What’s In My Discman, March 2013

Let's Get ReadyMystikal – Let’s Get Ready (2000)

It’s amazing what context can do to a listening experience. For a dozen years or so, I’d always thought of Mystikal as a flash-in-the-pan MC who rode a legendary Neptunes beat to fame, his voice a grating, angry growl tailored to please a DMX-infused marketplace. But then I heard “Hit Me,” a leaked single from his forthcoming record that makes a serious argument that Mystikal is carrying the torch of James Brown with more wit, energy and raw ability than any artist around. My expectations thusly altered, and my ears hungry for whatever Mystikal I could get my hands on, I picked up Let’s Get Ready, his breakout 2000 release. And while no cut on here can touch “Hit Me,” it is an insane adrenaline rush from beginning to end, that voice I once saw as an annoyance making me feel I could punch my fist through a brick wall, the beats blunt and dirty, as relentless as a hurricane. Mystikal’s new album is apparently called Original, and it’s slated to come out in June. Until then, Let’s Get Ready will keep my heart pounding just fine.

ArethaAretha Franklin – 30 Greatest Hits (1985)

I recently had the honor of interviewing Aretha Franklin in advance of her show at a local casino (which I also reviewed), and in the name of psyching myself up and keeping the butterflies at bay, I spent the week beforehand listening to her 30 Greatest Hits in my car. It’s still the best collection of its kind, zeroing in on Aretha’s classic Atlantic years with no glaring omissions. Of course, it’s tough to screw it up when you’re talking about one of the most prolific and evergreen periods of any artist, ever. When “Respect” strutted its way onto my speakers, it sounded as fresh and imaginative as the first time I heard it – no matter how many commercials or Bridget Jones movies try to rob it of its essence, “Respect” will never gray. It’s the ultimate unkillable pop song and a gender role gamechanger to boot. Then there’s the knee-buckling pleas of “Ain’t No Way,” the swooning romance of “I Say A Little Prayer,” the slow-building gospel reverie of “Spirit In the Dark” … I won’t mention all 30. If you haven’t heard this stuff, I’d suggest stopping everything in order to fix that problem.

Jim JamesJim James – Regions of Light and Sound of God (2013)

At one point in “A New Life,” the most immediately beautiful tune on Jim James’ proper solo debut, the moonlighting My Morning Jacket frontman delivers the line “There’s more stardust when you’re near” with NPR-ready elocution, painstakingly pronouncing the “t” in “stardust.” It’s not your typical rock singer diction to be sure, the sound of a man who isn’t writing pretty lyrics to sound cute or sensitive – he believes in this stuff, with evangelical fervor. The album title gives you a good idea of the ground James is covering here – a cosmic theology of love, forgiveness and the passage of time that’s certainly headier (and a bit flakier) than My Morning Jacket’s last few records. Musically, it has the homespun feel of a solo record, be it one with the occasional crackling vibraphone sample, huge Eastern melody, and sweeping string arrangement. Then there’s James’ Neil Young/choirboy voice, still as expansive and expressive as ever, making the clunkiest passages feel like mantras. Regions feels a bit less substantive than it wants to be, but it’s still more intriguing than anything James has been a part of since Z, the last time his music was pointed heavenward.

What’s In My Discman, June 2012

In two days, I’ll be catching The Beach Boys’ 50th Anniversary Tour stop at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center. DLPAC is normally a stressful, unsatisfying place to see a show – if you want to get thousands of people to start throwing punches, give them a whole mess of rollercoaster rides and $11 beers. But fuck if I don’t give a damn this time. Seeing Brian Wilson on stage with the remaining original Beach Boys, cherry-picking tunes from one of the most beautiful and haunting back catalogs in pop music history, is sure to make every other possible annoyance fade away, like a sandcastle in the tide. Naturally, I’ve been listening to Beach Boys albums like crazy this month, something I do when the warm weather hits every year anyways. Here are the three records that’ve been getting the most spins. (And thank you to my stunning, loving wife, who gave me these tickets for my birthday, and will be by my side Friday night, even though she couldn’t care less about the old farts on stage.)

The Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made The Radio (2012)

It was easy to be skeptical about this project, a seemingly rushed-together LP released to coincide with the tour I’ll be experiencing on Friday. But while aspects of That’s Why God Made The Radio do feel a bit half-baked, and a few tracks get cornily self-referential, it is most definitely more than a lowest common denominator cash-grab. It’s also the perfect example of the clashing artistic visions of Brian Wilson and Mike Love. If you were in any way confused why the two haven’t worked together in a while, listen to the gorgeously morbid three-song suite the closes the album, where Wilson sings “Summer’s gone/It’s finally sinking in.” Then listen to “Spring Vacation,” a dopey good-time pop song in which Love sings “Driving around, living the dream/I’m cruising the town, I’m living the scene.” Brian’s still the fragile genius, all about introspection and the interplay of darkness and light; Mike’s still the aging rock star, all about Hawaiian shirts, cool cars and (I imagine) creepy leers. I don’t mean to put a line in the sand here – Wilson’s Jersey Shore-referencing “The Private Life of Bill and Sue” is an embarrassing attempt at relevance, and Love’s “Daybreak Over the Ocean” is rather sweet in its simplistic pleas. But the biggest wins are Wilson’s – the incredibly pretty, “Our Prayer”-ish opener, the title track with its wonderful, cascading chorus, and that jaw-dropping trilogy at the end (was any Beach Boys fan expecting such a perfect coda?). So if TWGMTR is wildly inconsistent, it’s still an accurate representation of where the Beach Boys are in 2012 – a band that might not be on the same page, but one that still sings like angels through it all.

The Beach Boys – 15 Big Ones/Love You (1976-1977)

Some of the biggest artists of the ’60s have dealt with their various mid-life crises by making albums filled with the songs of their youth – and like David Bowie’s Pin Ups and John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll before it, 15 Big Ones is a fun listen, if not a particularly life-altering one. As the first LP since Pet Sounds to feature the credit “produced by Brian Wilson” on the gatefold, the album must have been a bit of a disappointment at the time, but it’s actually aged pretty well, with originals like the cheerful, organ-peppered “It’s OK,” the breezy “Had to Phone Ya” and the bluesy “Back Home” fitting the old-time rock ‘n’ roll vibe while still giving Wilson room to scratch that harmonic itch. There are some throwaways here (e.g. a grating, dated-sounding “Chapel of Love,” a sluggish “Blueberry Hill”), but the lushly produced, reverent take on The Righteous Brothers’ “Just Once In My Life” ranks up there with the Boys’ best ’70s work. And who’s going to complain about these vocalists tackling “In the Still of the Night”?

Love You, the second of this two-album set (thank you Capitol Records) was the last Brian Wilson-produced Beach Boys album before this year’s That’s Why God Made The Radio. And while it’s a ramshackle shadow of his glorious ’60s work, it’s an oddly compelling little masterpiece all the same, and my favorite of all the ’70s Beach Boys albums I’ve heard (Carl & the Passions and Holland have still managed to evade my ears). Wilson’s songwriting is straight-up goofy in places, and at times painfully childlike, but it adds to Love You’s ragged blend of synthesizers and doo-wop harmonies – “Johnny Carson” is the weirdest Beach Boys song ever, a straight-faced ode to the celebrity whose verses have a strangely ominous melody. And “Solar System” is a 2nd grade astronomy lesson sung by a blissed-out organist – but because it features Brian’s voice at its hoarsest, it’s also a bit of pop innocence that’s streaked with something sadder. Then there’s the heartbreakers – “Let’s Put Our Hearts Together,” a crushing duet between Wilson and his indifferent-sounding wife Marilyn, and “Love Is A Woman,” where Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine compel us to treat women nicely over a Fats Domino-ish arrangement. When Wilson sings, “Tell her she smells good tonight,” it’s so awkward, and so perfectly earnest, I can’t help but get chills.

The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (1966)

I’m not really sure what the critics think about this one, but I’ll be bold enough to come right out and say it – Pet Sounds is good. Honestly, it would be a waste of all of our precious time to blather on about the swirling, magnificently dense arrangements, the bittersweet love songs to beat all bittersweet love songs, the force of nature that is the band’s vocal harmonies. The Beach Boys have always been obsessed with the trappings of summer, but I think Brian Wilson was more obsessed with the brutally temporary nature of that season – before you know it, school’s back in session, the leaves are falling, and you’re starting to wonder if you were made for these times. Pet Sounds was summer for the Beach Boys, a time when their talents were in full blossom, their ingenious leader was as confident and prolific as he ever would be, and their songs were on the charts. Then they blinked an eye, and it was September.

What’s In My Discman, January 2012

Rick Ross – Rich Forever (2012)

With details about Mitt Romney’s Swiss bank accounts clogging the news cycle, it seems like a bad time for Rick Ross to drop a mixtape that tells us how great it is to have a fuckton of dough. But while practically every track on Rich Forever is concerned with materialistic one-upsmanship (in bed, Ross must count Benzes and Bugattis instead of sheep), it’s redundant in all the right ways, developing Ross’s drug kingpin character into something delightfully cartoonish. And while the tape is loaded with guests – most notably an in-top-form Nas on the standout “Triple Beam Dreams” – Ross is never outshone, painting ridiculous Robin Leach panoramas with irresistible panache. His steady baritone is the only thing about Rich Forever that follows a less-is-more aesthetic, providing a perfect counterpoint to all the tremendous, towering beats.

Slayer – Reign In Blood (1986)

If only I knew this existed when I was 13. Sure, the 29-minute onslaught of Slayer’s major label debut is a thrilling kick to the gut when I hear it now, the merciless fretwork and impossibly fast double kick fills exploding from my car speakers like a 5 Hour Energy/kerosene cocktail. But I’m relatively well-adjusted these days, and couldn’t possibly love Reign In Blood with the intensity that my introverted teen self felt toward another 1986 thrash masterpiece, Master of Puppets. And while those records have a lot in common – from their obsession with death right down to some similar-sounding riffs – Slayer’s was wilder, more dangerous. After one listen to “Angel of Death,” you’ll be reaching for the replay button, despite the taste of blood in your mouth.

tUnE-YarDs – w h o k i l l (2011)

It’s one thing to hear a consciously poppy group get all experimental. Like, say, Vampire Weekend on Contra. It’s another thing to listen to Merrill Garbus. While the tUnE-YarDs visionary’s groovy prog-pop suites cover territory similar to VW’s hyperactive Paul Simon impersonations, they’re getting there from the opposite direction – w h o k i l l sounds like it was pulled from the brink of avant garde limbo, so it could briefly frolic in pop music heaven. Garbus likes to gesticulate wildly with her voice, imitating sirens and woodwind sections, screaming and chattering and falsetto harmonizing amongst spare synths and dissonant guitars. This could be an acquired taste for some; w h o k i l l can be as confounding as the artist’s letter casing. But when Garbus anchors everything with one of her killer nerd-funk rhythms – including some of the greatest bass lines this side of Soul Coughing – we’re talking instant gratification.

What’s In My Discman: October 2011

Nick Lowe – The Old Magic (2011)

Rock musicians typically don’t know how to age. The first time they see a shock of grey in their styled-to-look-mussed-up hair, they either double down on their denial and make music that proves they “still got it,” or go off the “reinvent myself” deep end. Which just adds to the pure pleasure of listening to Nick Lowe in the 21st century. With The Old Magic, the 62-year-old pub rock/new wave legend gives us his third straight offering of gently smirking tunes about loving, losing, and getting older all the while. It’s beautifully written material from an artist who’s comfortable in his own wrinkled skin, and a production that keeps its genre jumping to a minimum – relying mostly on soft vocal jazz arrangements and sprightly Buddy Holly shuffles to support Lowe’s curious, cooing voice. Because when you’ve got metaphors for failed love that are as wonderful as “Stoplight Roses,” you don’t need much else.

Stevie Wonder – In Square Circle (1985)

In my younger, stupider days, I would say things like “NOTHING good came out of the ’80s,” accompanied by the requisite eye-roll. I don’t like to think about me being an ignorant dick, but albums like In Square Circle demand this kind of personal reflection. Stevie Wonder fully embraced the synthetic production values of the decade here, something that would’ve once inspired my passive-aggressive scorn. Thankfully, now I actually listen to albums before judging them, and while Wonder’s 20th record doesn’t possess the warmth and grandiosity of his ’70s earth-shakers, it’s darn close to a pop masterpiece. Two jaw-dropping ballads are the biggest highlights – the scorned-lover-as-missing-person weeper “Whereabouts” and the classic unrequited love song “Overjoyed” – but the minor synth groove of “Part-Time Lover” and the staccato, drum machine funk of “Spiritual Walkers” are also fantastic listens, despite sounding very much like they were recorded in 1985.

Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes (2011)

Lykke Li made her first splash with the 2007 single “Little Bit,” a simple declaration of love that stayed with you, no matter how silly it looked on paper. And the singer continues to explore the same chilly neo-soul territory on her second album, digging deeper into her vocabulary to express love and devotion. Wounded Rhymes does possess the ruminative quality implied by the title, but it’s in the atmospherics more than the songs themselves, resulting in an album that sounds like Portishead after a fruitful therapy session. “I Know Places” is six-minutes of lo-fi folk strumming, an instrumental track that just might be coma-inducing – if it weren’t for Lykke Li’s light, bluesy vocal. When she sings, “I know places we can go, babe/Comin’ home, come unfold, babe,” the song goes from a slog to a spiritual.

What’s In My Discman, August 2011

Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne (2011)

As we get ready for a year’s worth of politicians explaining why the rich should get richer, we get an album from two of the most talented beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts. And when you consider that on Watch The Throne, Jay-Z & Kanye West reach some spine-tingling heights on the backs of some crazy-expensive samples, this makes for a quintessentially American success story in 2011. Sure, it’s probably unfair that West might be the only producer out there with the clout to license “Try A Little Tenderness,” but there’s no use whining about it, because he also happens to be the best person for the job. The resulting cut, “Otis,” is a magnificent swash of braggadocio that boldly reframes Redding’s theme – in the place of a tender lover making life “easier to bear,” we now have obscene wealth. Both MCs egg each other on, resulting in some propulsive egomania (e.g. “Welcome to Havana/Smoking cubanos with Castro in cabanas”). It’s the precise formula we hoped for with this pairing – huge, luxurious productions, and a palpable sense of one-upsmanship on the microphone. The best example of it might be the RZA co-production “New Day,” which finds Jay and ‘Ye pleading with their hypothetical future children over a haunting beat that runs Nina Simone through AutoTune (!!!). It’s not a track by track masterpiece a la My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (the mix of pseudo-feminism and rock star hedonism on “That’s My Bitch” just wasn’t thought through), but on Watch The Throne, these superstars spread the wealth so generously, trickle-down economics almost starts to make sense.

Check out “New Day”:

Queen – Sheer Heart Attack (1974)

Everybody knows that Queen could do bombast better than anybody. But it doesn’t seem to be common knowledge that they could straight-up shred, probably because the unbridled adrenaline that fueled this, its third album, would take a back seat to grander production flourishes on later masterpieces. As a result, it might be the least polished record of the band’s oeuvre, and my favorite. Every aspect of the band’s personality is here in its rawest form – towering vocal harmonies, vaudevillian freakouts, proto-thrash exercises and earworm-infested pop gems. From the Moet & Chandon melody of “Killer Queen” to the muscular arena rock of “Tenement Funster,” the halcyon balladry of “Lily of the Valley” to the bloody-fingered metal of “Stone Cold Crazy,” Sheer Heart Attack proved that Queen could do it all, and do it better than your band.

Here’s the harrowing, record execs-are-the-devil rocker, “Flick of the Wrist”:

Tyrone Davis – “Can I Change My Mind” (1968)

This is an idyllic R&B confection that gives credence to that classic advice women get when they want to make a man interested – act like you could give a shit about him. Davis, a singer I hadn’t heard of until I stumbled across this song, shows that he should’ve been in the conversation alongside the Motown and Stax greats of the time. Over a clear-as-day guitar riff and some punchy horns, he gets every drop of regret out of the lyric, with an effortless delivery that’s firmly in the tradition of Davis’ Chicago soul forefather, Sam Cooke. “But y’all, the girl, she fooled me this time,” he sings, going on to explain his emotional discovery to us – he thought he wanted to leave his woman, but he just wanted to get a rise out of her. He’s unsuccessful, of course, which clears the way for the beautiful plea of the chorus.

Experience this sweet soul for yourself:

What’s in my Discman, June 2011

Bill Callahan – Apocalypse (2011)

I’m a sucker for a singer with a deep voice. And with his third solo effort, Apocalypse, former Smog leader Bill Callahan’s pipes are so entrancing, he’s got a better chance of laying me down by the fire than Barry White ever did. This seven-song arc of sparse, haunted folk connects the dots between the stately isolation of cattle drivers and touring musicians, compares lost loves to wildflowers, and gives guilt-ridden Americans a mantra to soothe their bruised patriotism – “Everyone’s allowed a past they don’t care to mention.”

R. Kelly  – Love Letter (2010)

I’m sure R. Kelly’s reasoning for the concept of his 10th album – a squeaky-clean collection of retro-minded love songs – wasn’t purely artistic. But although you can feel the fingerprints of his publicist all over Love Letter, from the “I’ll be loyal and true” message of every track to the Kelly-as-Ray Charles homage on the album cover, the music here is exceptional. Freed from the silly posturing and cringeworthy innuendo of his earlier work, Kelly just focuses on singing here – and his voice isn’t just supremely silky, it’s versatile, aping MJ’s pop outbursts on “Not Feelin’ the Love,” carrying the ’70s Motown balladry of “Just Can’t Get Enough,” and cutting loose at just the right moment on the staggering “When A Woman Loves.”

The Everly Brothers – The Everly Brothers Sing Great Country Hits (1963)

You could make the argument that this isn’t an essential Everly Brothers album. It was a bit of a contract fulfiller, recorded during a time when the duo couldn’t get access to material from Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, their songwriting muses who were responsible for most of their timeless hits. But separate these sessions from the history, and you get one of pop music’s all-time great interpreters of country & western, tackling a dozen gems of the genre. Phil and Don’s harmonies are as transcendent as ever over the light rockabilly of “Just One Time,” the bar band balladry of “Please Help Me I’m Falling,” and the soaring “Sweet Dreams” –  a tune they were meant to sing if there ever was one.

What’s In My Discman, April 2011

Heidecker & Wood – Starting From Nowhere (2011)

Subtlety is pretty non-existent in Tim Heidecker’s most well-known work, the wee-hour bong-hit variety show supreme, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! So when fans take Heidecker & Wood’s debut album for a spin (the other half of the duo is Tom Goes to the Mayor and Awesome Show music director Davin Wood), its relatively serious yacht rock underpinnings will come off as shockingly soft. But once the surprise wears off, Starting From Nowhere reveals itself as both a meticulously crafted homage to ’70s sensitive guy music and a calmly ridiculous bit of comedy. Take “Cross Country Skiing,” which opens the album. There aren’t any notable one-liners on the lyric sheet, but it’s an earnest folk song about a patently unexciting white person sport, and that’s funny. H&W employ the same quality melody/silly lyric formula as Tenacious D or Flight of the Conchords, but the comedy band duo comparisons end there. Heidecker’s delivery is soft and genuine, enough off-key to tell you he’s more comedian than vocalist, but bereft of any “hey, I’m being funny” elocution. This record is stuffed with clutch examples of bad lyric writing (my favs at the moment: “What are the questions we ask when we’re asking questions?” and “A canyon and a man can live in peace”), but they’re rarely spotlit, making them easy to miss the first time around. And that’s just fine with these guys. After all, Wood’s arrangements and melodies are such accomplished homages to Chicago, Steely Dan, Air Supply and Crosby Stills & Nash, chances are you’ll be humming along before you’re laughing out loud.

Simon & Garfunkel – Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m. (1964)

With Heidecker & Wood on the brain, I was inspired to revisit this album, undoubtedly the cheesiest, most uneven effort of Simon & Garfunkel’s rarely flawed partnership. (The inclusion of “Bleecker Street” on a season 4 episode of Mad Men also contributed to this unexpected urge.) Missing the literary folk boom by a couple years, the album tanked initially, going clang with an audience that was already following Dylan to bold new territory. And it would be understandable if anybody didn’t get past the first track, a cornball run-through of the hymn “You Can Tell the World” that’s exactly what Christopher Guest was making fun of with The New Main Street Singers. But the balance of the record holds up better than I remembered, from the endearing innocence of “Bleecker Street” to the harmonic showcases of “Benedictus” and “Peggy-O.” And, of course, the original, acoustic version of “The Sound of Silence,” whose elegance is evergreen. On the whole, Simon’s writing still needed a bit more polish, but it’s all too evident here that the duo already had wuss rock lightning in a bottle.

Eels – Electro-Shock Blues (1998)

To round out what has become the softest Discman trilogy yet, it’s the second and arguably best effort from Mark Oliver Everett (aka “E”). After losing both his mother and sister in a short period of time, the one-man phenomenon behind Eels made a record that was understandably cynical and sad. And while Electro-Shock Blues might’ve been an open vein lyrically (e.g. “My life is shit and piss”), its music provided the balance necessary to make it a valuable document of the human condition. Among the many gorgeous acoustic ballads here, there’s the lurching Tom Waits rhythms and found sounds of “Cancer for the Cure,” the dance-folk Beck breaks of “Last Stop: This Town” and the sexy Morphine rumble of “Hospital Food.” Hence, by the time E admits to finding a new appreciation for being alive on the closing “P.S. You Rock My World,” you’re not only far from depressed – you’re wishing the whole beautiful thing wouldn’t end.