." Not that there's any forgotten Beatles songs, but it's great to remember that even the ones that don't spark the most discussion are equally fantastic.

My petty gripe: this album is too short. Clocking in at a little over 28 minutes, it goes by really quick. I make up for it by listening to each side twice.

Hot tip for listening to this, or any Beatles record: rock the headphones, or at least centrally position yourself between the speakers. They pushed the limits of 60's stereo sound with some wild panning, and you owe it to yourself to enjoy the shit out of it.

"The Night Before"

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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Beastie Boys - To The 5 Boroughs (2xLP, 2004)

Six years after Hello Nasty and four years ago, the Beasties had us all wondering, once again, if they were still relevant. I wasn't harboring much hope this time around. However, when I read David Fricke's five star review in Rolling Stone after hearing and enjoying "Ch-Check It Out," I couldn't help but wonder if the Boys had found their way back to the real.

After listening to some tracks online and reading a handful of increasingly honest (and less favorable) reviews, my enthusiasm was quickly quelled. And with good reason.

As much as we wanted this to be the Beastie's crowning moment, an album that simultaneously reinvigorated their career and paid tribute to the city where it all started, it's just not it. It would have been so perfect if it was. But it isn't. I give 'em props for taking it back to pure hip hop and squashing the filler, but when you listen to the way they sleepwalk through their rhymes on this one, you almost miss the instrumental jams.

After spending the good part of their previous two records trying to rise above the antiquated bullshit that is ubiquitous in hip hop, they knock themselves right back down with uninspired and obvious tracks like "3 The Hard Way" and "Hey Fuck You." Perhaps the saddest casualty in all of this is AdRock, who, after consistently delivering the best rhymes of the three for years, makes it crystal clear that he's fallen off. When I made peace with that, I knew there was no going back to this one.

And that's fine, because I still love to go back to Paul's Boutique and Check Your Head. You know, to remember the good times.

"Triple Trouble"

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Beastie Boys - Hello Nasty (2xLP, 1998)

The Beasties were wise to let four years pass after the release of Ill Communication. It gave people (or at least me) enough time to forget about them for a while, then remember the good times, and eventually muster a bit of enthusiasm when word of their upcoming album began to spread. Did the time away give them perspective? The kind that would send them back to the well of Beastie basics that we all knew and loved?

Nah. Not really.

The video for "Intergalactic" premiered on MTV before the album hit shelves, and it wasn't promising. The raps were stunted and forced (though still a step up from most of the previous LP), the chorus was gratingly repetitive, and the video was more shtick than substance. But, it could have been much worse, so I chose to remain hopeful.

I picked up the album when it dropped, and so did my roommates at the time. It was on a continuous loop in our house for a month. And still, it never really clicked with me. While it was easy to concede that it was a step in the right direction, a lot of it seemed muddled and chaotic, dense but not completely focused. Hurricane was out and Mixmaster Mike was in, and maybe that had something to do with it. However, the song showcasing Mike's skills ("Three MCs and One DJ") was one of the standout tracks.

The instrumentals were still there (though their presence was dwindling), but so were some strange forays into pop. "I Don't Know" was a song I slapped on a few mixtapes that summer, but it's a track I tend to cringe at now. In the scheme of an album that's combining hip hop and a slightly off-kilter brand of electro-funk (among other things), the soft and flatly sincere vocals that dominate that cut can't help but disrupt the flow.

And I don't even know where to start with "Dr. Lee, PhD." Never has a song so mellow screamed "B-side" so loud.

I still feel like I tried so hard with this album. I played the shit out of this record when I got it, and in the years that followed, it still found its way to the turntable every once in a while.

It just never stayed there for very long.

"Three MCs and One DJ"

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Beastie Boys - Ill Communication (2xLP, 1994)

In the chronology of the Beastie Boys, if you wanted to pinpoint a moment when things began to fall apart, you could make a pretty good argument for it being the split second of silence between "Get It Together" and "Sabrosa" on this, their fourth proper record.

I'm a sucker for nonsense rhymes, so I've always loved "Get It Together." And the six tracks that precede it in opening the album are pretty solid as well. "Root Down" gets old pretty quick, but it's fast-paced and has its moments. "Sure Shot" is a good song to kick it all off, and even though I can't stand to hear "Sabotage" now, I think I liked it when this first came out. "Bobo On The Corner" and "Tough Guy" are fine tracks, and they're both so short that they seem more like transitions between the cuts that bookend 'em.

But when you hear the lazy wah-wah that opens the half-baked stoney jam that is "Sabrosa," something just seems off. The groove is phoned in, the song drags on, and though there's a lot going on, it seems terribly hollow. But it's a party compared to what follows. "The Update" is MCA's lowest moment: three minutes of self-indulgent, didactic, muffled rhymes, strewn together to fill you in on what's happening with the environment. Problem is, you can't understand a word he's saying, and the song is terrible anyway.

The next 11 tracks are just more of the same. Between forgettable instrumentals (seriously, what the fuck is with "Shambala"?), the Beasties kick some of their worst rhymes ever. No, really, read the lyrics to "The Scoop." It's brutal. And just when you think they've hit rock bottom, Yauch digs down deep and whips out what is probably a tie for his lowest moment, "Bodhisattva Vow." To paraphrase a line from Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, making fun of "Bodhisattva Vow" would be all too easy. It would be, in effect, pooping on poop.

It's strange. The Beastie Boys seemed like the one group that would never buy into their own hype, let alone become preachy. On this album they did both, and disappointed the shit out of me. Because of the success of "Sabatoge," this album remains terribly overrated, and that's a damn shame.

Although I bet I'm not the only one who made a habit of shutting this thing off after track seven.

"Get It Together (Live)"

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Beastie Boys - Check Your Head (2xLP, 1992)

As strange as it was that no one gave a shit about the Beasties in '89, it was even stranger that they were once again the coolest thing going in '92. But, looking back, this was a perfect record for that time. The Boys took it back to t-shirts, jeans, and stocking caps, picked up their instruments, and made an album packed with an immense amount of well-executed variety.

The thing that still impresses me the most about this record is the instrumentals. I prefer the hip hop cuts, but the Beastie Boys were never short on doo-doo rhymes and nonsensical choruses, so we knew they had that angle covered. I think we were all a little nervous when we saw them strap on their instruments. Turns out, the vibe of the songs fit the mood of the rest of the LP perfectly, and with some well-planned sequencing of the tracks, this was really a collection of tunes that could suit any occasion.

I could talk about this record for days. It ruled my life for a year straight. We were all fancying ourselves as becoming a bit more enlightened in the early 90's, and it was damn nice to have a hip hop record that was fun as shit while also maintaining an acceptable level of intelligence. That's hard to come by.

Some reasons why this album is so great:

"Jimmy James" is not only a fantastic song, but it hits even harder by opening the album. Bump.

"Pass The Mic" will always hold a special place in my heart. If not the Beastie Boys' best song, it's in the top three. That beat is way more intricate than it lets on, and the video is monumental.

Adrock's vocals on "Gratitude" are wailing and gutsy, but they end up working.

"So What'cha Want" has a chorus that should be endlessly annoying, but they somehow made it into the perfect single for this record. The sweet video helped.

"Time for Livin" should have been the last punk song the Beastie Boys ever attempted. Because they were never going to do anything better.

MCA's verse on "Professor Booty" should be put in a museum somewhere.

Like I said, I could go on forever. But it's late and I already feel like this is flighty and all over the place. Worth mentioning: the album closes with "Namaste," probably the most forgettable track in the whole thing. If only we could have known that it was also a looming harbinger of things to come...

"Time For Livin'"

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Beastie Boys - Paul's Boutique (2xLP, 1989)

I remember seeing this record in bargain bins, probably within a year of its release. Then, by about 1992-93, it was playing at every party I went to. As much as you hear stories about certain records being ahead of their time, in the case of Paul's Boutique, it's completely true.

This is the Beastie's masterpiece. It sounds as good today as it did almost 20 years ago (!). And really, it's due as much to the Dust Brothers as it is to the Beastie Boys themselves. Hip hop always used samples, but this record was nothing but samples. And keep in mind, this was before Pro Tools. I've read a lot of articles about the making of this record, and the process was grueling. But, the results speak for themselves.

For me, hip hop doesn't get a lot better than this. It sounds corny, but I still get excited when I hear the drum roll that opens "Shake Your Rump."

And referencing Sadaharu Oh? Nice.


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Monday, June 23, 2008

Beastie Boys - Licensed To Ill (LP, 1986)

I was ten years old in the fall of 1986. In October, the Mets won the World Series. In November, Beastie Boys issued this, their major label debut. I'm not sure why I'm mentioning both of these occurrences, because they're completely unrelated. Hopefully it's adding some perspective.

To add a bit more, Run-DMC had released Raising Hell that summer, and I was listening to it. A lot. Along with that, I was devouring any and all rap music I could get my hands on. I don't remember the first time I heard Beastie Boys. It may have been at a friend's house, seeing the video for "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)," or it may have been at school, through somebody else's Walkman. I know I didn't actually own a copy of this record until many years after fifth grade. My mom had heard the word on the street (possibly about the girls in cages and the inflatable penis), and it wasn't good. So, I was relegated to hearing it when not at home. It wasn't a problem. Everybody had it except me.

So, I spent a lot of afternoons after school at a friend's house, with another one of our pals, blasting Licensed To Ill in his bedroom. When that was over, we moved on to Raising Hell. We even played tennis racquets like guitars during "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" and "Walk This Way." Seriously. We wanted our MTV, etc. It was a sad state of affairs. But, it was the thing to do at the time. And Beastie Boys were a perfect group for the time. Just some punk kids who didn't give a shit.

The Beasties have spent a lot of time distancing themselves from this record, and, in a move that irks me to no end, claiming that their whole attitude was an in-joke that may have gone too far. If you watch the hours of video footage from this era and read the interviews, it's no joke. They were just young and drunk. And it's a bummer that they did it in front of the world, but it makes them seem so flimsy when they act like they weren't the ones hosing down crowds with Budweiser. That's what they should have been doing. They were kids on a rock tour, for chrissake.

I will get less, and then more frustrated with the Beastie Boys as we run down their catalog. I never listen to this record anymore, but I'll always have a copy of it. And "Hold It Now, Hit It" and "The New Style" will always be fantastic songs.

Now if I could've just gone to the Together Forever Tour, my 11 year old life would've been complete.

"Hold It Now, Hit It"

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds (LP, 1966)

There's nothing new to be said about an album like Pet Sounds. It's one of the most influential records in rock history, and it's every bit as good as everyone says it is.

I just wish, for the life of me, that I could remember where I got my copy.

The LP I have is the slightly rarer mono version, with a hole punched in the top right corner, and the initials "TL" written in pencil on the top white border. Those initials don't mean a thing to me.

One possibility: There was a glorious moment in our childhood, when my brother and I each ended up with small stacks of some pretty important classic rock records, given to us by a neighbor who was having an unsuccessful garage sale. That would be my best guess as to where I picked this up. Because I know I didn't shell out a bunch of money for it, and it's not in great shape, so it would make sense that I acquired it in my far less discerning teen years.

Scintillating story, I know.

I won't dissect the songs here, because it's been done to death. But if you don't recognize "God Only Knows" as a great, great, song, then I'm not sure I can talk to you.

Somewhat interesting side note on this record: In 1993, Frank Black released his first post-Pixies solo album. It contained "Hang On To Your Ego," which was a cover of "I Know There's An Answer" from Pet Sounds, with a different chorus. For a long time, I assumed that FB had changed the lyrics himself, until the Pet Sounds box set was released, and I saw "Hang On To Your Ego" listed in the outtakes. Pretty sweet move, covering the original, non-album version.

This is one of those albums, as I briefly discussed in an earlier post, that self-respecting fans of music feel they should own.

I agree.

"I Just Wasn't Made For These Times"

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock - It Takes Two (LP, 1988)

I saw Rob Base and E-Z Rock on VH1 recently, probably on one of those countdown shows, discussing how they got shafted financially after the success of It Takes Two. You have to genuinely feel bad for the guys. "It Takes Two" has become such a ubiquitous anthem at sporting events and in commercials, you would think the duo would still be cashing royalty checks. Judging from the maudlin looks on their faces, it's not the case.

People might forget that these guys were more than just a flash in the pan. You can call them a one-hit wonder, but "Joy and Pain" was, while not quite as large, a pretty huge hit for them in the late 80's as well. It carried that same anthemic quality to the next step, and they managed to create another chorus that, sometimes frustratingly, stuck in your head for days. The beats were incredibly simple, but E-Z Rock knew how to work a hook. And, dude clearly knew his way around the 808. The drum beats are big.

The fact that Rob Base and D.J. E-Z Rock couldn't maintain a successful career is probably rooted in one unfortunate, but highly integral fact: Rob Base can't rap:

"I rock harder, I rock longer/ I do this 'cause I gotta get stronger"

He's working the Kurtis Blow angle, while a lot of other rappers were doing everything they could to distance themselves from the hip hop of the immediate past. Hey, they were pop rap, it's not like they were out to push the limits of the genre. But innocuous lyrics like those just don't have any staying power.

If you would have asked me a few hours ago when this album was released, I probably would have guessed 1985. That's only the difference of a few years, but in terms of hip hop at the time, it's massive. To put it in perspective: In the same year It Takes Two came out, NWA released Straight Outta Compton and Public Enemy released It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. But, to be fair, Rob never claimed to be hard like those guys.

However, it wouldn't be long until MC Hammer showed up and made radio friendly rap the most uncool thing ever.

Sorry, Rob.

"Get On The Dance Floor"

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Friday, June 20, 2008

The Band - The Band (LP, 1969)

There are some records that you feel, as a collector/fan of music, that you simply should own. You've read about it so many times, you've seen it on so many lists, your friends have sung the praises. So, when you find a decent copy for less than five bucks, you snatch it up.

So it goes with this LP (at least for me). I could tell you that I love The Band, but I don't. I like their music, and I actually really like watching them play live (watching Levon Helm sing and play drums simultaneously evokes something in me, though I'm not sure what). And I understand why this record is so important. It just doesn't affect me in the same way that some of my other favorite music from the late 60's does.

As I do with many albums, I have qualms with the sequencing of the songs on this album. I always believe in ending strong, but the finale here, the Robbie Robertson penned "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" is arguably the strongest cut of the 12, and it seems like it would have benefited from being on the first side. But, that's a personal gripe, and a pretty weak one at that. So I'll stop acting like I know what's best for one of the most praised albums in the history of rock.

On a side note: This is their sophomore LP, and it's self-titled. I always enjoy that.

"King Harvest (Has Surely Come)"

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Bad Meets Evil - "Nuttin' To Do" Maxi-Single (LP, 1999)

I have never understood the cover of this CD. In fact, I'm a little embarrassed that I own something that looks like this. Anyway. This is just a single, but there was never an album, and this may be the only proper things these guys released, so I'm including it.

Bad Meet Evil is Eminem and Royce Da 5'9" (or Royce the 5-9, as he's referred to on the cover of this one). Royce ended up on a track called "Bad Meets Evil" on the second half of The Slim Shady LP, a western-themed song that features some of the best raps on the record. It's also worth mentioning because it's the only guest spot on the album besides Dr. Dre. Seems that Em and Royce were boys from way back, which is evident in that their styles are similar, and often complimentary.

This single only features two songs by the duo, but they make good use of the bars they're allotted. The first cut is "Nuttin' To Do," a bouncy but minimalistic beat that's perfect for these raps, as they demand that every syllable be heard. Eminem starts his second verse with lines that could have rhymed with the first four from his first verse: "Forget a chorus- my metaphors are so complicated it takes six minutes to get applause." That pretty much sums up the vibe of the whole track.

"Scary Movies," the second cut, is probably mislabeled as "horrorcore" more often than it should be, as I think the sarcasm in the gory portions of the lyrics is lost on folks who have always wanted to fancy Eminem an "acid rapper." Sure, there's some violence in the lyrics, but that's not unique to this song. This one sees Royce and Em each taking one long verse apiece, neither one having much to do with the other's, or anything at all. My favorite kind of hip hop. Eminem starts the second verse with the best line of the song: "The one man on the planet that'll drive off of the Grand Canyon/ Hop out of a Grand Am and land in it handstandin'." Nice.

In typical hip hop fashion, these two eventually had beef, and didn't record any tracks after the few they kicked out in '99 (aside from Em doing a chorus on Royce's solo debut). Word is, they're boys again, but I'm not holding my breath for the BME reunion.

"Nuttin' To Do"

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Bad Astronaut - Houston: We Have A Drinking Problem (CD, 2002)

During the holiday season of 2002, they used to run short, maybe 15 second commercials for this album on television. It must have been late at night, maybe on MTV2? Although I never watched that couldn't have been VH1 Classic, could it? Who cares, I saw 'em.

I liked the animation in the ad, the short clip of one of the songs that accompanied it, and I thought the title of the album was pretty clever. So, I told my girlfriend "I think I want that CD for Christmas." I may have said it a couple times. Probably every time the ad aired. I'm annoying like that. So, she remembered, and on Christmas day it was under the ol' tree waiting for me.

It was actually a bit exciting, as I was pretty much past the point of taking chances on music, meaning that I rarely bought stuff without hearing it first. Upon initial playing of the album, my girlfriend said "Wow, that really sounds like the guy from Lagwagon." As it went on, this turned to "No, that is the dude from Lagwagon." I, of course doubted her, and was, of course, immediately proven wrong.

I had inadvertently attended a Lagwagon show in Eugene, many years before all of this. They were a fun enough pop-punk band, and I knew my brother liked them. But it wasn't exactly high-brow material. So, when I heard the serious tone of Bad Astronaut, I clearly didn't put the two together. Anyway: turns out it's Joey Cape's side project, an outlet for his heavier-themed material.

The album's nice enough (the stronger parts sound a bit like Grandaddy) but I could never really latch onto it for some reason. The songs are all very different, which is great, but they're sequenced so that there is very little flow to the record. The darker stuff is great, but it eventually segues into some fairly generic spurts of pop that make it seems a bit lazy.

I still think the title is great, though.

"The Passenger"

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Babu The Dilated Junkie - Duck Season Vol. 1 (CD, 2002)

Hip hop mixes are notoriously tough for me to stomach. Whether it be a soundtrack, a compilation, or, like this, a DJ mix, I can usually count on hating at least half of it. I've held onto this one because it's turned out to be an exception to that pessimistic rule.

I initially picked this up because it features unreleased tracks by Bumpy Knuckles and Big Daddy Kane. Upon further inspection, I realized it also offered cuts from De La Soul, Quasimoto, Souls of Mischief, and Defari. Not bad. Even the groups I don't really care for (MOP, The Beatnuts) aren't the kind that instigate ire in me.

Babu knows what he's doing, so the songs are sequenced and arranged well, flowing together like a good mix should. Remixing Quasimoto is a tall order, but he keeps it simple and maintains the feel of the original track. The Big Daddy Kane song is cut up a little too much for my tastes, but I'll take Kane in any shape or form.

I own very few DJ mixes. This one's still sitting on my shelf after five years, so that's gotta say something.

"Duck Season"

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Awesome Dre' and the Hardcore Committee - You Can't Hold Me Back (LP, 1989)

In the late 80's, like many young boys my age, my obsession with gangsta rap was at an all-time high. As my mom was not a fan, my obscenity-filled secret was relegated to headphones, blaring beats from dubbed cassettes that lined the nether regions of my backpack.

Directly resulting from what crackpot scientists refer to as "sibling osmosis," my younger brother shared in my enthusiasm. We could occasionally sneak a purchase past my mom, and this must have been what he did when he picked up the cassette single for Awesome Dre' and the Hardcore Committee's "Frankly Speaking" b/w "Executioner Style."

(A quick note: I am not being lazy with the apostrophe at the end of Dre's name. As you can see, that's how it's printed on the album. Although I suspect the good people at Priority were being lazy, or couldn't figure out how to get the accent up there.)

I remember my brother playing both sides of the single in his room after school, before my mom got home from work. We liked it. "Frankly Speaking" had a great late 80's hip hop beat: fast, driven by an unidentifiable squeak (a horn looped backwards?) and a wah-wah guitar lead. Pretty dope, and he threw the f-word in there a couple times, which made it that much more exciting.

"Executioner Style" was a bit slower, and the sirens in the background made it clear it was really trying to be hard. But Dre' kept his delivery a little restrained, and it ended up not being as hard-hitting as the a-side. He wasn't the greatest lyricist, either: "Best beware of my disc jockey/ He'll tear you up like you was teriyaki."

Regardless of Dre's verbal deficiencies, we always wanted to check out the full album. We never ended up getting our hands on it (to the best of my recollection), but I finally found it for a few bucks about six months ago. It's not great, but Dre' does hold the distinction as one of the first (if not the first) successful hardcore rappers out of Detroit.

The highlight of the album might be the Kool Moe Dee diss track "I Don't Like You." With slightly distorted vocals over nothing more than a basic drum beat, Dre' tries to tear Dee apart and doesn't really come close.

Check this gem: "I never will like you/ Just like a football, punk, I will spike you."

Ouch. But, I gotta give him props for putting a gun to the head of the guy wearing the BK jumper on the cover. Somebody had to set those fools straight.

"Frankly Speaking"

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Audio Learning Center - Cope Park (CD, 2004)

Sometimes I feel like I still haven't given this album a fair shake. I've definitely listened to it less than their other one, but maybe there's a reason for that.

Decidedly happier than their debut, this follow-up finds the ALC boys, in my opinion, cleaning up their sound in hopes for some mainstream notice. Seems there was never much of a chance of that, so a lot of the songs here seem forced and generic. The production is slick, and it takes a good deal of the feel away from the majority of the tracks. "California" is pretty tedious, and "Car" rides a weak-toned riff that just feels hollow. "Stereo," the single, leads with a guitar progression that has mainstream adult radio rock written all over it in the worst way.

But it's not all bad. The title track is lyrically tame, but the minimalist approach to the verses uses the loud-quiet-loud method to its advantage, and "The Sun" makes for a nice little half-song in the middle.

The album closes with "Happy Endings," a fitting six and a half minute introspective number that seems to effectively sum things up and add some hopeful closure.

And it's possibly the last song we'll get from these guys, as they seem to have fallen off the map.


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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Audio Learning Center - Friendships Often Fade Away (LP, 2002)

When Pond broke up in the late 90's, it was just one more sign that the big NW rock explosion of the early 90's was officially at its end. My friends and I hoped the boys would take their songwriting skills and start up some new projects, but if it was going to happen, it was clear they were in no hurry. Years went by, and Chris Brady and Charlie Campbell were nowhere to be seen. At least musically.

Chris and his wife shopped at the natural food store I worked at on Burnside in Portland. I had met him a few years previous, at the bar at a Pond show during their last tour, at the WOW Hall in Eugene. I finally reintroduced myself at the store one day (this would have been around 2000), talked to him about music a bit, and got the update on the boys from Pond. Charlie was working at the downtown Portland library, Dave (the drummer) had moved back to Seattle and was doing something with computers, and Chris was working at the Apple Store over by Lloyd Center, trying to put some money away in anticipation of his first child. He had also just started a band called Mandarin with Steven Birch, formerly of Sprinkler. My interest was piqued.

Mandarin starting playing shows (my brother's band even opened for them) and floating a demo around, about a year or so before they changed their name to Audio Learning Center and, in a somewhat surprising turn of events, signed with Vagrant Records, a label that seemed to host mostly pop-punk bands. The word on the street was that they sounded like Pond, only with slower and possibly more depressing songs. The last time I spoke with Chris before the record was released, he was a happy dad and seemed busy but content.

Then the record came out, and it was, even down to the title, an album filled with themes of loss, depression, and despair. The discussions began.

My brother and I couldn't figure out if he and his wife had gotten a divorce, if he had cheated on her (some of the lyrics suggest this), or if we were reading way too far into the whole thing. He thanked his wife in the liner notes, so the divorce theory didn't really make sense. In the end, we threw our hands up and just decided to enjoy the album.

It's not hard to do.

Some of it sounds a bit like Pond, but with cleaner guitar tones and more straight ahead playing. It is a bit of a downer in spots, but songs like "Favorite" pick it up before it gets too dark. And, the more I listened to it, the more I realized that I am way too quick to assume, when it comes to any music, that the singer of the song is the one the song is about. These could be, and probably are, just stories, and if there is any truth to them, it should make no difference to me. They're well written, and most importantly, Brady proves that he can beat up a bass better than anyone.

"A Dedication"

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Atmosphere - When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold (2xLP, 2008)

Well, I definitely know which Atmosphere record isn't my favorite.

Maybe I'm still peeved. I ordered this record (the yellow vinyl was too much to resist) direct from Rhymesayer's record store in Minneapolis. It showed up five weeks later, bent, with no download of the album included.


Putting the shitty service aside, I was really looking forward to hearing the record. I have to admit, I loved Strictly Leakage, their free download re-hashing of some hip hop classics that emerged unexpectedly in late 2007. Plus, "You" is a great first single: catchy, peppy, only falling short in the predictability of the lyrical content. The same can be said for the rest of the album, with "catchy" only applying to about half of it.

I wish I had the patience to sit down and tally up how many times Slug says "he," "she," or "you" through the course of these 15 songs. He's rendered his already tired narrative style completely meaningless with the blatant overuse. And the songs that aren't heavy-handed attempts at painting a sad picture are vague stabs at witticism like "The Skinny" (you think he's talking about a pimp, but it's really a cigarette!), serving as hard proof that he's running out of ideas.

I can see where Sluggo's heart is at. And it's in the right place.

It's just really boring to listen to.

I'm sticking with the Leakage.


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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Atmosphere - You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having (2xLP, 2005)

"Old guy with a moooohawk..." Sing it with me. "Old guy with a moooohawk..." OK, we had to get that out of the way.

It's 2005. Atmosphere's hype is bubbling. This is probably their first album that could accurately be described as "highly anticipated." Does it deliver?


It just never picks up enough momentum to get the much-needed avalanche rolling. Blame the wonky sequence of the songs, blame "Say Hey There," the single with the most annoying hook in the Atmosphere catalog, or maybe just blame Slug for rapping like he's trying to sound like himself, and he's not quite sure who that is anymore.

But, there are plenty of bright spots. "The Arrival" is a thick song, a great one to open with. And "Panic Attack" and "Watch Out" follow it nicely, maintaining the rugged disposition and keeping Slug distorted and brooding, vibing like it's all building to something. Then, somewhere in the middle, it just plateaus. "Bam" tries to get things going again, but by the time "Smart Went Crazy" really kicks the dirt back up, it struggles to muster the previous enthusiasm. If any track was going to do it, it'd be that one. A great, great song.

The album ends with some somber and serious tracks, and while they're noble, they're a bit tiring. Like I've said, maybe that's the appeal for some people. But listening to it now, realizing these last few tracks are a tad unfamiliar to me, I have to admit, I rarely get to the end of this one.

"Smart Went Crazy"

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Atmosphere - Headshots: Se7en (3xLP, 2005)

Yeah, this might be my favorite Atmosphere record (I told you I'd change my mind).

Released remastered in 2005, these are songs that Slug & Ant recorded after Overcast! (conspicuously absent from my collection, that will change) and before Lucy Ford. They're four track songs, but that fact gets thrown around like there needs to be excuses made for the quality of the material. Eff that. The beats are a bit more basic than some of Ant's other stuff, but they do the job and then some. As always, his snare can become a little grating, but deal with it, you wuss.

When Slug presently talks about how he doesn't want to rap about being a dope rapper anymore, this is some of the stuff he's talking about. And like I said previously, it's a damn shame, because he's really good at it. I could listen to "Choking On A Wishbone" and songs like it all day long. It's so dense lyrically, and so fast, you can't possibly catch all the lines the first, or even the fifth time through. It's fantastic. But that's me, that's the kind of hip hop I love.

The fact that this one's a bit lo-fi just sweetens the deal for me further. Originally released as a cassette, the hiss is still audible on a bunch of the cuts. It's definitely of a certain time, and that's evident not only from the quality of the recording, but also from the style that Slug is speaking with. You can see him moving from battle raps to his narrative, introspective side, and it makes for a good variety in the lyrics.

In the liner notes, Slug says he "had to grow."

Damn, did you have to?

"The Stick Up" f/ Eyedea

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Atmosphere - Seven's Travels (3xLP, 2003)

For a lot of folks, the first proper track on this album, "Trying To Find A Balance" was their first exposure to Atmosphere, via a short-lived push of the video by MTV in the fall of 2003. I remember finding it a bit odd, as the song (and especially the trying-too-hard-to-be-gritty video clip) didn't come across as a very balanced (sorry) representation of what I understood Ant and Slug to be about. It's not a terrible song, but it's jaded, dark, and conspicuously lacking the eventual redemption that is such a staple in the majority of Atmosphere songs.

The title here isn't metaphorical; it seems that most of these songs were written on or inspired by Atmosphere's constant touring. It's worth mentioning, because this record has never been the critical favorite in the Atmosphere canon, and maybe "Balance" put some folks off right from the start, or maybe the whole vibe is different. Because past the sluggish single, the tracks don't get a whole lot cheerier, but they do get much better. For some, maybe this is where they realized that Slug wasn't going to give up the dark shit, and they were tiring of it. For the people who were looking to him for that introspection, that was probably a revelation.

The middle of the record gets abstract, and it's where the stride really hits. "Suicidegirls" seems like it might be simply a slyly assembled pause, but when Slug bursts in, heavily distorted and pissed, he fires it up quick, barreling through some maniacal raps before shutting it down just as quick. After "Jason," which actually is a short pause, we get "Cats Van Bags," a dense tale of road antics that finds Brother Ali back-and-forthing it with Slug over a chaotic beat that matches the rhymes perfectly.

You don't hear a lot of hip hop songs about touring, let alone an entire album that uses the road as inspiration. It's not a bad idea.

"National Disgrace"

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Monday, June 9, 2008

Atmosphere - Lucy Ford: The Atmosphere EP's (CD, 2001)

I was watching an interview with Slug a few weeks ago, and while he was trying to explain why he seems to focus on narrative raps nowadays, you know, songs that have a "point," he mentioned that he no longer feels the need to do songs about "what a dope rapper" he is. That's all fine and good, but this new direction has taken him to the other end of the spectrum, often sacrificing his sense of humor in favor of torrid tales of lives wasted. Seems like the fun times and the darker subject matter used to offset each other, and in the end, break even. Maybe I'm wrong, and I'm sure you could make the argument that this isn't completely true, but it's hard to deny that with each album, the mood has become increasingly dour.

Not here. On this early compilation of EP's, Slug and Ant (along with a few other producers, gasp) tackle some serious subject matter, but keep the mood from growing dark enough to send us to our room for some pillow punching.

"Like Today" is a pretty corny premise, but the beat bounces and it's a damn fun song. And "Between The Lines," at almost five and a half minutes long, seems like it wouldn't work as the opening track, but the placement is perfect. "Don't Ever Fucking Question That" gets heavy handed, especially with the blandly repetitive beat, but it's their bread and butter, the reason so many disaffected youth worship at the altar of these guys.

That said, when I first got this record, I listened to it quite a bit. And, when I come back to it, I remember why I did. There's no pretense, as compared to their newer stuff. The beats are simpler, there's no filter on Slug's words, and it feels like a record instead of a series of concept songs.

Possibly my favorite Atmosphere album. But give me a few days, I'll probably change my mind.

"Party For The Fight To Write"

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Sunday, June 8, 2008

At The Drive-In - Relationship of Command (CD, 2000)

Sometimes I feel like ATDI are one step away from being Fugazi, and other times I feel like they're one step away from being Rage Against The Machine. I LOVE Fugazi and I HATE Rage Against The Machine, or "Rage" as people I hate like to call them. I offer this as a partial explanation of why I both love and hate this album.

Cedric Bixler (as he was known then, now he's Bixler-Zavala, ugh) is a monumental blowhard, but the dude can sing when he turns it on. I cherish the fact that I can't understand half the words he says on this record, because I'd much rather focus on the guitar work, which is where the band really shines.

Strap on the headphones, feel the interplay between the guitar on the left and the one on the right, and it makes for an enjoyable listen. Start taking songs with titles like "Rolodex Propaganda" too seriously, and you're part of the problem.


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Saturday, June 7, 2008

Arctic Monkeys - Favourite Worst Nightmare (LP, 2007)

There are two things that commonly happen with sophomore records that follow successful debut records:

1. The band has toured so much and played the same songs so many times that they are sick of themselves, figure the rest of the world must also be sick of them, and they go on to make a follow-up record that is usually brilliant, but nothing like the previous effort, so they lose 75% of their finicky fan base. See: Faith No More's Angel Dust and Pond's The Practice of Joy Before Death.

2. The band had two albums worth of songs to begin with, they only released half of 'em the first time around, they've been touring and haven't had time to write much new material, so the second album, while often good, inadvertently serves as a continuation of the previous effort. See: The Strokes' Room On Fire and The Cars' Candy-O.

Here, we find the Monkeys picking door #2 and making it work to their advantage. This record was released a little over a year after their debut, and by not making anyone wait too long, the expectations weren't above average for this one. Considering that, this album is almost as good at their first one, it's only drawback lying in the fact it can't replicate that initial excitement Turner's voice elicited (in me, at least).

The production is tighter on this one, but the songs don't lose their urgency. The average running time of the tracks shows a slight increase, and it's actually a welcome change. And, if nothing else, "Brianstorm" is just a damn fine song title.

"Fluorescent Adolescent"

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Friday, June 6, 2008

Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (LP, 2006)

My introduction to Arctic Monkeys came from this video, and I was happy to hear Alex Turner utter "don't believe the hype" before they sped through a nervously peppy version of "I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor." I was also happy to hear that the song didn't suck.

It's a new phenomenon, really only started in the last decade, that so much "buzz" can surround a band before their first official release even hits the streets. This is, of course, a result of the internet, and the Arctic Monkeys were considered one of the first bands that really gained popularity from Myspace and other social networking sites (The other being Mickey Avalon, who is here to save music with his eyeliner, neat-o tattoos, and unique brand of shitty music). So, when you hear that a band comprised of four barely-20 year olds has caused a riot on Myspace, you don't expect much. Which is maybe why I ended up being shocked at how good this record is.

"Dancefloor" is a catchy tune, a solid choice for a single, and while some of the lyrics are a little hammy, the lines about sand and Rio are so both nonsensical and witty that you can't help but give 'em a pass. The rest of the album follows suit, either picking fast or slow as the tempo, showing slight signs of unassured lyrical chops, but making up for it with surprisingly intricate melodies and songs that are too short to get tired of.

I had this album on repeat in my car for a few months two years ago. That's the truth of the matter. That and the fact that "Riot Van" is a terribly underrated song.

"Perhaps Vampires Is A Bit Strong But..."

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