Monday, October 31, 2011

Manheim Steamroller: Halloween

Review # 50
Artist: Manheim Steamroller
Title: Halloween
Format: CD (x2)
Label: American Gramaphone (sic)
Year: 2003
Songs/tracks: 23

So I'm obviously getting out of order here, but in honor of the holiday, I thought I'd go ahead and review this. It's the only thing in my collection that can really be described as a Halloween album. There's some Misfits stuff, but as good as that is at Halloween, I'll listen to them any time of year, so I won't call it holiday music and I'll get to them in their proper alphabetical turn. Some other stuff is debateable, like the Ghostbusters soundtrack or a record of someone reading Edgar Allen Poe stories, but this is the only self-labled Halloween record in my collection

If you've ever heard of Manheim Steamroller before, it's almost certainly because of their new-agey synthesizer heavy Christmas albums, popular in the 1980s and early 1990s. The Christmas records are pretty corny, but they're also tied up with a lot of fond memories from my childhood, because my parents had the first two. So, while I don't like them, I like them anyway, if that makes any sense. The band has released several non-holiday albums in their Fresh Aire series which I frequently see at thrift stores, but I've never heard any of them and I don't think many people have. I was very surprised a few years ago when I learned that they were both still producing music and had a Halloween album (indeed, looking at Wikipedia, it appears they have more than one).

A few years back, my friends and I used to play what we called "Junk Poker," a game which was identical to regular poker, except instead of betting money or chips, we all brought piles of knickknacks we had laying around to use as bets. Part of the fun was negotiating the value of the different items ("Is that a raise or a call?" "No, I think you need to put more on the table than that," etc.). The night would finish up and someone would have cleaned their basement while someone else would be going home with a pile of items of varying quality and value, some of which might show up again the next time we played. I ended up with some cool stuff this way, and also was forced to make some runs to Goodwill to donate huge piles of other people's junk on some occasions. This cd was something I won in one of those games, and mostly out of curiosity, I kept it.

This album is comprised of two discs: one featuring "spooky" synthesizer music, and the other featuring 10 tracks of atmospheric sound effects (sometimes with occasional synthesizer notes). And before you ask, yes, I did listen to both discs from beginning to end for this review.

Let's start with the sound effect disc. It's fairly typical of Halloween sound effects collections. You could play it at your haunted house/Halloween party and nobody would give you a hard time about it. The disc features ten tracks of sound effects that include "Alien Spaceship," "Ghost Voices," and three variations on "Enchanted Forrest" which, to me, all sound exactly the same and all use the exact same echoing wolf howl several times. Spooky backward whispering in "The Other Side" makes it the creepiest of all the tracks, while the funniest is definitely "the Mountain King." I don't know if the king is supposed sound scary, but he sounds more like he's got really severe gas pains. He grunts and groans in what sounds like tremendous discomfort for over three and a half minutes. It's quite hilarious. "The Mountain King" was the only track on this disc that actually distracted me from working on my dissertation because I couldn't stop laughing at that poor mountain king. Someone should get him some Gas-X.

The music disc is just bad.  It starts with "rockin'" version of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the famous organ music you hear in so many Halloween related movies, but played on a synthesizer without enough sustain. Then the synth drums kick in and it gets very silly very fast. This disc is mostly made up of tunes you'd probably be familiar with, "deranged" by Chip Davis of Manheim Steamroller. Their version of "The Flying Dutchman" stands out because it's super dramatic. It reminds me of low budget version of Lord of the Rings Soundtrack.There's also a Nutcracker-esque version of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents theme song, "Rite of Twilight," which riffs on Twilight Zone theme, and version of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" from Fantasia, all played in that silly synthesizer-heavy style that made Manheim Steamroller so popular in the late '80s. The disc also features few original tunes by Chip Davis like "Rock & Roll Graveyard," which is even worse than the covers. I guess if you're seriously a fan of their Christmas music and are planning to throw a Halloween party, you might like this, but otherwise, Manheim Steamroller's Halloween is really only good for a few chuckles, as far as I'm concerned. Also, they apparently don't know how to spell "gramophone."

Happy Halloween!

Total songs listened: 633

Friday, October 21, 2011

Frank Friday! Frank Sinatra Sings Rogers and Hart

Review # 49
Artist: Frank Sinatra
Title: Frank Sinatra Sings Rogers and Hart
Format: LP
Label: Capitol
Year: 1962
Songs: 12

I've liked Frank Sinatra for a long, long time. But it wasn't until my great uncle and aunt had both died, roughly ten years ago now, that I started buying his records. My Aunt Mary and Uncle Jim were both near and dear to me, and both big Sinatra fans. I remember hearing Sinatra playing at their house from back when I was a little kid, especially at Christmas time. They saw Sinatra in concert more than once. The organist even played "My Way" at my uncle's funeral. After they were gone, I started buying Sinatra LPs. I'm not sure exactly why it was, but it made me feel closer to them. And it made music I already liked feel more special. Over the years, I have developed a relationship with Sinatra's music independent of my memories of Mary and Jim, but I still think of them often when I listen to Sinatra. This is where it all started: Frank Sinatra Sings Rogers and Hart was the first Sinatra record I picked up. Not because of the songs on it or anything, but just because it was the first one I saw at a thrift store once I decided to buy some Sinatra records. For a little while, it was the only one I had. I would frequently come home late from punk rock shows, feeling perhaps a bit tipsy, and want some music to listen to that wasn't loud while I made a grilled cheese sandwich or something. So I would often give this record a play. Because this was a common occurrence, and this record had no other Sinatra competition for a time, this is probably the Sinatra record I've played most.

I've got lots of other ones now of course, but this is still one my favorites. This record is the perfect mix of classic Sinatra swing, "The Lady is Tramp" and "Blue Moon" being probably the best known songs on the record, and the more wistful and sentimental Sinatra tunes that always get me. Songs like "Spring is Here," "It Never Entered My Mind," "Glad to Be Unhappy," and "It's Easy to Remember," are perfect for late nights or Sunday mornings when you're feeling a little sad and you want to accept it with some dignity. They aren't songs for being desperate or depressed, they're songs for being sad in the mature way of someone who knows that life has it's ups and downs and sometimes when you're in one of the down periods you've just to accept that it hurts. Frank has a lot of tunes like that, but this record is nice because it mixes them up with some more upbeat numbers as well.You get the ups with the downs.

The funny thing about my love for this record is, a lot of these tunes are from musicals. I mostly hate musicals, and I mostly don't like the music from them. I've always found them unforgivably corny and annoying, which is saying something because I like a lot of corny (and some would say, annoying) stuff. But, you just can't deny that Rogers and Hart wrote some good tunes, and when they're sung by the master vocalist that was Frank Sinatra, they sound good to my ear.

Check out "Spring is Here," one of my favorites from this record.

Total songs listened: 610

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Bikini Kill: Bikini Kill

Review # 48
Artist: Bikini Kill
Title: Bikini Kill
Format: 12" EP
Label: Kill Rock Stars
Year: 1992
Songs: 6

The self-titled debut of riot girl pioneers Bikini Kill is nothing less than amazing. For those not in the know, Bikini Kill was one of the first bands to set sail under the banner of the riot girl movement, a new kind of punk rock of, by, and largely for women. The band's uncompromising feminist stances earned them the undying devotion of thousands of young women in the 1990s (and on) and the scorn and disdain of many who found their message and music too abrasive, confusing, or threatening to their worldviews. Bikini Kill was started as a zine in Olympia, Washington by singer Kathleen Hanna (who would later go on to form the now famous feminist dance-rock band Le Tigre), Kathi Wilcox (bass) and Tobi Vail (drums). The zine project would, in short order, become a band with the addition of Billy Karen (guitar).

This record is the band's opening salvo, a manifesto put to catchy yet abrasive punk rock. From the opening of the record, "Double Dare Ya," when Kathleen shouts: "we're Bikini Kill, and we want revolution, girl-style, now," the passionate defiance of this record is evident. The songs herein deal primarily with women's rights ("rights, rights rights? You have them you know") but also connect society's treatment of women with other inequalities, like racism and the abuse of animals. It's hard to say what the standout songs on this record are because they're all brilliant. From the melodic "Carnival" to the fierce anger of "Suck My Left One," this record is a volley of righteous anger, backed up by energetic punk rock that confidently walks the line between hardcore and more melodic sounds. The most unusual song on the record is undoubtedly "Thurston (hearts) the Who," a live track in which the band plays repetitious progression while one member reads what sounds like a negative review of one of their concerts and another sings about pettiness in the music scene. The whole thing ends with a cacophony of screams. It's not easy to listen to, but the concept is cool and inventive, and fits well with the defiant attitude that characterizes the whole record.

Most of the other songs on the record were recorded by Fugazi and Minor Threat's Ian Mackaye, which only serves to make this record cooler. The importance of the Bikini Kill self-titled debut would be hard to exaggerate. It was a rallying cry for women (and their allies) who were sick of sexism in the music scene and the world in general, and it was a manifesto for an important musical movement, of which Bikini Kill would quickly become the best recognized participants.

It's just awesome. Check out "Double Dare Ya" to hear how it all began.

Total songs listened: 598

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Jello Biafra with NoMeansNo: The Sky is Falling and I Want My Mommy

Review # 47
Artist: Jello Biafra with NoMeansNo
Title:The Sky is Falling and I Want My Mommy
Format: LP
Label: Alternative Tentacles
Year: 1991
Songs: 8

Former Dead Kennedys front man Jello Biafra has been involved in several projects since the disintegration of the punk pioneers that were the DKs. Some of these have been collaborations with other bands (e.g. Mojo Nixon), and of all of those, this is probably my favorite. It's probably in part because NoMeansNo was the first real punk rock band I ever saw, and as such, hold a special place in my heart. I'll go into that more when I review some NoMeansNo records, but suffice as to say, I'm biased in favor of this particular release.

Personal biases aside, there are a lot aspects of this record that make it an outstanding collaboration. To begin with, Jello is in top form. If you like his vocals and lyrics, there's nothing not to like here.  He manages, as he often does, to write songs which are both topical and durable. They often deal with specific events taking place at the time they were written (for example, the use of plutonium on space shuttles, one of the first issues to catch my attention as a budding young activist in high school) but also contain insightful and often sarcastic lines that are, sadly, just as relevant today as they were 20 years ago. My personal favorite from this record: "your lack of curiosity is the key to our success," a line which could characterize the thinking of most politicians and corporate executives today. As always Jello is snarky, political, sarcastic, and frantic, all delivered in his trademark high-pitched lisp. "Our whole economy is based on fear and death!" he shouts in "Sharks in the Gene Pool. "How long can this go on? And we live here!" Topics on this record range from consumerism, media critiques, the military industrial complex, to the war on drugs. Jello pulls out all the stops.

NoMeansNo is in good form here as well. If you aren't familiar with this long-running Canadian punk band, they play some of the most interesting and innovative hardcore music ever recorded. From the intense chunky rhythms of the title track, to the insane riffage of "Ride the Plume" and "Chew," to the frantic, almost "Flight of the Bumblebee" like guitar lines on "Sharks in the Gene Pool," there is not a bad song on this record. "Bruce's Diary" is among the most interesting tracks, with a catchy tune and a horn section providing an almost loungey feel at times. The album concludes with "The Myth is Real -- Let's Eat," which is perhaps the most Dead Kennedy-esque song on the record, but still holds firm to NoMeansNo's own style. It's just great.

This record is an absolute must for any fan of either the Dead Kennedys or NoMeansNo. My only complaint is that there is no booklet or poster with lyrics on it, but I got this second-hand, so it may just be that the previous owner misplaced it. Maybe it's just because I'm so happy to be reviewing punk rock again after so many other kinds of records, but this record is just fantastic.

Total songs listened: 592

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Beverly Hills Cop: Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack

Review # 46
Artist: Various
Title: Beverly Hills Cop -- Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack
Format: LP
Label: MCA Records
Year: 1984
Songs: 10

I have never seen any of the Beverly Hills Cop movies, and don't feel any compelling need to. I bought this record at a thrift store some years ago for one reason only--as a kid, I loved the Harold Faltermeyer song "Axel F," which you might know as just the theme from Beverly Hills Cop, or you may have seen used in recent computer-animated music video, currently popular on YouTube, "performed" by "Crazy Frog." I can't really make sense of that, and will let you find that yourself if you want to see it because I find it sort of irritating and don't want to link to it. Whatever.

Axel F is a piece of super cheesy dramatic 1980s synth pop that used to come on the radio in the car when I was little, and I'd look out the window and imagine I was on my way to do something really cool and dramatic. Maybe I was on the way to... fight the Joker... or... I don't know, really. It just made me feel bad-ass to listen to this song and the look out the window of the car (especially at night, on long road trips) when I was six years old or so and imagine that there was adventure waiting for me at my destination. As a result, when I saw this record in a 25 cent bin, the I decided to pick it up. Can't say I play it much but the beginning of "Axel F," the last song on this LP, still resonates something deep inside my being that make me feel happy.

So that's why I own this record.  What about the rest of it? Well, if you aren't familiar with this soundtrack, it's mostly some pretty silly 1980s pop music, much of it synthesizer driven. But it's not really the kind I like.  If you pick this record up, which is very easy to do in thrift stores across America, you get such hits as "New Attitude" by Patti LaBelle, "The Heat is On," by Glenn Frey of the Eagles, and "BHC (I Can't Stop)" by Rick James, to name a few of the better known tunes and artists found on this record. This isn't the weird nerdy new-wavey '80s pop that resonates with me. It's more dancey and mainstream. I think it's safe to say that for the most part, the only song I ever play on this record is "Axel F."

That said, upon listening to this record for the blog, I did find myself enjoying the song "Gratitude" by Danny Elfman. Elfman is perhaps best known for writing the theme song for The Simpsons as well as music for Tim Burton's Batman and The Nightmare Before Christmas. In addition to scoring movies though, Elfman was also a member of the new wave band Oingo Boingo, and also produced some solo material that was somewhat in that vein. "Gratitude" is a fun synthy pop song that falls more into the weird, more creative kind of silly 1980s stuff that I enjoy. At moments, the songs reminds me a little bit of certain eras of David Bowie's work, and definitely stands out from the rest of this record as far as I'm concerned.

Coming up next, a return to punk rock records, with one of the greatest punk rock team-up albums ever recorded.

Total songs listened: 584

Monday, October 3, 2011

Chuck Berry: Chuck Berry's Golden Hits

Review # 45
Artist: Chuck Berry
Title: Chuck Berry's Golden Hits
Format: LP
Label: Mercury
Year: 1967
Songs: 11

If you like rock music at all, it's hard to imagine not liking Chuck Berry or the songs on this record. This is a collection of classic Chuck Berry tunes, like "Memphis," "Maybellene," and of course, "Rock and Roll Music" and "Johnny B. Goode." These are classic songs by a man who deserves substantial credit as one of the creators of rock music. The fast pace, backbeat, and relentless guitar of Chuck Berry's best songs are the heart of rock and roll. It's hard to know what popular music would have become without Berry's music. There almost certainly never would never have been anything called punk rock.

All of that said (and I didn't realize this when I bought it), this record doesn't feature the original 1950s versions of these classic songs. In fact, the only song featured here in it's original version is new song Berry recorded for the record called "Club Nitty Gritty." Not coincidentally, this is the only song from this record I'd never heard before. All of these songs were re-recorded for Mercury Records in 1967 specifically for this release. The original stand-up bass has been replaced by an electric one, and they've also added some tambourine. What's missing is some of the energy. Don't get me wrong, these are still some peppy songs, and I wouldn't call the recordings bad by any means, but some of the magic that makes Berry's music so enduring is missing from these versions. I wouldn't quite say they feel forced, but I could imagine it being very hard to have the same enthusiasm for recording a song ten years or more after the original recording sessions, and I think the lower enthusiasm levels show here. The new bass lines are also more complex and a little higher in the mix, and sometimes distract from the songs.

If I'd known these weren't the original versions of this, I might not have bought this record. It's not that it's bad, but I would have rather spent the money on the originals.

I misspoke in the last review: I actually have one more record that was pushed to the back that I'll need to review before we cross back into punk rock territory after several weeks away.

Total songs listened: 574