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