Album: Special Effects
Artist: Tech N9ne
About: 24 tracks; 78 minutes
Dan has once again chosen an album that has stretched my music listening zone beyond its normal boundaries. Tech N9ne has been kind of a smile in our family since the kids were in high school and Tech referenced Ali’s high school in one of his raps. While his name was a household one here, I could not tell you a Tech N9ne song if my life depended on it, nor would I be able to pick his music of any musical lineup. After the week of listening to the 24 song long Strange Effects, I can recognize some of what is going on with this guy.
24 songs is a long freakin’ album! But it is not a straight-forward 24 songs. He is all over the place with style. There are conversations (one that is the voicemail from a friend telling N9ne that it would probably be the last time that he would hear from him, and then a repentant apology for his drama the next day). There are lots of guest performances who all bring their own sound and style to their tracks. This album is quiet and gets loud and gets angry and gets sad and gets playful and gets dirty and, and, and.
The album’s first song, Aw Yea?/Intervention is a straight on rap that was released several months before the album itself. On this song, and a few others on the album, his rap is backed by a beautiful choir. This time they sing Audire Domine – Latin for Listen, Lord. He hits his God hard for some answers – invoking everything from Bill Cosby to Ferguson to Boko Haram. I hear a combination of anger, confusion, frustration, and pleading. About this song, he said in an interview It’s called ‘Aw Yea? / Intervention’ because I need one after seeing all this shit over the years. I let it all loose in one song.” That song ends with him screaming that even after all of the stuff he has put out there for God to answer to, the most important question hasn’t been asked. That question is “What about my mama?” – referring to the recent death of his mom.
That loss of mother comes through in many parts of the album in some extraordinarily beautiful ways. He uses choirs and sweeping loops to back his grief and anger. There is one song, Wither, that is a magnificent virtual tour through music styles. It starts out with almost a folksy sounding acoustic section that then rams into rap that plunges into hair metal screaming. Another track that I loved was Dyin’Flyin.’ It has a classical piano underscore that is joined by violins and that chorus again. Over this virtuosity of sound, he raps about the fall of his fanbase as they accuse him of selling out. Again, it sounds like a prayer – an ask for an explanation – a plea for peace.
Over on his blog, Dan had more fun listening to this album than I did. He laughed and bobbed his head along to some of the songs that I probably skipped through. We hear the same things different ways. That is what makes this fun.
If you take the time to listen to Special Effects, you hear the breadth of this man’s talent. I would not have listened to it ever, had Dan not chosen it. I am never going to be comfortable with some of the songs that Tech N9ne or most rappers produce. I don’t like the brutal and overly-sexualized images of women. I have no comfort with songs full of language that I think needs to not be used. That is not going to change. But if I take time, I can listen and hear the other. This album has a great deal of the other. It has soul, and classic, and rap, and gospel and heart.
Next Up: Rihanna’s Anti
Album: Hold My Beer, Volume 1
Artists: Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen
About: 10 songs; 39 minutes
Choice: Deliberate Obfuscation
This is a 5 hook album. It was somewhere between Austin, Texas and Kansas City, Missouri that I made a connection with Hold My Beer, Vol 1. For me, it is a well known truism that gas stop convenience stores on any road trip offer the flavor of the territory. They have been the source of many of my favorite post cards that highlight the stereotypes that you may expect of whatever location you are in. It’s not mean-spirited, but more boastful – we are what we are, darn it!
Anyway, this one particular stop had a rotating rack of CDs labelled something like “regional music.” Within that rack was Hold My Beer, Volume 1 by Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers. I pulled that one out to have a look (hook # 1 = catchy title). The cover was pretty great too (aka hook #2): stark landscape, single building, two guys (one with a guitar case; one with a satchel) looking like they are skedaddling someplace. The reverse listed the 10 tracks, which also piqued my interest (hook # 3 catchy song titles: Reasons to Quit, Standards, Hangin’ Out in Bars, It’s Been a Great Afternoon). So what did I do? I put it back in the rack and got back in the car and off we went. Sometimes I just am not reasonable.
Regret immediately set in. I should have bought it. About five miles later, I put that baby in my webstore shopping cart and brought it into my library. I regret that I did not make the purchase from the store. They should be supported for putting some interesting music choices out there. I hope I have learned my lesson.
So how is the album? This, readers, is your classic Texas country album. This is Tom T. Hall and Waylon and Buck Owens and Charlie Rich. This is fiddles, steel pedal guitar, honky tonk piano, and lots of picking and twang. They are songs that you can follow the lyrics like a Jimmy Buffet song, and you get a flavor of who these guys are. Even if this music is not your bottle of beer, it would be difficult to listen to this and not want to sit down and here these guys exchange stories. Where do you hear someone so pleased with who they are and what they are that they openly declare:
Well we’re not sure how we got here
But somehow we stuck around
Some days I feel like we can fly
And some days I think we’ll drown
I guess what they say is true
All you need is one good friend
And in the next life, we wanna be ourselves again
I don’t know either Randy Rogers or Wade Brown, but apparently they have substantial solo acts and this collaboration is their labor of fun. It sounds as much. This is one of those albums where you hear the smiling as these two guys and their band play. They tackle all of the classics: telling the record man to take his ideas and shove ’em, tagging a know it all boss as a certified S.O.B., and being able to turn a morning with a first class hang-over into a great afternoon (hook #4).
Oddly enough, in reviewing the album, Dan found out that Randy Rogers will be in Kansas City next week and he put the date on our calendar. Turns out that Dan likes these guys as much as I did. He nicely associates what we heard on this album to what we saw with our own eyes in a honky tonk in Austin.
Just as our last album was not my jam but I could open up my ears to it, this one was the same. These good ol’ guys hooked me (hook #5). They also made me ready for another road trip of discovery.
Next up: Special Effects, by Tech N9ne
Album: Return of the Tender Lover
About: 9 songs; 42 minutes
Choice: DJR Blogging
Dear Babyface – Good lord, man! What is the matter with you? Dan chose your new album, Return of the Tender Lover as our album of the week and I have been shaking my head in disbelief since. I have spent the last several days listening and I did a little fact checking. I read that you waited ten years to put out an album, and I can understand why. How is anyone going to feel good about themselves after having listened to this? Sure, I feel like I have a pretty good thing going on with my man, but compared to you? Forget it! For one thing, I don’t get the feeling that he is always on the verge of giving me a Standing Ovation every time I walk into the room. You wrote a whole song about it!
I suppose it helps that you do acknowledge that there are moments when you have had to fight for this exceptional love of yours, but that just goes to makes you even more amazing. You aren’t going to throw in the towel when things get rough. As you sing on Fight for Love, you’re making sure that your woman knows that there is no giving up.
Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Prince – I hear all of those guys in this album. What you have wrought with this new album is a time machine back to the days of smooth jazz and velvet voices. I want to be that cynical person who says bah! to your lines of sugar, but then I catch myself smiling foolishly as I dance in my chair when you and El DeBarge (!) sing about how just holding hands is akin to walking on air when you are with your boo. Just stop it!
As I write this and think about it, maybe I can’t chide you for putting this album out. Maybe it is your way to help the other dudes in this world who don’t have your mad romantic game. I think that what we have here is a perfect Valentine’s Day gift. Every man in a relationship should come up with an amazing lip-sync performance of one of these tracks. They then need to bring it out after sharing that candlelight dinner with their honey. I know that Dan could do an awesome job with Something Bout You. Who wouldn’t have a smiling swoon over something like that.
You are my favorite obsession.
Sometimes I can’t even see, no.
Because we got this connection, love.
Without you I just can’t even breathe, Lord.
Cause I adore you! Place no one above you.
I live my life for you.
I can’t help but love you, awww baby!
Unfortunately, Babyface, Dan did not quite warm to what you were selling, and I do not expect that scene to play out over my Valentine’s meal. In fact, he was a little harsh to you. According to him, your album reflects: No rhyme is too tortured, no metaphor is unwelcomed, no sentiment is too trite to be smeared over with honey and stuck into a smooth melody and shipped out. Your girl might need to give you some extra lovin if you go over and read his whole review. Ouch!
But for me, Babyface, you win. You have a pretty special thing going on with your lady, and thanks to my Exceptional sweetie, you brought some good old fashioned, goofy romance into my ears this week. I wouldn’t pick it up myself, I probably won’t come back to you, but it was a week I will remember.
Next Up: Hold My Beer by Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen
Album: Fast Forward
Artist: Joe Jackson
About : 16 tracks; 1 hour 12 minutes
Pick: Deliberate Obfuscation
Joe Jackson came into my life when I was a college freshman. His Look Sharp debut album was sung aloud to over many beers in our college pub. Pretty women out walking with gorillas down my street ... No one could sell a snarly pop, new wave song like Joe Jackson. You heard his sarcasm clearly and he was brilliant. Sixty-one year old Joe Jackson, on his new album, Fast Forward, has lost some of the snarl, but he still throws out some brilliant pop on this album. This peripatetic album of sixteen songs was recorded in studios in New York City, Amsterdam, Berlin, and New Orleans. In each location he builds a band to accompany his distinctive vocals and piano playing on four tracks.
The New York series opens the album with the title track Fast Forward. This is six minutes of great stuff. It abounds with confusion about what the heck is going on in the world, but it has almost a smiling acceptance of bewilderment. It is the first indication on this album that the snarl of older days has softened, but it is not gone. If this is the best of times or if it’s the worst / There’s some difference of opinion out there / Everyone is a genius / But no one has any friends / Or is it the other way around?
Every song on this album has some snippet of lyric that I want to include in this review. He is just so smart, plus clever!
The second set of the album was recorded in Amsterdam. Aside from the track “Far Away” that opens with a young boy’s solo, this portion of the album may be my favorite. A Little Smile is full of lovely orchestral strings and pulls out pure sweetness in its message. This section also indicates that he has had some lady learning. This comes through in songs like So You Say – So you say, and I agree, you’re a prize, but not for me. And finally, Joe Jackson’s version of optimism is defined via the track Poor Thing – Just think of the millions and millions of horrible things that can happen, that happen each day / but on we go / there must be a few million chances that just a few things could still turn out OK. That is weirdly hopeful, right?
Next up is Berlin, which to me, sounds most like early JJ. There are tracks that sound garage bandy and some that are more bluesy. Anger comes through on the incredible If I Could See Your Face about cultural differences. This section also has Jackson’s rendition of a German cabaret song, Goodbye Jonny that fits so well into this section and this album. This all just makes you realize what a smart curator of music he is.
On his blog, Dan pays a lot of attention to what JJ is doing musically that he does not understand. There is something to say about that since Jackson certainly has the gift of being a trained musician who clearly thinks through his sounds. I think that as he spends more time with this album, the album as a whole and not the techniques will be something that he can enjoy more.
The final section was recorded in New Orleans. Jackson says that he was thinking of NOLA when he wrote Neon Rain, the section’s opener. This song has some classic New Orleans shout backs with some rain and thunder thrown in. The track Keep On Dreaming, I think, includes the best example of New Orleans instrumentation. I hope that it also reflects Joe Jackson’s promise to his fans: Keep on singing til I get it right; Keep on swinging till I get it right / Keep on thinking til I get it right/ Keep on drinking till I get it right / Keep on dreaming til I get it right / Even if I never get it right. I actually see him achieving all of those things in this album and if it isn’t quite right in Joe Jackson’s mind, I am perfectly fine with that. That just means that there will be more to come.
Next Up: Babyface: Return of the Tender Lover
Something More Than Free is, without a doubt, the album that I have looked forward to most this year. Not that I have wearied of listening to Southeastern or any of Jason Isbell’s music, but I am greedy and I wanted more. The eleven tracks that make up this album do what he excels at. They tell stories and they catch your heart and your ear with their musicianship and wordsmanship. I have had a few months with the album now, so writing a review is somewhat of a challenge. These songs are no longer freshly exposed to judgment. All of the songs are now part of my Isbell vocabulary. Breaking off the album from the rest of his music and trying to create an honest critique is tough. As usual, over on his blog, Dan writes eloquently about what he is hearing in this album. His is a very interesting take on how the struggles that were so clear in Southeastern may still be driving this new album but in a more subtle way.
My huge mad crush on Jason Isbell started in a honky tonk Kansas City roadhouse in 2009. That Jason was very different from the man he is today, but the core of his songwriting that was great in 2009 still shines brilliantly. Whatever your music preference is, there is likely to be at least a song or two on this that you could want in your library.
To pick a favorite on the album, I am going to go with How to Forget. I have to believe that this one is pretty autobiographical. It exposes the challenge of people coming back into your life after your life has been turned around. Because they are so good, I want to put all of the lyrics here, but I will limit myself to the first part:
Give her space, give her speed
Give her anything she needs
Get her out of here
Give her weed, give her wine
Give her anything but time
Get her out of here
She won’t stop telling stories, and most of them are true
She knew me back before I fell for you
I was strained, I was sad, didn’t realize what I had
It was years ago
I was sick, I was scared, I was socially impaired
It was years ago
My past’s a scary movie, I watched and fell asleep
Now I’m dreaming up these creatures from the deep
What I love about this song is that after the part above, he comes back to ask this unwanted visitor if he was good to her. He wants to know if the fact that he now has something great in his life, it makes his leaving her harder. Here are the demons of the past meeting a core of good.
Jason’s last album, Southeastern, had one of the most romantic songs imaginable on it – Cover Me Up. On this album he is back in the swoon game with the song, Flagship. In the song, he sings about seeing an old couple in a broken down hotel sitting close but appearing so far away from each other; he promises to his own partner Baby let’s not ever get that way / I’ll drive you to the ocean every day / We’ll stay up in the presidential suite /And call ourselves the flagship of the fleet / You gotta try and keep yourself naive / In spite of all the evidence believed / And volunteer to lose touch with the world / And focus on one solitary girl. In another part of the song, he goes and gets his cowboy boots polished because his girl likes to see them shine! Who can compete with that, Jason?
Jason Isbell in concert loves his guitars. Like Southeastern, the music of Something More than Free is somewhat spare. It does have some lovely violin interludes provided by his wife, Amanda Shires. Of particular note on that is Hudson Commodore.
Dan hates that this is a classification, but Jason Isbell is typically pegged into the Americana genre of music. He definitely is not country and you can’t put him in the southern rock camp of Drive by Truckers. This album gives you some toe-tapping honky-tonks like If it takes a Lifetime and Palmetto Rose, and some Southern gothic with, Children of Children. In each, his smooth but raspy vocals brings the listener into the story. As he can do so well, he combines Southern good-ol’-boy with brainy troubadour with lines like Jack and Coke in your mama’s car / you were reading The Bell Jar. Listen to this album and you will find hard-working, hard-living, dreamers. Maybe, like me, you will have your own crush on Jason Isbell. I think this album could do it for a new listener.
Before the year ends, I get to see Jason perform two times! That will make three for 2015 for us. I can’t wait to hear how Something More Than Free is transformed in live performances.
Next Up: Ryan Adams 1989
Album: Too Bright
Artist: Perfume Genius
About: 11 songs; 34 minutes
Choice: DJR Blogging
Mike Hadreas is the musician behind Perfume Genius and Too Bright is his third album. Hadreas is in his early thirties and only started making music after he brought himself home to Washington State to get himself clean. He released his first album in 2010 and a second in 2012. He has said in interviews that his music is an outlet for the issues he feels as a gay man in a society where the life that he lives is looked down upon by. This perception proved all too true when a video ad for his second album was banned from YouTube because it had what was deemed to be inappropriate for YouTube adult content. The clip showed Hadreas, a very small and delicate man, embracing a large, well built guy who happened to be a famous male porn star. Looking at the clip now, it is hard to believe that that same ruling would happen today, but I don’t know. Hadreas says that he looks at heterosexual couples interactions in public and wonders what it would be like if gays could interact the similarly without the threat of repercussions. We aren’t there yet, but I hope we have made some progress. The album made Dan do a little soul-searching as to whether his initial annoyance at what he reacted to as the album’s so-last-year gay message may be his own lack of comfort with the topic. We could all use a dose of such self reflection. Our final verdicts were similar, however. This is an album with which to spend some time.
Were I to go listen to albums one and two, it seems that I would get a different experience than this one. In doing some reading, albums one and two would fall more into a category shared with Rufus Wainwright or Sufjan Stephens – ballady, torchy, angsty. This one, while still retaining plenty of angst, takes the listener on a different kind of ride. This feels like an album powered by a guy knowing what he is after and ready to use different techniques to get there.This album’s sound is not just a quiet mood piece. It is at times poppy, R&B, synthy – and oftentimes multiple styles in one song.
I Decline is the opener and sounds to be what his other albums mostly offered. It is soft, piano chords and his close to falsetto voice with a touch of quiver. But then the listener is alerted that there is more to explore in this album. Queen is the album’s star, and the delivery that Hadreas gives is a fantastic vocal snarl. Behind that is an aggressive keyboard line, woofs and a hard drive. When he sings “no family’s safe, when I sashay,” you believe him. Back in 2014, Hadreas performed this song on Letterman where he showed up in a white suit, heels, red lipstick and a black harness. Over on Pitchfork, Sasha Geffen wrote a really fantastic post about that performance. Below is part of what Geffen wrote:
We shouldn’t call Perfume Genius’s “Letterman” performance “brave”, because we’d never accuse a straight dude of bravery just for dressing up the way he wants. Insisting on your gender trans-gressions in a world that wants to stamp them out of you isn’t in itself “brave”; it’s necessary and exhausting. It takes a lot of muscle. It takes stamina to stand under hot TV lights in perfect red lips and sing through clothes that aren’t drag, aren’t a costume, aren’t supposed to be funny. And it takes a real streak of mischief to sing the words “no family is safe when I sashay” into the homes of families across America, and then sway like a motherfucker while your boyfriend hammers out a keyboard solo.
The rest of the album shows more of that mischief that Geffen identifies. Perfume Genius explores different sounds and styles while working through struggles with identity. Some of the tracks are really beautiful and reminded me of Art Garfunkle. Don’t Let Me In sounded so much like Jake Bugg, I had to look at my IPod to make sure it hadn’t skipped. Intermixed with the quiet songs, he brings in a song like Grid that combines an Elvis vibe with tribal drumming and a wild background line that veers between screaming and taunting.
I could almost see this album being made into a Tommy like opera. It listens like a performance piece by a guy who is continuing to discover his talents, his voice, and what he can do to show its’ power and place in the world.
Next Up: Rips by Ex Hex
Album: Way Out Weather
Artist: Steve Gunn
About: 8 songs; 44 minutes
Choice: Deliberate Obfuscation
I had never heard of Steve Gunn or his music prior to picking his album for our new listen. Because we are going to a music festival in a couple months, I wanted to pre-game by listening to a few of the musicians that I had never heard of. We did this last year before we went to Forecastle, and it really helped me enjoy some new music probably more than I would have if I went in naive.
That being said, trying to sit down and explain what Steve Gunn’s album is like is a little tough. The image that keeps coming to me is my college friends and I, in the 1970s-80s, sitting around and listening to stuff over and over. Eerily similar, is Dan’s reflection on this album over on his blog. We had not discussed the album much at all, and we both managed to come up with the same analogy. Lots of Way Out Weather has a lazy sway to it that makes you close your eyes and get dreamy to it. There are loops of instrumentation that trail through the songs as the vocals breeze in out with a sleepy drawl that kind of made me think Neil Young’s style – especially on Tonight’s the Night. But then there are points in the album when he opens it up and it is psychedelic Woodstock jamming.
I couldn’t get lyrics to any of the songs, but it didn’t really matter. It is the music and the mood of these songs that really brought me along. There are so many twists and turns to these songs, be it in the different guitar lines, or the synthy sounds, or a really tight drum line that carries through every song. It is headphones music that could make you dizzy with how it travels in and out of each ear and back again.
This is the kind of music and musicianship that makes me marvel at how good band’s members really sync with one another. The subtle changes that happen in each of these songs are turns on a dime. Milly’s Garden starts out with a wavy synth sound then becomes an almost jazzy electric guitar line joined by a Grateful Dead-ish vocal while it grows with intensity and instruments (including a pounding piano). The same song then it falls into a Jimi Hendrix-y electric guitar riffing midsection jam before it settles back into the slow groove of the jazzy line that opened it. Before it finally ends with the same synth wave that opened it, it does that big build again. And it all fits and moves perfectly.
There are songs here that open like a classic James Taylor folk song, but there is always more here that comes in to make each track more complicated and interesting.
A song named Atmosphere opens up with sounds that evoke atmospheric drifting and rarely lifts out of that mood even as the music becomes less dreamy and more defined. The vocal is muted and languid.
The album ends in full funk with Tommy’s Congo. It is more then six minutes of beats and rhythms that exudes an ominous intensity. There is a equally ominous intense short film that is on line that uses the music as a backdrop. It fits perfectly.
Steve Gunn and his music worked for me these last couple weeks. Each time I listened to it, I completely floated on his compositional talent and stellar guitar work. There were parts of each song that had turns that I totally loved, and each of the 44 minutes that it took to listen through it each time were enjoyable for me. He is now on my Pitchfork “to watch” list.
Next up: Too Bright, by Perfume Genius