Monday, December 17, 2012

The Vandals: Oi to the World!

Review # 74
Artist: The Vandals
Title: Oi to the World!
Format: CD
Label: Kung Fu Records
Year: 1996
Songs: 12

The Vandals, a long-running (but inconsistent) joke-punk band from southern California, released what may be the only full-length punk rock Christmas album in the mid-90s, well after their prime. I actually don't really like the Vandals, at least not as they exist today. Their early work features some great moments of 80s punk,  but if I understand correctly, the only person still involved with the band from those days is the drummer. In the years between their early 80s releases and the time this record came out, the Vandals changed from jokey hardcore to fairly generic 90s pop punk with "funny" lyrics. The Vandals weren't always clever even in the early days--some of their songs were hilarious, but others, like so many punk bands from their era, relied on shock value more than actually being funny. Call me a prude, but sometimes the Vandals' songs go too far over the line of political correctness for me to be comfortable. But that's a lot of 80s punk for you.

So I guess you could say I have mixed feelings about the Vandals. I picked up this particular record at a garage sale for a buck this summer. I had only ever heard the title track at that point, which is a pretty hilarious holiday-themed spoof on oi punk. Even though I've never really liked the later iterations of the Vandals as a band, I've always liked that song, so I picked it up. And... I have mixed feelings about it.

Oi to the World features some pretty hilarious holiday punk tunes. Similar to the title track, for example, "I Don't Believe in Santa Claus" is a send up of a punk sub-genre, in this case English anarcho-punk. The drums are all snare rolls and the vocalist takes on a thick (fake) British accent as he shouts out anti-capitalist cliches and denounces Christmas. Other tracks feature themes that would be familiar to most people who grew up celebrating Christmas--dealing with family members you don't really like, not getting the gifts you hoped for, people who are so obsessed with having the perfect Christmas that they end up ruining it for themselves and everyone else. They do it all to a pop-punk beat that's catchy and fun in small doses, but I wouldn't want to listen to all the time. A real stand-out track on the record, other than "Oi to the World" is the punk/metal version of "Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies" from The Nutcracker. I don't know how to to describe it, other than to say that rocks, and I would happily listen to an entire Nutcracker album done in this style. Metal ballet? Who'd have thunk it?

As with the rest of the Vandals' catalogue though, there are a few tracks that go too far over the line of good taste for me. Lest you think I'm just a prude, I'll say up front that "Christmas Time for my Penis" is actually NOT one of these songs--I expected not to like that one, but actually, its pretty funny, because if you weren't paying close attention, you would think it was just a normal Christmas song that someone had written about a friend of family member who was having-ahem-a hard time during the holiday season. It hugs the line of bad taste but remains funny. On the other hand, "My First Christmas (As a Woman)," is a complete miss. It's not clever or funny, and seems a bit insensitive to the challenges faced by transgendered people. Their cover the of Yobs "C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S" is equally if not more tasteless, relying on entirely on cheap shock value for its supposed humour.

So, the final verdict? For a buck, this was a good purchase, if for no other reason than the title track and "Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies." This record, however, is not for the easily offended, and features some tracks that make me push the "skip" button.

Here's the title track, if you want to check it out as well as "Dance of the Sugarplumb Fairies".

Total songs listened: 903

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

New Record! Bob Dylan: Tempest

Review # 73
Artist: Bob Dylan
Title: Tempest
Format: LP(x2) + CD
Label: Columbia
Year: 2012
Songs: 10

It's funny, I still run into people that don't know that Bob Dylan is still making records and that they are still good. Ok, sure, Dylan put out some not-so-great records for about 20 years (from the mid '70s until the mid '90s), but here's the thing: this year is the 50th anniversary of his first LP. When you make records for 50 years, you're probably going to make some stinkers.

So what of Bob Dylan's 35th studio album, Tempest? Well, it's very much in keeping with the material he's been making since 1997's Time Our of Mind. If you like the music Dylan's been making for the last 15 years or so, you'll like this.  I certainly do. Bob Dylan plays memorable songs, backed by a great band, with smart lyrics peppered with references to traditional American folk songs and other old-time music. The band sounds like a new band playing old music--the production is full and clean even though the music draws more on traditional folk, blues, and tin pan alley tunes than any contemporary music. The arrangements are similar to both of his 2009 albums, Together through Life and Christmas in the Heart, especially the latter (surprisingly). But that's not to say he's become a one-trick pony. There's a lot of variety on this album, even as it sounds familiar to a fan of his more recent work.

The record begins with the incredibly catchy "Duquesne Whistle" (pronounced "Doo-Kane"), which I frequently wake up hearing in my head. The song rolls along in an upbeat fashion reminiscent of a lot of the tracks on Love and Theft (2001). Lyrically, it's a classic "rambling on the train" song, and it feelss familiar and comfortable without being derivative. Similar in feel are "Narrow Way," with its upbeat tempo and slide guitar give it a similar blues-rock feel, and  "Early Roman Kings," another bluesy feeling song that would be great for a roadtrip mix. These songs really swing, and  have a defiant feel that fits one of the themes that appears on several tracks on the record--Dylan declaring himself to be (still) a force to be reckoned with. On "Narrow Way," he declares "I'm armed to the hilt and I'm struggling hard, you won't get out of here unscarred." During "Pay in Blood" he tells us "I've been to hell, what good did it do? You bastard, I'm supposed to respect you?... This is how I spend my days--I came to bury, not to praise. I drink my fill, and sleep alone. I pay in blood. But not my own." Dylan is still here and still fighting: "I ain't dead yet, my bell still rings. I keep my fingers crossed like the early Roman kings." He's pretty feisty on some of these songs, and the tone is matched by his voice, which over the last 15 years or so has been shifting from a forlorn nasal tone (still heard on Tempest) to an increasingly guttural grunt, which sounds more forceful and less mournful.

But it's not all swagger and bravado. There's some dark and/or dour moments too. My favorite track on the record is probably "Scarlett Town," which paints a surreal picture of a town where everything is a little off and something sinister seems to be lurking just beneath the surface. In this song, like so many of Dylan's ballads, he creates characters with fragments of information that leave you wanting to know more about them--who is Uncle Bill? Why is Sweet William dying? I kind of get the chills thinking about it sometimes, and tinkly piano and slow banjo picking reinforce the dark, creepy feel of the song.  It would not have been out of place among the tunes onthe rather dark Time Out of Mind. There's also a murder ballad, "Tin Angel," which ends with all three members of a love triangle bleeding on the floor. The album closes with "Roll on John," a touching song that, in Dylan's round about and poetic way, tells the story of John Lennon's life and death. It's a nice tribute, and adds another layer of emotion to the album.

The one track on this record that doesn't work that well for me is actually the title track. "Tempest" is a 13 minute ballad about the Titanic sinking. Musically, it pretty much does the exact same thing for the whole 13 minutes, and I just don't feel like it holds up. In my opinion, Dylan would have been better off to trim this down to seven or even five minutes. It's got the same character development thing going on as in other Dylan story songs like "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" from 1975's Blood on the Tracks, which I like, but the music on "Tempest" is just too repetitive for 13 minutes.

On the whole, I really like this record. I've been listening to it a lot since it came out, and if you're a Dylan fan I recommend it. If you're only familiar with his early stuff and have been curious about what he's been up to lately, this isn't a bad place to start.

To get you started, here's teh oficial video for "Duquesne Whistle."

Check back soon for more reviews, including some unusual holiday stuff!

Total songs listened: 891

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Various Artists: Ghostbusters Original Sountrack Album

Review # 72
Artist: Various Artists
Title: Ghostbusters Original Soundtrack Album
Format: LP
Label: Arista Records
Year: 1984
Songs: 10

With Halloween fast approaching, I wanted to make sure I did at least one more seasonally themed review. Even if it weren't Halloween time, who doesn't love Ray Parker Jr.'s Ghostbusters theme song? It's catchy and fun. It went to #1 on the Billboard charts. Lawsuits from Huey Lewis aside, it's a great little tune and is a big part of what made the movie memorable.

 I put this record on every year at this time, and it brings back all kinds of childhood memories of playing Ghostbusters for hours, sometimes convincing neighbors to let me into their homes to search for ghosts, and on at least one occasion convincing one of them to play me for catching one.  I must have been a cute kid, I guess, to get away with charging my neighbors to play in their houses. I was borderline obsessed with the Ghostbusters from ages 6 to about 9, watching the cartoon show every Saturday and renting the movie countless times. The song "Ghostbusters" brings it all back, as do a few of the other tracks on this soundtrack.

Selecting this record for review, however, has reminded me why I almost never make it all the way through this LP. It's got some pretty bad patches. It starts strong with Ray Parker Jr.'s famous tune, and that's followed by the (I think) underappreciated BusBoys song "Cleanin' Up the Town." It's no "Ghostbusters," but this is a fun tune in a swingin' jazzy style about our heroes that gets your foot tapping and your fingers snapping. This is followed by Allesi's "Savin' the Day," which is super dramatic but fun synth-pop. It's cheesy, and it calls to mind the scene where the boys roll up to Spook Central to save the day, which, alongside the over-the-top dramatic cheese of the song itself makes this a fun one if you're a fan of the film.

But after that, it just goes downhill.  Side one finishes up with "In the Name of Love" by the Thompson Twins, which I just find annoying and can't really remember from the film, and then a boring song by the always faux-mantic Air Supply.  Side two doesn't improve much.  It starts with "Hot Night," performed by Laura Branigan, who sounds like a low-rent Pat Benatar. This is followed by Mick Smiley's "Magic," which is pretty forgettable. Then we get two songs from the score of the film, "Dana's Theme" and "Main Title Theme [Ghostbusters]," the latter of which is not an orchestral version of Parker's song as you might think, but instead is a piece instrumental music that plays repeatedly throughout the film. You might remember this tune, unless I'm mistaken, as "the music that plays while the Ghostbusters have to go up a lot of stairs." These are both pieces of music that work fine in the context of the film, but I'm not sure how well they stand alone. The record finishes with an instrumental version of Parker's #1 hit.

So, yeah.  I've never really thought about why I usually turn this off part way through the first side, but I guess the bottom line is, I really only want to hear the first three songs on this record, unless I'm hearing them in the context of the film, which I still love and watch every couple of years.

Everyone's heard these songs, especially the title track.  But you may not have seen the music video, which is hilarious and includes orignal content featuring our four ghost bustin' heroes.  You can check that out here:

I don't know if I'll get to another post before Halloween. If I do, I'll try to pick another seasonal choice, but if not, have a great Halloween, and don't be afraid of no ghosts.

Total songs listened: 881

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Review # 71
Artist: Bauhaus
Title: 1979-1983 Volume One
Format: CD
Label: Beggars Banquet
Year: 1986
Songs: 14

Hi everyone, and welcome to the first review from the new and less restricted 30,000 songs. Now that I'm not trying to do everything in alphabetical order anymore, I can make choices like this one, which I selected not only in keeping with rainy blustery weather and the approach of Halloween, but also in honor of Bela Lugosi. Lugosi, best known for playing the role of Dracula in the classic Universal Studios film of the same title, was the subject of Bauhaus's best known song "Bela Lugosi's Dead." Lugosi would be 130 years old today.

I love listening to Bauhaus this time of year. Without retreading too much of the same territory from review #30, I'll just mention here that Bauhaus are considered by many to be the first goth band. This cd spans the first four years of the band's singles, and you can hear the progression here from what was essentially a dark and strange take on the punk sound to something  that has evolved into an independent genre (albeit one with punk roots still clearly evident). Throughout, Bauhaus sounds dark and ominous. Their musical approach to this is an interesting one.  Drummer Kevin Haskin's lays down rhythms that sometimes border on tribal, relying heavily on his toms to keep time rather than ride or high-hat cymbals a typical rock drummer would use.  The song structure of most tracks is held together primarily by bassist David J., who's style is often minimalist and droning in a way that provides an ominous feel to the songs.  Guitarist Daniel Ash, meanwhile, lays down guitar tracks that, in many cases, primarily add an eerie texture created through high-pitched, echoey noises that you might think were improvised, if they didn't sound so perfect.  Only on a few occasions on this disc does he play what one would consider a chord progression. Peter Murphy rounds out the sound with nasal, almost shrieking vocals.  The overall sound is bleak and cold, and fits well with their generally creepy lyrics.

What are the songs about? Much of the time, it's hard to say but I think the short answer is "nothing nice." Death, strange sex, alienation. As I mentioned before, their best known song is "Bela Lugosi's Dead," a tribute to Lugosi that describes his funeral as if he were an actual vampire, an undead being who would probably rise again to continue his lonely existence. That might sound silly, but it's actually a great song in my opinion. My favorite, however, is "The Passion of Lovers." The lyrics of this song paint a surreal picture of tragic woman. The Internet tells me the song was inspired by the true story a couple that killed themselves, although I have no idea if that's actually true. I just know the chorus gets stuck in my head for days.

On that happy note, merry Lugosi Day.  More spooky-type music reviews coming soon!

Here's "The Passion of Lovers" if you want to check that out, and here's "Bela Lugosi's Dead."

Also, in case I depressed you with my review of this record, here's a fun video about Bela Lugosi's birthday.

Total songs listened: 871

Friday, October 19, 2012

A new approach

Hello readers,

It has been a while since I have posted. I've been extremely busy lately with job applications and my dissertation and my own music and have a hard time making time for this project. In the interest of facilitating more reviews being posted more often, I've decided to change my approach a bit.

Part of what has made it hard to keep up with this is the format and alphabet rules I set out at the beginning. It's not that I'm not listening to music, it's just that, when my time so limited, it's often hard to prioritize listening to a record that I may not really feel like listening to at that moment so I can write a post. Instead, I end up listeing to what I feel like, and not writing anything.  To get around this, I've decided to shift my reviewing approach to a more flexible one. Rather than only reviewing records of one specific format in alphabetical order (i.e. LPs by artists with names that start with "C"), I've decided to just review whatever I feel like listening to, regardless of format or alphabetic position.  Along the way, I'll make sure to throw in reviews of unusual and odd things I have in my collection that I might not normally listen to that much, but I'll do that only when I have time to. The rest of the time, you can expect posts about whatever struck my fancy that day, which might be anything in the collection--punk, folk, jazz, rap, whatever. I think this will keep things fresh, prevent there being 7 or 8 reviews in a row by the same artist, and allow me to write a review of whatever I put on while I was cleaning the living room, shaving, or doing the dishes.

So check back soon for a new review, maybe something Halloween flavored. Thanks for bearing with me.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

New Record! Appalachian Terror Unit: Greenwashing

Review # 70
Artist: Appalachian Terror Unit
Title: Greenwashing
Format: LP
Label: Vex/Profane Existence
Year: 2008
Songs: 7

We're going back to "A" one more time. My band had the privilege to open for these folks recently and I had to pick up their record. I was annoyed by having to go back to "A," but this record is well worth it.

Appalachian Terror Unit is an anarcho-punk/crust band from West Virginia. The sound is reminiscent of some of the heavier anarcho-punk bands like Amebix and Antisect that would become the sonic inspiration for crust punk. Featuring heavy (but not sludgy) guitars and shouty (but not overly growly) vocals, ATU fills that space that bands like Aus Rotten used to occupy in the late '90s. There's nothing super original about their musical performances--they play a genre. But they play it REALLY, REALLY well. The performances are flawless and powerful, the production feels full without being overproduced.

This record features female lead vocals that alternate with a male backing vocalist in a way that remind me a bit of Nausea. The singers deliver passionate, urgent protests against the drug war, environmental degradation, the two party system, commercialized health care, and similar topics. The lyrics are intelligent and the content seems well-researched and thoughtful (leaving aside some spelling and grammatical errors in the accompanying lyrics booklet). Some of the songs feature rants in the middle that add a lot more content and substance than some bands in the genre bring to their lyrics. While there's nothing terribly original about the topics or critiques they offer, the band does a bring an interesting perspective to their discussion of environmental issues. Hailing from West Virginia, the destruction that is  inherent in Appalachian coal mining is right in their backyards. They have firsthand experience with the devastation that this industry leaves behind, and their lyrics recognize the hazards that workers in this industry face, the damage that is wrought on the environment, and great lengths that industry will go to cover up both of these travesties.

All in all, if you like crust or heavy anarcho-punk, this record is really good. I'd go so far as to say it's a must have for fans of Amebix, Aus Rotten, Nausea, Anti-Sect, or Icons of Filth. And their nice folks, too!

Here's the title track if you want to check it out.

Total songs listened: 857

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Oscar Brand: Bawdy Songs & Backroom Ballads Volume 4

Review # 69
Artist: Oscar Brand
Title: Bawdy Songs and Backroom Ballads Volume 4
Format: LP
Label: Audio Fidelity
Year: 1957
Songs: 14

So, after triumphantly moving on to "C" records, I found this sitting in my pile of records I hadn't actually listened to yet. I've had this for a while and it should have been reviewed before now, but it's very appropriate that this is review number 69, because this is a record of dirty, prurient songs. Being an enthusiast of old folk music, I picked this up out of a dollar bin, never having heard of Oscar Brand but curious about these ditties. Brand was a Canadian born folk singer who specialized in some of the less family-friendly folk music of Europe and America, so much so that he released at least four volumes of these forgotten and filthy tunes.

I sort of thought this record wasn't going to be any good, but I was mostly wrong. This record is a fun compendium of old-time songs about illicit sex. Some of them are sort of subtle (emphasis on "sort of") like "Two Maidens" and "Basket of Oysters" (you can guess what that one's about), while others are so graphic that they couldn't be played on the radio without significant censorship. These songs really put the lie to the idea that modern forms like rap and hard rock have made music a corrupting influence. With several of the tracks on this record dating back to 1607, it is quite clear that raunchy songs are nothing new. Many of these songs have familiar tunes that might have you absent-mindedly tapping your foot before realizing this is not the song from your childhood (i.e. "Cindy," "The Wayward Boy," and "The Money Rolls In," the latter of which is sung to the tune of "My Bonnie" but deals with prostitution and related matters). The record also contains a song called "Sweet Violets," which turns out to be a forerunner of the 1940s novelty hit "Shaving Cream," with mostly similar verses and choruses that replace the "shhhhaving cream, be nice and clean, shave every day and you'll always look keen" with "sweet violets, sweeter than all the roses."

The actual performances of these songs are pretty ok. Brand and his accompanist Dave Sear are both competent guitarists/banjo players and sing these tunes with the gusto that songs like these really require to work. The one place where it sort of falls apart is with the accents. Brand does an ok Scotsman--good enough that I initially found myself wondering if he was actuallyScottishf. But his English accent, on embarrassing display throughout "Don't Call Me," a British soldier song, is just laughably bad. Every time he sings "Cor, blimey!" I cringe.  He would have been much better off to just sing these with his natural accent, or failing that, skip the British songs, because he just sounds silly.

Overall though, this is a pretty fascinating and fun look at the scandalous side of folk music, if you are interested in that sort of thing.

The only song from this record I could find streaming is one of the tamer ones, "The Wayward Boy." Enjoy!

Total songs listened: 850