Wednesday, October 30, 2013

In this week's Baltimore City Paper, my BPM dance music column featured news about DJ Pierre, DJ AngelBaby, Buck Jones and more, and I also wrote The Short List as usual.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

I wrote about The 10 Biggest Musical Transformations of 2013 for Complex.

Deep Album Cuts Vol. 12: TLC

Friday, October 25, 2013

Between the release of TLC's greatest hits collection 20, the huge ratings for the VH1 biopic CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story, and the J. Cole collaboration "Crooked Smile" giving the group their biggest radio hit in over a decade, it's been a pretty big month for TLC. So it felt like a good time to look back at the catalog of the biggest girl group of the '90s, which isn't very large, but had such huge hits that they couldn't help but overshadow the album tracks. I've always been a little ambivalent towards TLC, because every album had at least one hit so huge that I got completely sick of it and everything about them for a while ("Baby-Baby-Baby," "Waterfalls," "No Scrubs"). But when I actually think about it, I still like or love most of their singles, and with the album tracks, things being overplayed is a non-issue, so it's really easy to find things to enjoy about these songs.

In a way TLC are more timely than ever; they didn't necessarily have the best singing or rapping, but they combined them into a package with a unique sound and identity that translated into hits, and was more about melody and personality than street cred. That kinda paved the way for Nelly, the Black Eyed Peas, T-Pain, Drake, a whole lot of people in the 2000's, compared to where they kinda owned that niche in the '90s. And TLC were one of the biggest gigs for a lot great rap producers, including Organized Noize, Marley Marl, Jermaine Dupri, and Puff Daddy.

Deep Album Cuts Vol. 12: TLC (Spotify playlist / Tidal playlist)

1. Depend On Myself
2. CrazySexyCool (Interlude)
3. Kick Your Game
4. His Story
5. My Life
6. Bad By Myself
7. Case of the Fake People
8. If They Knew
9. Das Da Way We Like 'Em
10. This Is How It Works
11. This Is How It Should Be Done
12. Give It To Me While It's Hot
13. Let's Do It Again
14. Don't Pull Out On Me Yet
15. Sumthin' Wicked This Way Comes featuring Andre 3000
16. Shout
17. All I Want For Christmas
18. In Your Arms Tonight
19. If I Was Your Girlfriend

Tracks 1, 4, 6, 9 and 11 from Ooooooohhh... On The TLC Tip (1992)
Track 17 from A LaFace Family Christmas (1993)
Tracks 2, 3, 7, 13, 15 and 19 from CrazySexyCool (1994)
Track 10 from Waiting To Exhale: Original Soundtrack Album (1995)
Tracks 5, 8, 14 and 16 from FanMail (1999)
Tracks 12 and 18 from 3D (2002)

It was nice to be able to pad out the collection with a couple compilation tracks. I've always been a big fan of their Christmas single, "Sleigh Ride," so I was pleasantly surprised to learn they have another holiday track that's almost as entertaining. And their Waiting To Exhale soundtrack contribution, seemingly one of the few songs on that album that wasn't a single, is one of their best Babyface collaborations alongside "Red Light Special."

Although I already knew CrazySexyCool, which will always be their peak, their revered classic, I came out of this becoming a big fan of Ooooooohhh... On The TLC Tip. I always loved how the singles from that were like the very tail end of the New Jack Swing era, but it also feels like the last great album of the 'wall of samples' era, there are some tracks on that record that are so thick with samples. I'm less of a fan of the later albums, but FanMail has some jams that don't have that adult contemporary "No Scrubs"/"Unpretty" sheen, and 3D is kind of an interesting peek at what directions they could've headed in in the 21st century if Left Eye hadn't died (although "Dirty, Dirty" was an anticlimactic Timbaland collaboration that wasn't as good as the Timbo knockoffs on Fanmail).

Previous playlists in the Deep Album Cuts series:
Vol. 1: Brandy
Vol. 2: Whitney Houston
Vol. 3: Madonna
Vol. 4: My Chemical Romance
Vol. 5: Brad Paisley
Vol. 6: George Jones
Vol. 7: The Doors
Vol. 8: Jay-Z
Vol. 9: Robin Thicke
Vol. 10: R. Kelly
Vol. 11: Fall Out Boy

Wednesday, October 23, 2013
This week's Short List.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

I posted on the Baltimore City Paper site about OG Dutch Master's latest mixtape and video.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

I appeared as a guest on the latest episode of my brother Zac's newish podcast, No Topic Required, which, like his old podcast, uses my band's music as its theme song. As per the title, we were just kinda shooting the shit for an hour or two on a variety of topics, it was pretty fun.

Monthly Report: October 2013 Singles

Friday, October 18, 2013

1. K. Michelle - "V.S.O.P."
I really dig her whole album but obviously this song is a standout that has just gotten stronger as it keeps climbing up the radio charts. She basically stole that Chi-Lites sample from Jay, too, I associate with this song more than "December 4th" already. It actually reminds me a little of Meek Mill's "Dreams & Nightmares" in that it feels really loud and intense just off the blaring vocals before the snares finally, briefly come in briefly for a few bars at a time halfway into the song. By the time she's got Henny chilling on ice I feel like the walls are shaking, the song just goes hard as shit. Pop & Oak have produced some of my favorite R&B songs of the last couple years, including Elle Varner's "Refill" and Miguel's "Use Me," so I'm just adding this to the list. These songs are all in my favorite 2013 singles Spotify playlist, by the way.

2. Sage The Gemini - "Red Nose"
Although the immediate result of Billboard counting YouTube views toward chart positions was the whole regrettable "Harlem Shake" thing, there's been an unexpected effect in the last few months of random regional rap songs charting off of Vine memes and dance videos. There was the J. Wop song in that Miley twerk video, Tha Finatticz, a YG song that lots of people, many of them white, love make Vines of saying the N-word to, and a couple of songs by Sage The Gemini, who I'd never heard of before all this. "Red Nose" is my favorite of his two big Vine hits, and is also the only one of all these songs that I've actually started to hear on the radio pretty steadily, and it's really grown on me, just has a nice weird awkward groove while still being incredibly danceable and catchy.

3. Future - "Honest"
This song is comparable to "Feds Watching" by 2 Chainz in that you could tell on one listen that it wasn't going to be as big a hit as all the singles off their first album, but it ends up growing on everybody and being kind of a sleeper hit (while still not the huge lead single they need). They even peaked at the exact same spot, #10, on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart. And even though it felt immediately transparent that the verses follow the same formula as the "UOENO" hook, he at least takes it in a different direction, and the chorus is just kind of amazing with Future busting out the cracked falsetto from the "Body Party" background vocals in all its glory. Plus the beat just feels like a departure from everything Future's done before, the piano is kind of amazing. And with Future getting kicked off the Drake tour (and maybe is back on now?) for speaking a little too freely with the media, it kinda feels like this song is starting to really help define and expand his public persona.

4. Blake Shelton - "Mine Would Be You"
I always relish whenever I hear a non-standard time signature in a hit song, and it's especially rare in a country song, much less a country ballad. So the verses being in 7/8 are what mainly caught my ear about this song at first, but it's pretty damn good in general, and I've always struggled to find a Shelton song as likeable as Shelton himself. Last country song I heard in 7/8 was LeAnn Womack's theme song for "The Berenstain Bears," no lie.

5. Capital Cities - "Kangaroo Court"
I've been hating "Safe And Sound," every single damn thing about it, but I have to say the doomed follow-up single is growing on me. The guy's voice still isn't shit, but this one has a nice bounce to it. And the label spent all that "Safe And Sound" money on a pretty cool-looking video for a song that is gonna go absolutely nowhere.

6. Wale f/ Nicki Minaj and Juicy J - "Clappers"
Even though The Gifted was easily the weakest of the summer's big event rap albums, but credit where it's due, he's 3 for 3 with good singles. "Pretty Girls" may always be the best Wale song as far as I'm concerned, just a fantastic bit of pop polish on a Go-Go sample so that it made sense with someone like Gucci Mane on it, and this song attempts a similar trick, a little less successfully while still managing to be pretty fun. It's particularly Go-Go-ish in that it's this kind of aimless, flabby track that runs well over 5 minutes, with all these different voices going in and out, but Nicki Minaj darts in and out with an incredibly short verse than runs 21 seconds (about half as long as Juicy J's appearance), totally stealing the show in even less time than she usually does.

7. Scotty Rebel f/ French Montana - "Bang"
This song hasn't made much noise but I think it's pretty killer, even with a French verse. Rico Love is such an underrated hitmaker.

8. One Direction - "Best Song Ever"
"What Makes You Beautiful" is heads and shoulders above anything else these guys have done and rightfully their biggest U.S. hit, but looking at this really drives home that it's kind of their only hit here, once you set aside all of their fanbase's iTunes downloads. And this one is pretty much their least successful single yet, which is ironic given the title. It's fun and spirited and stupid, though, and I like the little Who homage that resulted in such an amusing One Direction fan twitter war.

9. The Naked And Famous - "Hearts Like Ours"
I revealed my silly misunderstanding a while back about confusing this band, who have a female singer, with Passion Pit, who have a male singer, and unfairly hating Passion Pit because of songs that were actually by The Naked And Famous. But now I like songs by both these bands. I don't know what that means. Maybe just that I'm not so stubborn after all, I hope.

10. Kings of Leon - "Supersoaker"
These guys are a truly embarrassing band on every level, but the further they fall from their commercial peak, the easier it is to admit when they make kind of a jam. I liked "Radioactive" a little, and I like this even more, nice little guitar licks, big stupid chorus, title almost as cringe-inducing as "Sex On Fire."

Worst Single Of The Month: Hustle Gang f/ T.I., B.o.B, Kendrick Lamar, and Kris Stephens - "Memories Back Then"
Last year, in the run-up to Trouble Man, there was a lot of talk of the album having a song that featured Kendrick Lamar, B.o.B and a sample of Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know," which just sounded like a terrible idea to begin with, as much as I like the original. Apparently Gotye realized that, too, and didn't clear the sample, so the album dropped without that song (although you can hear a leaked snippet here). And pretty quickly soon after the album, T.I. started releasing a ton of songs under the 'Hustle Gang' banner, trying to get the Grand Hustle label/brand back in business, and a lot of those tracks have been really dope. But the biggest of those hits, sadly, is a rebooted version of that song, with the Gotye sample replaced with a new beat and a new hook. "Memories Back Then" reminds me a lot of the 'song memories' SNL sketches, where a group of guys sing a heartwarming song together and take turns swapping dark, disturbing stories. In this version, T.I. reminisces over an old school chum ("she let me fingerfuck her on the school bus"), B.o.B recalls losing the love of his life because another girl he was with got pregnant ("on top of all that, it wasn't even mine -- damn!"), and Kendrick thinks back to a materialistic girl he pursued before he made it big ("tried to make you mine, ho! tried to make some time, ho!"). If Gotye was still singing "now you're just somebody that I used to know" on the hook, it'd at least be thematically appropriate, but instead we now have Kris Stephens blankly singing "I think of all the memories I've had, all of the things I did back then," like she's all wistful about T.I. fingerfucking her on the school bus. Oh, and Kendrick says "Mick Romney." MICK. ROMNEY. Incredibly awful song.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013
This week's Short List.

TV Diary

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

a) "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"
This show is better than early ads made it look but not as good as its cast deserves; hell, I'd love to see a comedy about just Andre Braugher and Terry Crews so much that I almost kind of resent Andy Samberg for getting in the way. And I generally like him, at least in Hot Rod and on Lonely Island records, but his character in this is the kind of thing that would wear thin over the course of a 10-minute SNL sketch, nevermind as the lead of a series. With each episode they seem to sand off his annoying edges and figure out the ensemble's strengths, though. They just need to keep giving Chelsea Peretti as many great lines as she had in the pilot.

b) "The Michael J. Fox Show"
So far this is my favorite new show of the fall, which makes sense since Will Gluck co-created it and directed the pilot, and his movies (Fired Up, Easy A, Friends With Benefits) are some of my favorite comedy flicks of the past few years. This show retains some of the sensibility and comic rhythms of those movies but also does a great job of steering around the inevitable sentimentality surround Fox's return to TV, using it as grist for satire, and actually doing something useful with showbiz meta unlike most shows that just kind of do it for its own sake.

c) "Masters Of Sex"
Another favorite of the new season, partly because I love Lizzy Caplan and the premise is intrinsically interesting. But with Showtime, there's always an uncanny knack to take a good idea and a good cast and dumb it down until it's useless, and so far this hasn't come off the rails after three whole episodes so I'm optimistic. Obviously, they're milking the concept for titillation beyond what probably really happened, but it's still interesting to look at that chapter of history and what we know now and think about how sex was looked at back then, and they've mostly held back from too much heavy-handed Mad Men-style historical irony.

d) "The Millers"
Beau Bridges is on both "Masters Of Sex" and this, and it's weird to think of one actor being in two new shows the same fall, especially one that good and one this bad. This is also a waste of Will Arnett, and Margo Martindale, who's been just straight killing it in guest roles on "Justified" and a ton of other cable dramas over the past few years and could suddenly be trapped in a lame CBS sitcom now. May cancellation come swiftly to this one.

e) "Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D."
Setting aside that this show was always going to feel pre-downsized, taking place in the Avengers universe without its big stars or effects budget, this still just feels kinda cheap and half-assed. Clark Gregg even seems to be missing something of what his character had in the movie. Always nice to see Ming-Na Wen on TV, though, and the Skye character is cute and entertaining. The stories of the week just seem to pose no threat of ever being thrilling or entertaining or anything at all, though.

f) "The Blacklist"
This is pretty ridiculous and James Spader is having fun with it, don't feel like it has much long term potential but for the moment it's amusing enough, and I like that they've demonstrated a willingness to go a little over-the-top with the plots already.

g) "Hello Ladies"
I think I quite like Stephen Merchant but so rarely get a chance to see him not be the Ricky Gervais sidekick that it's nice to see him have a proper starring vehicle. This feels kinda threadbare, though, like a single guy trying to get laid is not much of a show, and so far they haven't populated his universe enough to make it feel like one. It's amiable enough, though, it could get better.

h) "Dads"
This pilot was so incredibly slimy and foul but I somehow missed until after watching it that it was a Seth MacFarlane joint, which of course seemed obvious in retrospect. I was okay with Ted but that dude just continues to be the worst, and I hate to say this show might actually be more tolerable if there were some talking animals in it.

i) "Sleepy Hollow"
My wife likes this show a lot, but I dunno. I liked "Grimm" more and I couldn't even stick with that for very long, these fantasy-type shows need some kind of edge of humor or horror or something to be interesting to me.

j) "Lucky 7"
Watched the first episode of this, it was just too dumb, all the lining the ducks in a row for future drama involving characters I could never care about.

k) "Hostage"
Another pretty dire new drama. I think I'm incapable of watching anything with Dylan McDermott. I wish Toni Collette was in a better new show, though, I've always liked her and she just finally got out of that "United States of Tara" ordeal.

l) "Sean Saves The World"
Shows that kind of throw a threadbare family premise around a familiar star never seem to do great (I'm pulling for "The Michael J. Fox Show" to beat the odds), including this one. It's not bad, though, and I like that Megan Hilty is in it -- I worked with her for a few minutes at my job last year, and she had a great sense of humor and was really cool, so it's good to see her on a comedy after "Smash" didn't really allow her much room to be funny, plus maybe there's something about her being on shows with "Will & Grace" alumni.

m) "The Mindy Project"
This show still bears a lot of the symptoms of being this new show that doesn't know what it wants to be yet, but it's still pretty consistently funny, and the big disorganized ensemble seems to finally be finding a groove. Glad to see Adam Pally getting a recurring role so soon after the cancellation of "Happy Endings," though, it'd be great if he became a cast member on this.

n) "The Newsroom"
I feel like once a week I get into an argument with someone who thinks this show is great television and I either badger them for not having seen "Sports Night" or for having seen it and daring to think "The Newsroom" is half as good. And most of those arguments are with my dad. But I've gotten pretty good at just picking out the handful of incredibly well written scenes that are in each episode and kind of politely ignoring that they never add up to a consistent or satisfying whole.

o) "The Daily Show"
Over the summer, John Oliver kept seeming to get all these funny stories that John Stewart probably would've enjoyed working on, but now it feels like perfect timing for Stewart to come back and bring a little bit more anger to the show in time for the government shutdown, so I've been enjoying that. It's been a while since the show had a chance to just completely rip into the GOP night after night, and I have to admit, I enjoy it. And I love Jessica Williams right now, I always wanna see more of her.

p) "Saturday Night Live"
As much as I hate to see Hader and Sudeikis go, and acknowledge that Armisen brought a lot to the show even though I'd gotten well sick of him, it's nice to have a lot of space open up in the cast this year for other people to shine. Kate McKinnon is destroying, Bobby Moynihan has fully come into his own to a degree that never seemed possible early on, and Cecily Strong is such an inspired choice for Weekend Update, I'm curious to see if they let her fly solo after Seth leaves or pair her up with someone. Of the new people, I like Kyle Mooney a lot, but more for the stuff he's already done on YouTube and Norm MacDonald's short-lived Comedy Central show than what he's done on "SNL" so far. The show is still patchy as ever, but as a 'rebuilding year' goes I feel like it's off to a pretty promising start.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

I wrote on the City Paper website about Mack Scott's new EP, Still Mackin', which is pretty good and has kind of a Baltimore twist on southern pimp rap (there's even a screwed & chopped version). And dude just told me that his older brother is Mike Malachi, who I reviewed some music by years ago, small world.

Monthly Report: September 2013 Albums

Friday, October 11, 2013

1. Ariana Grande - Yours Truly
When this was released a few weeks ago, I joked on Twitter that she had gone and dropped the best R&B album on a release date that also included John Legend, Tamar Braxton, Raheem DeVaughn and Jaheim, but I was only half-joking. This is generally being categorized as a pop album, partly because Ariana Grande is a little white girl from the Disney Channel and "The Way" was a hit on pop radio, but also because it's deliberately harkening back to the era when R&B was pop: the era of early Mariah (her admitted idol, although I think comparisons between them have become overstated and reductive), Babyface (who co-wrote 5 songs on Yours Truly), and the '90s hits by Mary J. Blige, Big Pun and Lil Kim sampled and referenced throughout the album. Either way, it scans as R&B to me (my local urban station, 92Q, recently started playing "The Way" with Mac Miller's verse taken out, which is hilarious because they never take MCs off R&B songs otherwise, and I could easy see them playing the hell out of "Right There" with Big Sean if it becomes a single). And it has this really light, relaxed tone to it that just makes the whole thing a pleasure to listen to. The songs without familiar samples like "You'll Never Know" and "Baby I" are kinda the ones that I think show her real potential. All this stuff is in my 2013 albums Spotify playlist, by the way.

2. 2 Chainz - B.O.A.T.S. II #METIME
The whole 2 Chainz enterprise seems so inherently scattershot, even the run of guest verses that precipitated his impressively fast rise last year was pretty inconsistent, and the first B.O.A.T.S. was a spotty album that, by the time its hit parade had run its course, started to feel like a straight-up singles-and-filler affair. Now he's made an album as consistently enjoyable as he should've the first time, but the buzz has died down and, though "Feds Watching" turned out to be a nice little sleeper hit, it generally doesn't have the same supply of singles. But there are just so many entertaining moments on here, from Rich Homie Quan's verse on "Extra" to a pregnant Fergie talking shit on "Netflix," and 2 Chainz actually doesn't shit the bed with total nonsense verses too often. "Used 2" and "Fork" are the kind of songs 2 Chainz should always do, but even the R&B tracks like "Beautiful Pain" and "So We Can Live," which is 7 minutes long and has a great beat switch coda, work way better than their counterparts on the first album.

3. Elvis Costello and The Roots - Wise Up Ghost
I'm a pretty big fan of both Costello and The Roots who's become accustomed to admiring the effort more often than outright enjoying the results when they release a new album, but I'd been cautiously optimistic about this project ever since it was announced, and even after "Walk Us Uptown," a weak teaser single (but decent opening track) was released, I had my hopes. But yeah, this is pretty solid, and what I like about it is that when you get down to it, neither Costello nor The Roots is as chameleonic as they think they are, and this album is good largely because they make basically the same sounds they've been making forever. Elvis Costello can only sing or write lyrics that sound like Elvis Costello, and ?uestlove's snare drum is unmistakable. I like how The Roots work largely with relaxed R&B grooves here, but the textures are dark and murky and fuzzed out like the best of their records since Game Theory. Despite the fact that I'm pretty well versed in Costello's back catalog, which I recently did my little box set overview of, I didn't catch a lot of the lyrical references to his other records that other writers picked up on throughout this album. "Sugar Won't Work" and "Come The Meantimes" are the big standouts to me so far (not typing out the titles with all that wacky capitalization). Also, I worked an event last week where La Marisoul, the singer featured on "Cinco Minutos Con Vos," performed, which was pretty cool.

4. J Roddy Walston & The Business - Essential Tremors
Haven't seen these guys in probably at least a couple years, but they're a great live band and, as they continue to make consistently killer albums, pretty much an all-around great band. Already reviewed this one so I don't have much to say about it, but I really do hope it is the one that makes them legitimately famous, it's been fun hearing "Heavy Bells" on HFS a little bit.

5. Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks
I've always loved Trent Reznor's incredibly rich and versatile production aesthetic and ear for texture more than the monochromatic emotional palette of his songwriting. So I thought the last few years of his output were really refreshing -- The Slip is easily my favorite of the 'traditional' later Nine Inch Nails albums, and Ghosts I-IV, the Social Network score and the How To Destroy Angels album all gave him a chance to make some beautifully moody music outside the format of NIN angst anthems. In that sense, going back to the main band with something that doesn't seem all that transformed by those experiences is a little disappointing, especially since it most reminds me of Year Zero, my least favorite album. But there are some great sounds and moments throughout this, and I think the polarizing "Everything" is pretty great, really sounds more like Reznor embracing his '80s new wave past more than anything else when those chiming guitars come in after the first chorus. I hope that song is all over rock radio soon.

6. Meek Mill - Dreamchasers 3
I always feel like a lot invested in Meek Mill's career, just because he's closer to what my tastes run to than pretty much any new mainstream rap star in the last few years, and if he fades from prominence it'll probably be a while before anyone else remotely like him will be at his level. Plus he's just straight out made a few of my favorite rap songs of the last few years. But while I don't think there's a huge variation in quality between the Dreams & Nightmares album and the three Dreamchasers mixtapes, you can kinda feel the narrative shifting to him having already peaked, between the album underperforming a little and this tape not breaking DatPiff records like Dreamchasers 2. This one has some great songs, including "Lil Ni**a Snupe," which is one of his best over, but it's also kinda loaded down with empty calorie guest spots, including 3 French Montana features, and 2 each by Fabolous and Nicki Minaj, which is just kind of ridiculous. Also shout out to J. Oliver from Baltimore, he produced one of the best tracks on here, "Ain't Me."

7. John Legend - Love In The Future
It's kind of a shame this album hasn't stirred up much attention, even among the people to whom John Legend is only as interesting as his proximity to Kanye, because it's a pretty good and interesting record, and Kanye actually worked on it way more than any of Legend's previous records (co-production credits on 11 tracks, as opposed to just 1-4 tracks on the earlier ones). It also has recent Kanye's kitchen sink approach to collaborations, with writing credits from Kimbra, Joe Jonas, Sara Bareilles, 2/3rds of A Tribe Called Quest, Dan Wilson, and Ingrid Michaelson, plus a guest appearance by Seal on one of the bonus tracks. Not that you'd necessarily guess that from listening to it, it just sounds like a moody, textural John Legend record with a few little production curveballs, not up there with his best, Once Again, but still pretty solid.

8. Butch Walker - Peachtree Battle EP
Walker's last two albums are a couple of my favorite rock records of the last few years, and I'm not sure if this is a prelude to a new full-length or just a one-off thing, but it's nice to get 5 new songs from him kinda out of nowhere. One of them, "Coming Home," was written about the impending death of his father, who ended up passing right before it was released, and the whole thing feels a little more personal and homespun than the albums.

9. HAIM - Days Are Gone
I'm still not entirely sold on this band, although generally I like where they're coming from aesthetically and think it's funny to watch old indie bros get upset that critics have praised the record. The lead singer's voice is very mannered in a way I find off-putting, she sounds like Paula Cole doing an imitation of Toni Braxton or something, but some of the songs are good, I like "Honey & I."

10. Elton John - The Diving Board
I listened to a lot of old Elton John this summer, really more than I ever had before, so it was a pleasant surprise to find out that he was about to release a new album, particularly one with a pared down piano trio sound (with Jack Ashford from the Funk Brothers on drums and Raphael Saadiq on bass, no less!). I won't get into the 'return to form' discussion because I haven't heard most of Elton's post-'70s records, and anyway he'll just never approach those days again, but this is really quite nice, some songs make the most of his more limited vocal range and he still just has an absolutely unique way of singing and of putting together melodies.

Worst Album of the Month: Mike Doughty - Circles Super Bon Bon
Soul Coughing was one of those 'more than the sum of its parts' bands where each of the 4 members brought something crucial to the mix that made them one of the more unique and exciting bands of the '90s. So that's why it's been heinous and sad that in the years since their breakup, frontman Mike Doughty (who used to glowingly compliment his bandmates), has not only made a lot of bland solo records, but has increasingly trashed the other members of Soul Coughing as people and as musicians for what terrible things they did to 'his' songs. Last year he wrote a memoir mainly dedicated to talking about how much he hated the band, and this year he launched a crowdfunding project for re-recording the band's songs, bringing the entire ridiculous saga full circle. It also seems a bit odd, to me, especially having read things like Doughty's upbeat original journal of the recording of El Oso, the album that he remakes the most songs from here. These are not bold reimaginings of Soul Coughing's songs -- these are more or less identical vocal performances and guitar lines over amateurish, anonymous GarageBand loops, most of which sound more like dated '90s techno beats than anything the band ever did at the time. Some tracks, like "Mr. Bitterness," flail around horrifyingly in search of a totally different sound. Meanwhile other tracks more subtly betray his lack of understanding of the entire appeal of the original songs, like "Super Bon Bon," which tries and fails to recreate the song's distinctive bassline, or "True Dreams of Wichita," which puts the whole song, including gentle early verses and climactic bridge, all over the same static beat. Just an absolutely loathsome, pathetic record, in both intent and execution.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013
This week's Short List.

Movie Diary

Sunday, October 06, 2013

a) Zero Dark Thirty
I wasn't the biggest fan of Hurt Locker, but I thought this was pretty damn compelling. Maybe because it felt like a more inherently interesting story, maybe because I liked the way they traced the whole saga around the Jessica Chastain character, and she was just great. Even with something where you know exactly how it's going to end, it still got tense as hell.

b) Les Miserables
My wife has read the book, owns a Broadway cast recording CD of the songs, all that, and I don't know that stuff at all, so it was interesting to watch this movie with her and kinda get her take on this adaptation and how well it was executed. I like plenty of movie musicals but a sung-through/opera kinda thing is maybe too much for me, there were some impressive moments but mostly it ended up just being a comedy as Russell Crowe got progressively more hilarious throughout the movie.

c) Wreck-It Ralph
This was really good. Obviously Walt Disney has been doing computer animated features outside the Pixar umbrella for a while, but this is the first one that felt pretty close to both the Pixar sensibility and their bar of quality -- more early Pixar than recent vintage, though, the concept was practically a variation on Toy Story. More than the vintage arcade game references though, what I enjoyed was just the cast, John C. Reilly and Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch and all, and I thought the story and its ending were pretty charming and well handled. I watched this with my son but I enjoyed it more than he did.

d) Ice Age: Continental Drift
These movies, on the other hand, my son definitely enjoys more than me. The cast and the characters have always been mildly likable but the movies just seem to get more overloaded with new characters (including ones voiced by Drake and Nicki Minaj in this one) and pointlessly drawn out plots every time. I liked the stuff with Peter Dinklage as a pirate ape, though.

e) Argo
Unlike Zero Dark Thirty, I think all the hearing about this movie and knowing what would happen because it happened in real life did keep me from being really engaged in it. It just felt like a pretty low suspense parade of character actors I enjoy seeing.

The Imaginary Pearl Jam Box Set: 4 Drummers In 4 Discs

Friday, October 04, 2013
I started playing drums when I was 10 years old, right around the same time I bought Pearl Jam's Ten and they became my first favorite band that I was really hardcore obsessed with. So they ended up being the way I kinda learned that drummers were usually the most expendable member of a rock band, the role most frequently replaced. Pearl Jam had an almost Spinal Tap-like history with drummers in their first decade of existence, with five different touring drummers, four of which played on albums (Matt Chamberlain had a brief tenure in the band in 1991 that consisted only of some live shows and the "Alive" video). Since then, Matt Cameron has settled into his longterm role, which he was probably destined for ever since he played on the band's early instrumental demos, and in a couple weeks Pearl Jam will release their 5th album with Cameron, Lightning Bolt. Before him, no one drummer was with the band for more than 2 albums.

Dave Krusen, Matt Chamberlain, and Jack Irons all left Pearl Jam of their own volition, although the first two probably didn't have any sense that they would soon become the biggest band in the world. I wouldn't say it's a total Pete Best situation, but it's still crazy that that happened not once but three times. The only drummer they fired, Dave Abbruzzese, was a happy-go-lucky guy with a soul patch who never seemed to fit in with the band, and over the years the story has come out that he wasn't really into the band's battle with TicketMaster, that Eddie Vedder hated him, mocked his drummer magazine covers, and wrote "Glorified G" about his gun ownership.

Pearl Jam Twenty, the documentary about the band released a couple years ago, delves deep into some aspects of their history, but makes a joke of how quickly and vaguely they dispense with "the drummer story" in a scene that runs under 2 minutes. After "Eddie told us to ask Mike about the drummers," Mike McCready runs through their names and as little backstory as possible, saying literally nothing about Dave Abbruzzese, and making the requisite Spinal Tap joke. After it all, Eddie makes a quick comment, almost sounding like it's just then occurring to him for the first time that changing drummers was no small thing: "When we'd have to switch, let's say a drummer or something, you do it out of survival mode. It's just like removing an organ, and when you remove the drummer, you're removing, like, the heart. So it's like a heart transplant."

After my recent 'box sets' of themed playlists of Superchunk's and Elvis Costello's discographies, I wanted to break Pearl Jam's catalog up by drummer, because that's how I really think about the band. After every heart transplant, the rhythmic character of the band shifted, and the way the drummer locked in with the guitars and drove the songs changed. I wouldn't say they were a completely different  band in each lineup, but I've always been acutely aware of the differences.

The Imaginary Pearl Jam Box Set: 4 Drummers In 4 Discs

Disc 1: Dave Krusen, 1990-1991 (Spotify playlist)
1. Release
2. Deep
3. Porch
4. Brother
5. Even Flow
6. Breath And A Scream
7. Alive
8. Hold On
9. Once
10. Wash
11. Garden
12. Alone
13. Why Go
14. Black
15. State Of Love And Trust
16. Jeremy
17. Yellow Ledbetter

Disc 2: Dave Abbruzzese, 1991-1994 (Spotify playlist)
1. Corduroy
2. Rearviewmirror
3. Not For You
4. Hard To Imagine
5. Better Man
6. Glorified G
7. Whipping
8. Animal
9. Spin The Black Circle
10. Rats
11. Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town
12. Go
13. Blood
14. Tremor Christ
15. Daughter
16. Crazy Mary
17. Leash
18. Pry, To
19. Last Exit
20. Immortality

Disc 3: Jack Irons, 1994-1998 (Spotify playlist)
1. Given To Fly
2. In My Tree
3. Do The Evolution
4. Black, Red, Yellow
5. Brain of J.
6. Leaving Here
7. Mankind
8. I Got Id
9. Who You Are
10. U
11. MFC
12. Red Mosquito
13. Lukin
14. Faithful
15. All Night
16. Smile
17. Wishlist
18. Hail, Hail
19. Present Tense
20. In Hiding
21. The Long Road

Disc 4: Matt Cameron, 1998-present (Spotify playlist)
1. Greivance
2. Can't Keep
3. Mind Your Manners
4. The Fixer
5. Undone
6. Big Wave
7. Light Years
8. You Are
9. Johnny Guitar
10. Gods' Dice
11. Love Boat Captain
12. World Wide Suicide
13. Breakerfall
14. Supersonic
15. Get Right
16. Sad
17. Thumbing My Way
18. Insignificance
19. I Am Mine
20. Man Of The Hour
21. Sleight Of Hand
22. Gone

One reason I wanted to do this is that each of those four incarnations of the band has a roughly equal share of their best songs, even though their tenures had vastly different lengths. Dave Krusen's brief stay produced their biggest album, as well as some pretty famous non-album cuts -- I was able to fit pretty much all of Ten on the Krusen playlist, minus "Oceans" and the "Master/Slave" interludes that bookend the album. Meanwhile, Matt Cameron has presided over the band's large but spotty 21st century output. And Abbruzzese and Irons each played on 2 albums that are chock full of great songs.

Dave Krusen was the drummer for Pearl Jam's most 'classic rock'-sounding period, and sometimes it's hard to say how much that had to do with his playing, which is expansive and detailed but not flashy per se, and how much it had to do with Rick Parashar's production, which is far more cavernous and old-fashioned than the sleeker Brendan O'Brien production on almost every album that followed. O'Brien's remix of Ten a few years ago (from which I used "Once," to avoid the "Master/Slave" intro), illuminated things a little bit, but not too much.

Dave Abbruzzese probably isn't that significantly different from Krusen in playing style, and in some ways seemed like more of a flashy muso cheeseball, with splash cymbals and way too many tom toms and all that. But he was with the band as they transformed into something much more versatile and, often, more aggressive. As fun as it is to make fun of the dude's soul patch, he kinda killed it more often than not, backing up some of their punkier material with the right energy and throwing all these perfect little fills and flourishes into songs that Matt Cameron now plays live a bit more simply and blandly.

Jack Irons is kinda my favorite of all the Pearl Jam drummers. No Code was their strangest album, and the one that kind of signaled their sharpest commercial decline in their long, slow downward slide into cult heroes, and it was the last time they really felt like the center of my musical world. "In My Tree" is sometimes my all-time favorite Pearl Jam song, and is just completely unlike anything that they would've been able to do with any of their other drummers. And even a lot of their more traditional rock tracks with Jack Irons just had these beautiful loose grooves, he really just had an incredibly unique feel -- he was the band's drummer when they backed Neil Young on Mirror Ball, and Neil raved about his drumming in interviews.

I've always been kind of ambivalent about Matt Cameron becoming Pearl Jam's longest running and probably permanent drummer. He's obviously incredibly talented, but he was also such a perfect drummer for Soundgarden, who played a major role in shaping their sound, that it's hard not to notice that he's not quite as good a fit for Pearl Jam. The fusion of his style with the band's brought some interesting new sounds on Binaural and Riot Act, but since then he's kind of been a workmanlike foil for their blandest instincts. Still, they've recorded some really great songs over the last 15 years and it was fun to cherry pick fromsuch an inconsistent period and remind myself of how awesome Pearl Jam can still be. They've made a lot of long boring songs lately, but I focused on the shorter tracks, which meant that with each 'disc' I was able to fit more songs into 80 minutes than with the last. Actually, Pearl Jam have always been unable to rid their albums of filler, which makes them a great band to make compilations of. This isn't all of my favorite songs of theirs (one, "Satan's Bed," features a drum machine from a session Abbruzzese couldn't play, and a few other tracks were too mellow and acoustic to warrant inclusion), but it's most of 'em.

Thursday, October 03, 2013
This week's Short List.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013
My latest piece for Complex Magazine is called 10 Facts About Rap That People Don't Talk About Enough.