Music Review: The B-52s, Funplex

So what do you call it when one of the premier party bands of the 80s returns after a 16-year hiatus sounding almost exactly the same as before, as if the passage of time had not altered them in any way?  Not a bad thing, actually.  There have been many changes in the world since 1992 when the B-52s released their last full-length studio album, and not all of them have been good.  In light of this, it definitely helps to know that something out there has not changed.

Right from the opening track you will see that this is the exact same B-52s sound that you have come to know and love.  Fred Schneider’s distinctive half-sung, half-spoken vocals sound exactly the same as ever, and Kate Pearson and Cindy Strickland are whooping it up just like ex-high school cheerleaders.  (Yes, Cindy Strickland is back.  She took a pass on “Good Stuff” in 1992, but she’s back in action this time around.)  It is only towards the middle of the album that the electronic influence starts to kick in and remind us that we are indeed still here in 2008.

It all adds up to the fun, garish, B-movie/surfboard/kitsch sound that has been distinctive of the B-52s ever since their inception back in the late 70s.  So don’t worry about war in the Middle East, high gas prices, the housing crunch, the credit crisis, the impending economic troubles, etc.  Just put on this CD and know that somewhere out there the party’s still rollicking along exactly as it was back in happier times.

Music Review: Counting Crows, Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings

This is the Counting Crows’ first all-new studio album in six years, since Hard Candy back in 2002.

This is a quasi-concept album.  It is divided into two halves, which are, as the title suggests, “Saturday Night” and “Sunday Morning”.  Lead singer Adam Duritz explains the basis for the concept as follows:  “Saturday night is when you sin, and Sunday morning is when you regret.  Sinning is often done very loudly, angrily, bitterly, violently.”  Thus it is that the first half of the album pulses with a loud, throbbing, guitar-driven energy.  The songs are about losing yourself in the party scene, trying to experience some sort of connectedness with others, and trying to find some sort of meaning–all of which the party scene promises but fails miserably to deliver.  The climax of this half of the album is the song “Cowboys”, in which the protagonist is so determined to find some sort of meaning in life and relationship with others that he becomes a serial killer:  “Oh, I will make you look at me!”

On the second half of the album, the tone changes drastically.  The mood is much quieter and more reflective here.  The songs deal with the themes of regret, going to bed with the wrong woman but waking up alone anyway, being stuck in a relationship that you can’t handle, recognizing that there are reasons why women should stay away from you (“You Can’t Count On Me”), longing for an old love, and finally ending on the hopeful note of recognizing that there is still a life out there to be lived.

This album has a little of everything that we loved them for in the early days:  the sparse, reflective sound of the debut album August and Everything After, and the hard, driving sound of Recovering the Satellites.  All in all, this album marks an excellent addition to the Counting Crows’ body of work.

Music Review: Neil Diamond, Home Before Dark

Believe it or not, Neil Diamond was the Justin Timberlake of his day.  He had the following of teenage girls who all considered him to be undeniably sexy; the only difference between him and Justin Timberlake was that he could actually sing.

And then, a strange thing happened.  All those teenage girls and others who followed Neil Diamond back in his early days grew into adults with jobs, families, and other responsibilities.  These fans continued to track with Neil Diamond as time went on, but despite his best efforts he failed to gain any traction with younger fans.

So in 2005, when Neil Diamond decided he wanted to do a new album, he went out and got producer Rick Rubin.  Rick Rubin has worked with several well-known musicians over the years, but is best known nowadays for his work with Jay-Z.  Did that mean that Neil Diamond was in the process of thugging out?  No, it only meant that this album, 12 Songs, would be the best he had done in almost three decades.  It featured a very stripped-down sound consisting of Neil Diamond, the guitar, and other sparse instrumentation.  It was much more well received than anything he had done in three decades, debuting at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 album chart.

Home Before Dark picks up right where 12 Songs left off, continuing the sparse, minimalist sound that worked so well on 12 Songs.  This time around, the songs are themed around love, second chances, and coming home after a lifetime of traveling far and wide through this world and this game called life.

The album leads off with “If I Don’t See You Again”, which sets the table for what is to follow with the idea that “it’s been a hell of a ride”.  Next up is “Pretty Amazing Grace”, a song about love and redemption and second chances.  Those of you who were fortunate enough to catch this season of American Idol had the opportunity to hear this song performed live.  The theme of redemption and second chances continues with “One More Bite of the Apple”.  Following this are several infectious, folksy songs including “Whose Hands Are These”, “No Words”, and “The Power of Two”.  These songs could easily pass for some of the best of Neil Diamond’s standards, songs such as “Sweet Caroline” or “Song Sung Blue”.  “Slow It Down” slows it down in preparation for the final song, and “Home Before Dark” ties everything together in a powerful closing statement about having traveled far and wide in this world and this game called life, and struggling to get “home before dark”.

Neil Diamond wrote a book’s worth of material to go in the liner notes for this album, but if you take the time to read it you will gain a full appreciation for the process he went through to conceive these songs and bring them to life on this album.

If you like Neil Diamond, then prepare to be impressed by some of the best work that he has done in over three decades.  Somehow I don’t think Justin Timberlake will be sounding quite this good when he’s 67.

Music Review: Tori Amos, American Doll Posse

American Doll Posse is the latest album from Tori Amos.  Tori Amos has been a longstanding favorite of mine; her debut album Little Earthquakes was making the rounds back when I was in college (the first time around).  In that as in most of her early work, the predominant mode was this stripped-down, girl-at-the-piano sound which was capable of covering the full gamut of human emotion in a short space of time.  She is still capable of covering a wide range of human emotion in a short time and the girl-at-the-piano sound that we all knew and loved from the early years still shows through in some places, but she has added many layers of sophistication and maturity nowadays, both in terms of the polish of her sound and also in terms of her lyrical and musical expression.  Kind of what you would expect from a singer now in her 40s.  (Eek.) Continue reading “Music Review: Tori Amos, American Doll Posse”

Jono’s Guide to Essential Christmas Music

Christmas time is here, and that means Christmas music is here as well.  So as a public service to our readers, I would like to offer my recommendations on which of the vast abundance of Christmas albums out there are truly essential.

The Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Charlie Brown Christmas.  What more could you possibly want in life?  Here is Vince Guaraldi, one of the finest jazz pianists of our day, backed by Monty Budwig on bass and Colin Bailey on drums, performing all your Charlie Brown Christmas favorites, exactly as you remember them from the TV special.  Crank up the fireplace, pour yourself a glass of wine (grape juice if you’re a Baptist), put on this CD, kick back in front of the fire and enjoy.

Harry Connick Jr, When My Heart Finds Christmas (1993).  Harry Connick Jr. brings his trademark big band sound and New Orleans flair to the Christmas standards.  Highlights of this album include a Dixieland version of “I Pray on Christmas”, a rendition of “Ave Maria” with a reflective piano solo intro, and a well-orchestrated rendition of “O Holy Night”.  The 2003 sequel Harry for the Holidays is also good.

Celine Dion, These Are Special Times (1998).  A solid and well-balanced Christmas collection showcasing the vocal abilities of Celine Dion.  Highlights include “O Come All Ye Faithful” with the full-on choir and pipe organ, “The Prayer” featuring Andrea Bocelli, “I’m Your Angel” featuring thug extraordinaire R. Kelly, and “Feliz Navidad” featuring the entire Dion clan.

Michael W. Smith, Christmas (1988).  For my money this is by far the best Christmas album ever done by a CCM artist, and goodness knows there have been an awful lot of Christmas albums done by CCM artists over the last couple of decades.  Other CCM Christmas albums worthy of positive mention include the Michael W. Smith sequel Christmastime (1998), Amy Grant Home for Christmas (1992), and Point of Grace A Christmas Story (1999).

Anything by Mannheim Steamroller.  Mannheim Steamroller has been a force in the world of Christmas music for the last two decades.  There are now five albums for you to choose from:  Christmas (1984), A Fresh Aire Christmas (1990), Christmas in the Aire (1995), Christmas Extraordinaire (2001), and Christmas Song (2007).

Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Christmas Eve and Other Stories (1996).  This album tells the story, through music, of an angel who comes down to earth in search of something to represent all the good that was ever done in the name of Christmas.  This album features “Christmas Eve Sarajevo” for which Trans-Siberian Orchestra is best known, a driving orchestral/rock adaptation of Carol of the Bells.  I haven’t heard any of the other Trans-Siberian Orchestra albums, but I would imagine that they are good as well.

Music Review: The Cure, Staring At The Sea: The Singles

This was one of my favorite albums from when I was in high school, so I was pleased when I found it on sale about a year ago.

Staring At The Sea is the CD version of the 1986 greatest hits compilation Standing On A Beach. It includes four songs not available on Standing On A Beach: “10:15 Saturday Night”, “Play For Today”, “Other Voices”, and “A Night Like This”. Continue reading “Music Review: The Cure, Staring At The Sea: The Singles”