Neverending Randomplay #281-#290
Neverending Randomplay is a feature in which I let my J-River Media Center choose what we get listen to. My collection currently stands at 17,935 titles. The lion's share are rock of all genres, with a mix of pop, blues, country, pre-rock, jazz, reggae, soul, electronic, avant-garde, hip-hop, rap, bluegrass, trance, Afrobeat, J-Pop, trip-hop, lounge, worldbeat, commercial jingles, etc. filling it out. I don't influence the track selection in any way; whatever comes up, comes up. Rated 1-5 stars.
281. Mariah Carey: Underneath The Stars ***
I never had much use for Carey during her glory years; I found her multi-octave, show-offy voice a distraction, particularly the quavery way she'd work several notes into what should have been one, a non-musical technique aped by tens of thousands American Idol contestants. I softened towards her when she had her breakdown, and her career crashed down around her. On her cover version of Def Leppard's "Bringin' On The Heartache", from her flop album Charmbracelet, she actually sounded humbled, and I felt like a heel for saying snarky things about her for years. So, I swore to myself I'd listen to her with fresh ears from now on, and put my own biases aside. So here's "Underneath the Stars", a non-single from her #1 1995 album, Daydream. It's a slow, urban-lite groove, with multi-tracked multi-octave showoffy vocals, an okay melody that gets buried under the vocals, and a creamy production that renders all instrumentation secondary to the star of the show, Carey's voice. Which reminded me in a second why I listened to Pearl Jam, NIN, Smashing Pumpkins, and old Stones records in the mid-90's. If you're into Carey, this may well be among your favorites; all the paid-for goodies are here. It just isn't for me; and now that her career is in full swing again, I no longer feel like a heel.
282. Pretenders: Bad Boys Get Spanked ****
This is a fun little fetish number with an echoey psychobilly rhythm, and Martin Chambers' roiling, rolling drums are positioned front and center. Chrissie Hynde delivers a feral punk vocal that almost teeters into camp, but manages to hold on. James Honeyman-Scott's guitars are pretty great, from their atmospheric, tremeloed slashes to the rave up at the end. "Bad Boys Get Spanked" is from the 1981 release Pretenders II, the second and final album with the original band; within 2 years, guitarist Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon would die of heroin overdoses. Because of the short lifespan of the original group, Pretenders II is a better album now than it seemed at the time; the Honeyman-Scott/Farndon/Chambers/Hynde lineup really was something special, and there isn't a lot of it on record. Hynde and Chambers carried on with a new lineup that released the surprisingly excellent Learning To Crawl in 1984, but it really was a different sounding band.
283. Joy Division: From Safety To Where? *****
"From Safety To Where" opens with a great droning bassline from Peter Hook, and Ian Curtis' ominous, restrained vocal; Bernard Albrecht's jagged, guitar scrapes and slashes. It has a brisk tempo, nice discordant touches, and no trace of the synthesizer which came to dominate their later recordings and Albrecht's work with New Order. Joy Division is a band that is not well understood in America; this cut works well as an introduction to their unique early vision. It was originally released as a single and on the multi-artist compilation Earcom II in 1979; Joy Division's early releases involved a lot of singles and Ep's and was notoriously difficult to make sense of until the release of the Substance compilation in 1988, the best place to start with Joy Division. Ian Curtis, troubled, prone to seizures, and depressed, committed suicide in 1980; the surviving bandmembers formed New order in 1981.
284. Albert King: Crosscut Saw *****
For listeners who listen almost exclusively to rock, but have been meaning to explore the blues a little, and don't know where to start, Albert King is one of several possible entry points. Active in the 1960's, his electric blues was the closest to rock of any other bluesman; he was a contemporary of Cream and Creedence Clearwater Revival, who covered his songs. A southpaw, he played a lefthanded guitar without re-stringing it, thus his trademark tone came about from pulling strings where others pushed. He also recorded for Stax, which meant Booker T. & The MG's were available for support, as they are here. "Crosscut Saw" is one of his signature tunes from his classic 1967 album Born Under A Bad Sign, which stands as one of the best 1960's blues albums; Booker T. & The MG's are in great form; King's guitar peals with authority. You can't be an Eric Clapton fan without hearing some of this. Classic electric 60's blues, from one of the key figures at his peak; can't argue with it. King remained an essential figure in blues until his unexpected death in 1992, from a heart attack, at the age of 69.
285. Blondie: I Didn't Have The Nerve To Say No *****
Blondie's 1977 sophomore album, Plastic Letters, is one of the more underappreciated releases to come out of the New York punk/new-wave scene of the late 70's. While their next album, Parallel Lines, would make them stars on the basis of the discofied "Heart of Glass" and the faux-hard-rock "One Way Or Another", Plastic Letters didn't have a big standout cut; instead there were smaller-scale nuggets of art-power-pop, of which "I Didn't Have The Nerve To Say No" is one of the best examples. Deborah Harry delivers a rapid-fire lyric over a guitar, drums, keyboard rich power pop rocker that morphs into girl-group pop for the choruses without missing a beat; Chris Stein supplies a great heavy-duty guitar solo. Blondie is slated to be inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame in 2006; those familiar only with their hits may wonder what made them special; they're a band you have explore the album cuts with to find the real gems; the hits never captured them right.
286. Nick Cave: Into My Arms ****
Only Nick Cave can get away with a clumsy opening couplet like "I don't believe in an interventionalist god/But I know darling that you do". And he almost doesn't get away with it; the song is almost swamped by its own solemnity. However, Cave being Cave, he doesn't do solemn without also being off-kilter and vaguely creepy; which saves the song. Instrumentally, it's a spare and dark piano ballad; Cave is accompanied by a lone bass. The lyrics are starkly plaintive, so plaintive they leave you questioning the singer's motives; it is both a love song and a non-believer's prayer for redemption and protection. This puts it in a class not far removed from Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits; it conveys a gravitas that lingers after the song has faded away. From the 1997 album The Boatman's Call, one of Cave's better recent efforts.
287. 10,000 Maniacs: My Sister Rose ****
This sounds like something of a simulated afrobeat-lite crossed with mambo-lite crossed with jangle-pop; the guitar is playful and bouncy, the horn touches give it its mambo-like patina, but mostly it sticks to the organ-and-guitars with some mandolin approach the band used for most of In My Tribe, which represented something of a creative peak in 1987, although later releases would sell better. It's a fairly minor cut on the album, which hits better moments with "Like The Weather", "Jack Kerouac", and "City Of Angels". But there's nothing wrong with it; In My Tribe was the most consistent album of the band's career. Singer Natalie Merchant went solo in 1995; they carried on with Mary Ramsey in her stead, but haven't released a studio album since 1999.
288. Santana: Practice What You Preach ****
"Practice What You Preach" is a fine Santana tune from their sixth album, Borboletta, released in 1974. It opens with a gospel-tinged church organ, as Carlos Santana noodles around it; it then establishes itself as a mid-tempo rocker that provides plenty of room for Santana's guitar runs. It is representative of Carlos Santana's then-all-consuming religious devotion, which dominated most of Santana's late 70's releases. This predates most of that stuff, and still has more in common with the familiar late 60's/early 70's Santana sound. By this point, the band was no longer a very cohesive unit; the cast of musicians on the album is big, and revolves from song to song. Still, in retrospect this still sounds pretty good; fans of Santana's guitar would like most of Borboletta.
289. Tommy James & The Shondells: Crimson and Clover *****
What more can be said about this overplayed bubblegum hit by teeny-bop heroes Tommy James and The Shondells? The tremeloed guitars are about as late 60's pop as you can get; the jaunty instrumental breaks put the g in groovy, Shondell's emotive vocal still sounds touching, it has some psychedelic ambiance; it's also as dated as an episode of The Banana Splits, but its naive simplicity makes it a classic nearly 40 years later. It wasn't "cool" to like music like this in the 60's, and it probably isn't cool now either. So sue me; they don't write 'em like this anymore. The band managed 14 chart singles from 1966-1969; "Crimson and Clover" became their second #1 hit in early 1969 ("Hanky Panky" went to #1 in 1966). The album Crimson and Clover was the band's only top-10; their commercial success lay far more in their singles than in their albums. The hits dried up shortly after, although Tommy James did have a top-20 as late as 1980 with "Three Times in Love".
290. Saul Williams: Penny For A Thought ****
Saul Williams is something of an acquired taste; he's not a rapper in the conventional sense, but had earned his stripes as a poet on the open mike circuit before turning to music. As such, he's wordy, which isn't a bad thing here, and his instrumentation, while second fiddle to his raps, has meat on the bones. In a sense, he's the 00's version of Gil Scott-Heron or The Last Poets. "Penny For A Thought" is all over the place lyrically, and not particularly comprehensible. Still, the lines and rhymes that get through are strong; Williams' strength lies in how he hits a key phrase in the middle of a vignette and uses it to pummel home a point. From Amethyst Rock Star, an uneven but very compelling 2001 debut from Williams, and one of the better hip-hop related releases of the 00's.
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