Friday, June 23, 2006

Music Backlog

Can't even remember the last time I posted here. Sorry, been a bit nuts on my end. But does that mean I haven't continued to blow too much money on music? Of course not. Here, then, some nutshell encapsulations of what's been on the stereo lately:

Matthew Sweet
Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs, Under The Covers Vol. 1 (2006): Sort of a ringer, but nonetheless one of my favorite discs of the past year. (Granted, I've only picked up a handful of new releases, but still...) Sweet, who has never shied away from covers, goes the route of the tribute album -- usually a sign of artistic desperation (Duran Duran anyone?), but in that case a refreshing break after a string of decent if non-earthshattering albums. He sweetens the pot by bringing ex-Bangle Susanna Hoffs along for the ride, resulting in over a dozen well-picked 60's covers complemented by their dual vocals. While a couple of these have been covered before (i.e. the Beatles' "And Your Bird Can Sing"), some of the picks are downright inspired. Most hew pretty close to the original (i.e. the Who's "Kids Are Alright"), but some are reconfigured into something quite different ("It's All Over Now, Baby Blue"). Definitely a must-own for the summer. And I'm not just saying that because the photos of Hoffs in the insert made me pant (talk about aging well...).

Flaming Lips
Flaming Lips, At War With The Mystics (2006): The other new release that's been in steady rotation, Mystics continues along the path set by prior releases The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. Lofty lyrics set to moody music accentuated by burbling electronics. Unfortunately, nothing has the same melodic (or lyrical) heft of Bulletin, and the reliance on studio trickery to compensate for a shortage of great material (a problem on the last album) is wearing a bit thin. Of course, all of this is overlooked when listening to the opening track, "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song," their most amazingly perfect and painfully contagious pop song since "Fight Test" off Yoshimi. (Then again, only the Lips could take a song so joyous and then make it so annoying as to nearly render it unlistenable -- I try to imagine the song without the "yeah yeah yeah" interjections, but I suppose the willingness to be discordant has always been part of their appeal.) Alas, it's all downhill from there. A couple upbeat and/or interesting numbers (like the oddly Prince-like falsetto-based "Free Radicals," the gorgeous "Pompeii," the poppy "W.A.N.D."), but a lot of this, like much of Yoshimi, is rather listless background music. Doesn't take away from the Lips' status as one of the best bands in America, though.

Talking Heads
Talking Heads, Various Reissues (2005): Finally got around to picking up most of these, which were reissued last year with brilliantly remastered sound (plus bonus tracks), coupled with 5.1 surround sound versions. Now, I'm not the biggest fan of 5.1 DVD reissues -- I'm getting kinda sick of upgrading my cd's multiple times, and 5.1 is really only worth it if you're going to sit in the middle of your speakers and just listen to the album for 40 minutes. These days I'm usually playing music while doing something else (working, driving the car, cleaning the house, flossing), so sitting motionless in the middle of the room with the speakers perfectly situated around me isn't a big part of my life. But, if ever there's going to be an album well-suited to the technology, it's 1980's Remain In Light -- the Heads' best album (their fourth), a funk/pop/ambient masterpiece and one of the most dense and sonically rich recordings ever produced. Nearly as good was it's immediate predecessor, Fear Of Music, where the presence of Brian Eno (who also produced Light as well as the Heads' second album) first began having a major impact on the band's sound and direction, which, with the surround sound, may as well be an entirely new album when compared to the original issue.

Of course, even without taking advantage of the DVD Audio, the remastering of the cd's is brilliant, rendering the original issues obsolete. This is particularly the case with Fear of Music -- the original had a flat, lifeless presence, while the remaster brings it almost up to the production standards of Remain In Light (which, on the remaster, sounds simply astounding). Nothing else benefits from the remastering quite as remarkably as these two albums, but the sound is vastly improved for the entire catalog, and the bonus tracks are occasionally interesting, particularly the additional tracks on their debut, '77. The first 4 Heads albums are all essential, and Speaking In Tongues has its moments. Alas, it was downhill from there, and the reissues, great sound and all, don't redeem True Stories or Naked, their final two albums, which remain disappointing (and haven't aged well). (I'm a little more neutral on Little Creatures, which has some fine songs, if nothing is monumental as their earlier albums.)

Brian Eno & David Byrne, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (1980/2006): As long as I was picking up the Heads remasters, I also decided to grab the reissue of this legendary side project, recorded shortly before Remain In Light. As with that album, Byrne & Eno toy with funk beats and world music, but in much more experimental fashion -- the intricate music serves as background for various found sounds -- tribal chants, evangelical preacher sermons, electronic noises. As such, it falls somewhere between Remain in Light and Eno's instrumental ambient releases. I remember when this first came out -- having extolled the brilliance of Brian Eno to a friend, he picked this up, and immediately hated it and was pissed at me for a long time afterwards. And while the reissue won't win many converts (and I have to admit it's not an album I love), the sound is magnificent, and there is much of interest for fans of experimental music. (As with the Heads reissues, there's a buncha bonus tracks, but nothing essential or particularly revelatory.)


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