Sunday, April 6, 2008

Yes, you must paint me a picture.

Billy Bragg

Workers Playtime


Imagine you've been invited to a party where Billy Bragg and friends are going to perform. You show up, and are delighted to see the Englishman is truly there, playing all of his greatest hits. Once he's gone through the most popular numbers, the attendants of the party disperse but you and a few others stay behind, hoping to maybe get a word with Mr. Bragg. After talking for some time, the band starts up again and plays some of the more obscure and complicated of their songs. What a great night!

That's how I feel about 1988's Workers Playtime. The album starts with the radio-friendly, catchy pop of "She's Got a New Spell," wherein Bragg describes his fear of his lover's spellcasting ability. It's a wonderful pop gem where the normally sparse sound of Bragg+Guitar is augmented by a bass guitar, a capoed electric guitar, harmonizing vocals, and light percussion. After this track, this listener is then rewarded for sticking around with slower, quieter, and more intimate numbers. "Must I paint you a picture?" is a fantastic foil to "She's got a New Spell," a heartfelt plea backed by Cara Tivey on piano and vocals. Her perfectly-pitched mezzo-soprano expertly balances Bragg's tenor.

The rest of the album is like a gift for the patient listener. Bragg is at his best somewhere between the minimalist sound he employs on "Tender Comrade" and the full band backing on the Mermaid Avenue albums. Fortunately, that's where most of Workers Playtime resides. "The Only One" sees Bragg backed by solely violin accompaniment, while the side B opener "Valentine's Day is Over" and the aforementioned "Must I paint you a picture" make excellent use of a Piano and female backing vocals.

The themes explored here are familiar Billy Bragg: love songs and political protests. 20 years ago, we were in the twilight of the Reagan administration just as Bragg and his countrymen were nearing the final days of the Thatcher administration. The USSR was getting ready to tumble, and it was suddenly cool to consider the Soviets human beings. That said, it was still a pretty ballsy move at the time to name an album Workers Playtime, complete with a depiction of Communist Chinese workers on the cover. Of course, 20 years later, we know it's right in line with Billy Bragg's canon. His new album will be released here in the US in a few short weeks. While you're waiting, it's a great time to go check out a 20 year-old gift from him to you.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Happy VD!

The Exploding Hearts

Guitar Romantic


We don't have a numerical rating scale here at the Red Skull, but if we did, this album would get a perfect score. A+, 2 thumbs up, 6 strings strung, 10/10, 50 hail mary's, whatever. These kids from Portland put together a flawless album, an album to warm the heart of even the most cynical reviewer. Every tune is simply dripping with pop hooks and flirty guitar fills everywhere you look. It's no surprise to see the crawdad-stained fingerprints of King Louie Bankston all over this album. He co-wrote most of the songs and added his skills on keyboard on several of them. Louie's involvement alone is enough to signify this as a pop-punk gem. What brings the album to new heights is where the able musicians were able to take Louie's I-IV-V rhythms. Never content to let them stand as they are, every track is positively teeming with guitar licks that would make Andy Summers cry.

Guitar Romantic is the absolute perfect title for this album. It's an album to crush to. It's an album you draw from for the very first mixtape for your new love interest. It's the album you listen to on your way to pick her up and the album stuck in your head when you move in for your first kiss.

Sadly, it's also the bittersweet album of the ending summer. On their way back from signing with Lookout! records, a car accident killed three of the members of the band, all in their early 20's. They all had much more to contribute and it's a shame we'll never hear it.

Pay tribute to this awesome band and fall in love again by getting yourself a copy of Guitar Romantic

Friday, February 8, 2008

The O-Knee-Ders

This is one of my favorite movies. It's the definition of lite fare, I'll give you that. It's just so damn good, it encapsulates that certain, as the French say, "I don't know what" about music in general. I wouldn't be writing a blog about old albums that I love if it weren't for my utter devotion to music. I spend a good eight hours a day at least intently listening to music. So anything outside of actual music that speaks to the emotions I feel towards my obsession, well, I love that just about as much. That Thing You Do! is a love letter to music from Tom Hanks, who directed this film and even wrote four of the songs on the soundtrack.

The album starts out with a 50s style vocal group style song The Norm Wooster Singers called "Lovin' You Lots And Lots". I was easily fooled by this song, thinking it was an artifact from the era. All of the songs here are by fictional bands, The Wonders included. The album itself is presented like a Rhino-style reissue of a lost early sixties pop band, complete with liner notes written by Hanks' character in the movie. He proves to be quite a smart song-writer as well. The best by far is "Hold My Hand, Hold My Heart" by The Chantrellines which emulates what would be a fantastic lost Supremes song.

**Here's an aside about lost Supremes songs, I had this dream about getting this 45 of The Supremes covering "Peggy Sue" it was fantastic, Holly's chugging guitar was replaced with distorted guitar being chased by a big Motown string section. I was really disappointed when the dream ended and I realized the song didn't really exist.**

Some material doesn't stand up so well, a re-write of "That Thing You Do" called "I Need You (That Thing You Do)" is pretty abysmal, and sounds the least like an actual song from the period and more like a song from a middling power-pop outfit from the nineties. Speaking of which, the title song was written by the guy from The Fountains of Wayne. It's got to be disappointing when one of the best songs you've ever written is so inextricably tied to a movie, and not performed by you.

It's no small feat to create an entire album of fictional period music from the early sixties and make it a good fictional album.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Wait, a soundtrack album? Really?

Big Night Original Motion Picture Soundtrack


If you haven’t seen the movie Big Night, stop reading this and go watch it now. I’ll wait.

Wasn’t that awesome? Everything about it is fantastic, the acting, the direction, the cinematography, and the music. It’s a shame that Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott have yet to band together to direct a film since this gem. The pair paid attention to every detail, and yet never got caught up in minutiae or strayed from telling their story. In addition to being a visual delight, every scene advances the plot and features real, believable characters. In crafting their masterpiece, Scott and Tucci made sure to score the film with a period-appropriate mixture of Jazz and traditional Italian music, and they’ve done it perfectly.

Soundtracks typically suffer from a sort of schizophrenia, as they are a mixture of scoring and more contemporary pop tracks. The Big Night soundtrack is no different in this regard. However, they two types of music blend together seamlessly. This is due to the masterful way the music was integrated into the film.

Now that you’ve seen it, you know why the music of the legendary Louis Prima features so prominently on the soundtrack. The tracks picked here are perfect in demonstrating the range of Prima’s catalog, and are used perfectly in the movie. The original score pieces by Gary DeMichele are excellent musical interludes between the longer numbers. Similarly, in the film, these pieces are used between acts to perfection.

The real gem, however, is the inclusion of several pieces by Claudio Villa, of whose music I was completely unaware until seeing the film. (Reading the soundtrack’s liner notes reveals that Tucci was similarly unaware of Villa’s music until researching the film). Villa is a crooner whose full voice and jazz accompaniment is the embodiment of the film’s very aesthetic. I can’t imagine the movie without these songs.

Rosemary Clooney’s “Mambo Italiano” seems tacked on by comparison, but even this slight is made up for with the fantastic “Don’t take your love from me” by Keely Smith. The soundtrack for this movie was crafted with all the care and detail of one of Secondo’s meals, and is one of the few soundtrack albums which could stand on it’s own without the movie.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Your Mother Is A Ballpoint Pen Thief

It's hard to believe that six years have passed since I first heard Mclusky Do Dallas, an album that I was sure would bring about a skuzzy revolution in indie rock. Mclusky were an explosive band, one that hated just about everyone and everything they came in contact with. A perfect match for producer Steve Albini. Mclusky even take jabs at Albini, throwing in lyrics from the Bush album that Albini produced in "Collagen Rock". No one was safe from singer Andy Falkous' sneer (on their next and last album, he takes aim at old band mates "our old singer was a sex criminal" is the chorus of one song.)

The album opens with the most ferocious song I've ever heard, ever, period. "Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues" ticks like a bomb with some fast high-hat action that Falkous rants hysterically, puncuated by moments of Jesus Lizard style thrash. The song builds and builds layer upon layer until Falkous screams "are you coming" over and over again. (Check out this pre-YouTube fan made video for "Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues")

Towards the middle of the album, they slow down with the semi-ballad, "Fuck This Band". Dismissing every type of musician they can think of, even themselves ("fuck this band, because they curse too much, it's an obvious ploy"). All this over a backdrop that wouldn't be out of place on a Helium record. It's a jarring experience in an album otherwise so badass. But it's one of their most effective songs, Falkous sings softly and maintains his disdain for the world.

When I listen to Mclusky, I'm reminded of the idea of John Lydon. On paper, Lydon or Rotten, whatever surname he chooses, is supposed to be the ultimate rock badass, right? Yet I can't stand his ass, he's an overrated hack, who's been coasting on his overrated band with their one overrated record. I'd like to take this opportunity to say that I can't stand the Sex Pistols. Nowhere near as good as even The Damned or The Buzzcocks, the Sex Pistols should have been an also-ran footnote in punk history. The Clash were a better band, The Ramones wrote better songs (and more of them), The Raincoats, The Slits, The X-Ray Spex, The Dead Boys, fucking Captain and Tenille, all better than The Sex Pistols.

At the time Mclusky Do Dallas was hailed in some circles (all small circles, no doubt) as a second coming of the Pixies. A claim that I never really bought, Mclusky were just too mean to ever be the Pixies, too ferocious, too concerned with destruction. The Pixies were a better band because of the sweetness they could attain, something Mclusky aren't concerned with. But for what they do, misanthropy, Mclusky are perfect. Mclusky Do Dallas is perfection, every song blasts by in under 3 minutes a piece and levels it's subjects. Jumping from dissing zombies, snakes in cumberbunds, and that old standby, your mother, Mclusky don't spare anyone.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Happy Birthday from L.A.!


Truth and Soul


Half a lifetime ago, during my freshman year in high school, I was given this CD (in one of those horrible looooong CD boxes) by my friend Gabe for my 15th birthday on May 11, 1992. What I knew at the time was that Fishbone was one of my favorite bands in the universe and that I would soon be going to see them perform live for the first time (with NOFX opening!). What I didn’t know at the time was that Gabe was handing me their magnum opus.

Truth and Soul
starts out with an energetic take on Curtis Mayfield’s Freddie’s Dead. It’s the perfect opener; an announcement that Fishbone will be picking up where Mayfield left off musically and lyrically. Truth and Soul, then, are the message and the messenger. Their take on Mayfield’s classic emphasizes the nature of the band itself; all of the members take turns with the lyrics and with solos. It’s a musical declaration of who the group is where they will taking your over the next hour.

From there they dive right into "Ma and Pa", a take on chaotic family upbringings and their effects on society. It forms the latter half of a perfect one-two with the opener. When they’re done, you’re not sure what decade you’re in but damn does it sound good! "Question of Life" follows with what can only be described as a modern ska version of Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show. Truth and Soul indeed.

The album continues like this, never slowing down to let you catch your breath with filler. Every track on here showcases the frantic bass playing of Norwood Fisher and guitar work of Kendall Jones. Their trademark energy blasts out of the speakers on every track. The band tackles subjects such as the class divide (“Deep Inside”), race relations (“One Day”, “Slow Bus Movin’”), friendship (“Mighty Long Way”), death (“Pouring Rain”), total absurdity (“Bonin’ in the boneyard) and everything in between.

20 years after its release, it still sounds as fresh as they day it was pressed. The themes are familiar to anyone living in this time, and the instrumentation’s perfection is a stark reminder of just how much talent this group packed in their earliest incarnation.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Happy Birthday from Sweden!




Today is my friend Jenny’s birthday. It got me thinking about different albums I’ve gotten for birthdays over the years. Whenever I listen to these albums, they’re always a little bit special to me. In my mind, I always remember who gave them to me and it flavors the way I listen to them. I know things have been a little slow over here lately, but I’m going to try to do a few posts on albums I’ve gotten for my birthday.

Kingwood is Millencolin’s sixth studio album. Jenny gave me this album for my 30th birthday. It is packed full with the sound we’ve come to expect from Millencolin: A delightfully Scandanavian take on American west-coast skate punk. As has been the case since 1999’s For Monkeys, the ska upstroke is absent from this incarnation of the Millencolin experience. Expect driving 4/4 beats with moderate distortion and poppy guitar hooks. The whole thing is driven by Nikola’s vocals lightly accented vocals.

The Swedish group has sped up their attack since Pennybridge Pioneers and Home From Home, to the delight of their fans. Familiar themes of positivity (“Ray”) the band’s musical heroes (“Mooseman’s Jukebox”), and the true nature of friendship (“Hard Times”) are found throughout.

Happy Birthday, Jenny! And thank you for this nice album!