Brandon’s Tips: July 17, 24, and 31, 2007

So, I’m pleased to report that after a two-week breather — my schedule lately has been such an impossible minefield that I barely had time to do my music shopping, much less wax eloquent about it — Brandon’s tips blows back into town with a riveting tripleheader teeming with brilliant, interesting voices that we’ve adored for eons.

Before we get to that, please allow me a quick detour and head west with me to check in with the California sun, that glorious celestial body which, to quote Ray Charles, lolls ’round in heaven all day, but, in so doing, kickstarts so many of nature’s miracles. Its radiant rays have been particularly industrious this summer; between photosynthesizing the landlocked palms and warming the water-logged ocean (not to mention browning the lithe, sinewy bodies of the boys and girls who opt to enjoy either), it’s wondrous that the floating fireball has time for additional endeavors.

And yet, in a development that is as fascinating as it is worrisome, that very same sun has also evidently decided to scorch and squelch the immeasurable good sense of my beloved A. How else to explain his increasingly erratic reactions to so many of the terrific tracks contained in the most recent playlists? Following May’s regrettable Lisa Stansfield debacle, as well as our hideously ugly standoff over early June’s grunge playlist (during the climax of which I had to literally beg him to buy “Hunger Strike,” which I’m entirely convinced he did only to shut me up), we got on a bit of a roll. There even passed a majestic pair of weeks in which three songs (instead of the usual one or two) tickled his fancy! After stumbling about like a clumsy foal during the first few weeks of this crazy experiment, I was hitting my stride! I felt invincible!

Then came July, whereupon the bottom completely fell out. The month’s first playlist — a short compendium of the year-to-here’s best work, which contained stunning tracks from Paula Cole, Abra Moore, and the incomparable Patty Griffin, among others — was loaded with serene beauty. The list was literally too good to be believed, much less denied. A’s bizarro take on the situation: neither Moore nor Cole interested him in the slightest (can you imagine?!). Worse, and let me quote directly the coup de grace: “I am afraid to say anything about Patty Griffin.” (An approximate A-to-English translation follows: “I loathed it, and I know if I tell you that, you’ll do your level damnedest to run me over.”)

The month’s second playlist was even more stout. (A beaming remembrance of the music of 1987, I don’t kid when I tell you that, of the eleven playlists I’ve presented you with thus far, that one was by far the strongest and most striking; I loved it even better than the Tori list, which was sensational.) Here’s where the tale turns plain comical: A actually had the aural clarity to gravitate toward that lineup’s two best tracks — Belinda Carlisle’s classic “Heaven is a Place On Earth” (which he already owned, incidentally) and Crowded House’s still-brilliant “Don’t Dream It’s Over” (which he ended up purchasing) — which indicates to me — and believe me, I’m sooo heartened by this, and maybe even delighted — that he is completely capable of recognizing musical ingenuity when he hunkers down and focuses. The problem is, he decided not to stop there. No, no, he went on to declare that, though he could see why T’Pau and Steve Winwood were great, he was not at all sold on George Michael. I ask you without a trace of jocularity: has a more utterly flabbergasting sentence ever been transmitted? I love Steve Winwood (and that goes all the way back to his soulful ’60s work with the Spencer Davis Group when he was but a wee teenager), but I’m telling you, babe, in no way does he have the upper hand on George Michael. (Even typing that blatant heresy gives me the giggles!) I have to keep reminding myself that, since A didn’t reach these shores until 1990, he completely missed both the explosive revolution that was Wham! and the pulse-pounding revelation that was Faith; therefore, it’s quite likely that his first true exposure to George — “Praying for Time” and “Fastlove” obviously notwithstanding — was the singer’s unfortunate conduct in a Beverly Hills bathroom at century’s end. I have to keep reminding myself that, since “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “Careless Whisper” are still totally alien to him, he holds no reference points when he is introduced to songs like “Faith” or “Father Figure” or “A Different Corner.” He has no way to track Michael’s extraordinary artistic evolution. But then I delve deeper into this quandary, and I always reach the same conclusion: “Faith” is a kick-ass milestone in popular music, three of the most eminently blissful minutes you’ll ever surrender, and that’s true irregardless of one’s familiarity with George’s earlier triumphs.

It has become painfully obvious that a comprehensive tutorial on ’80s pop is in order (luckily, A and I are taking a road trip next month, which smells like as golden an opportunity as one can possibly fathom), one that begins with Christopher Cross, Juice Newton, and REO Speedwagon, one that detours down Duran Duran Drive, Whitney Way, and B-52 Boulevard (“tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiin roof… rusted!”), and one culminates with orgasmic glee, courtesy of visits from Madonna and Mr. Michael himself.

Our intensive classwork — and believe me, I smell a pop quiz or two — certainly won’t overlook Suzanne Vega and Prince, each of whom were responsible for their fair share of the most distinctive music of the ’80s, and each of whom have just returned with bold new records. I’m particularly enthralled with Vega’s latest, a fascinating concept album called Beauty and Crime, which Vega herself has stated is a love letter to New York City. On paper, the whole project seems unbearably precious (and song titles like “Frank & Ava” and “Edith Wharton’s Figurines” certainly don’t turn that image around), so I’m actually quite surprised at how into this record I really am: sonically, it’s very rich and even uncharacteristically edgy (which is odd to say, considering she once gave us the most melodic ditty about child abuse ever composed, 1987’s classic “Luka”). I’m on my third listen, and I get more intrigued each time.

As for the wildly mercurial Prince, he’s also back, with a new album called Planet Earth. I haven’t lent this one my ears yet, but my bet is that it’s going to be every bit as jarring and inconsistent as every other one of his records has been. From “Little Red Corvette” almost thirty years ago right up through 2005’s stunning “Cinnamon Girl,” the man has written and performed some of the unforgettable singles of our time, but I can’t name a truly stem-to-stern-brilliant Prince album. (Even his supposed masterpiece, 1984’s Purple Rain soundtrack, is rife with aimless filler like “Computer Blue.”) He has earned the benefit of the doubt, no question, but I don’t hold out a plethora of hope.

If for no other reason than to support a dynamite television series that needs every iota of goodwill it can gather — particularly now that the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has sunk to unprecedented levels of asininity in flagrantly flouting almost all of its innumerable merits and charms — the brand new soundtrack to Friday Night Lights is a must-own disc. Luckily for you, there are better reasons to buy this one, namely that the music contained herein is really good. Led by Tony Lucca’s cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Devil Town” (which was featured prominently in the season finale) and an exclusive mellow version of The Killers’ “Read My Mind,” plus classics from Spoon, Whiskeytown, and Starsailor, among others, about the only omission — and it’s as painful as it is egregious — is W.G. Snuffy Walden’s extraordinary, electrifying theme song, which indelibly set the tone for each episode and completely deserved a slot on this record. But c’est la vie.

My best friend Sherry (who, incidentally, was hacked and didn’t hesitate to set me straight when, a few weeks back, I failed to properly credit her for tipping me off to the Mark Ronson record) talked me into buying Young Modern, the new record from those megacrazy Aussies Silverchair, from whom I’ve heard neither hide nor hair since their beyond-freaky 1999 ode to anorexia, “Ana’s Song (Open Fire).” “You have to get this,” she implored as we strolled through Best Buy last Saturday evening browsing the new release wall. “That guy has gotten so cute!” I was dubious, but I’ve bought albums for far less viable reasons, so I took the bait. Verdict: lead singer Daniel Johns is indeed oddly sexy these days (his face has filled out admirably, and he has, like, cheekbones now! Funny how that happens when you don’t make yourself vomit after e’ery meal, yeah?), and his band’s music, while not exactly memorable, isn’t terrible.

Remember roughly a decade ago when, for a handful of months there, it looked like Shirley Manson (who, most seriously, used to frighten the living hell out of me, especially after I stumbled across the clip for “Stupid Girl” on “Friday Night Videos” one rainy evening) and her band Garbage were gonna break loose and wind up ruling the world? Well, despite a few flashes of brilliance — go ahead, try to convince me you didn’t love “#1 Crush,” easily the best thing about Baz Luhrmann’s nonsense-riddled Romeo and Juliet revival — it didn’t quite work out that way. Still, the band got its first best-of collection, Absolute Garbage, last week, and I’m here to tell you, when you see the highlights of their career (“Only Happy When It Rains,” anyone?) all lined up on one taut disc, you totally gain a new appreciation for their work. If you let them pass you by the first time around, here’s a great way to get caught up.

They’ve been a band on the verge for several years now, threatening to become huge stars, but thus far Tegan and Sara have remained essentially a cult act. I’m not sure I see that changing with their new album, The Con. True enough, I find it a massive improvement over their last record, 2005’s rigidly dull So Jealous (not a solitary note of which managed to match the sheer erotic power of their 2001 breakthrough “My Number,” despite all the critics which tried to anoint them as the second coming of Joni Mitchell with all their hyperbolic hosannas — rub a lamp, guys! That’s only cute when I do it!), but these girls still don’t quite get me there. Yet.

Two years ago, Academy Award nominee (not to mention the woman who almost certainly stole the superlative Connie Britton’s Emmy nod this year) Minnie Driver raised more than a few eyebrows when she released Everything I’ve Got in My Pocket, a unexpected treat of an album for which those same critics lay in wait, as if it were beyond conception that Driver could be as talented a singer as she is an actress. Believe it: that record’s title track is a lush, haunting masterstroke, and while you may need a minute to wrap your mind around it, her sleepy, somber take on Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” is gripping. (Plus, anyone who stuck with Joel Schumacher’s weak-kneed film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera through the end credits heard Driver delve with credible, pitch-perfect restraint into a new Andrew Lloyd Webber offering, the gorgeous “Learn to Be Lonely.”) Now she’s back with a sophomore effort, Seastories, and it’s immediately clear from track one — the stellar “Stars and Satellites” — that’s she’s been hard at work on her craft, and what may have once seemed a vanity project can no longer be brushed aside. With formidable chops in more than one arena of entertainment, this girl could well be our new Liza.

A name you almost certainly won’t recognize is Emerson Hart, who was once the lead singer of a band called Tonic. You’ll no doubt recall their debut smash, 1997’s positively inescapable “If You Could Only See,” and how they failed miserably to follow that up with anything strong enough to stick. The band broke up following their 2002 flop Head On Straight, and Hart’s flying solo now. His debut record is entitled Cigarettes and Gasoline, and while I have yet to listen to any of it, I’m curious. Much like Robin Wilson’s work with Gin Blossoms all those years ago and the oeuvre that Chad Kroeger is currently constructing with Nickelback, I always found Hart’s voice to be not less than twice as compelling as much of the material said voice conveyed.

Don’t you dare try to make that statement about Taylor (whose raw presence as a pop vocalist can’t be matched these days) and the other two Hanson brothers, who, after an excruciating three year hiatus, return triumphantly with this frame’s marquee release, The Walk. That these guys — who, as they traverse their twenties, continue to have the most remarkably keen ears for what works and what doesn’t musically — are consistently (and, in most cases, purposely) overlooked is an entire outrage (and when I take power, I vow to personally smite every last idiot who turned their backs); that they refuse to give up (and indeed, resolve to only become stronger and more focused musicians), anything but. Following their massive debut Middle of Nowhere (and the intense white heat that surrounded its first single, the trippy masterpiece “MMMBop”) ten years ago, they drowned in the shallow, cruel cesspool that is record company politics after Island/Def Jam swallowed Mercury Records whole in 1999 and instantly decided they despised everything about this strange band of teenagers who literally got the whole damn world singing along to their inspired beats. Hanson’s phenomenal second record This Time Around was released with minimal promotion the following year, by which time *NSYNC had already stormed the palace and stolen the throne and the thrills (this was the spring of “Bye, Bye, Bye,” don’t forget); after going octuple-platinum with their first record, This Time — despite being a more cohesive, more melodicallly accomplished record — didn’t even move 500,000 copies.

Still bearing the scars of their embarrassing fall from grace, the guys regrouped in 2003 and, in what will eventually be judged as one of the classic up yours moves in the history of popular music, decided to take total control of their careers by building their own studio and forming their own record company (with its own built-in distribution arm, natch). Check it out: these churren now write, play, sing, record, produce, edit, master, and release every note of their music themselves. Their first effort as mavericks, 2004’s airtight Underneath (which featured terrific harmony work from one of my great faves Michelle Branch), was a resounding success, one of only a handful of independent albums to break into the Billboard 200’s top 25. Their second effort, The Walk (co-produced by James Taylor’s main man Danny Kortchmar), is just out, and it’s a soaring, soulful stunner.

Since we’re covering three weeks in this tipsheet, A has requested that many separate playlists. My original plan was to allow a George Michael playlist to close out this tipsheet, one strong enough to force feed that lovably crazy fool his indecorous “I’m not really sold…” crack. But, alas, I need time to craft something that powerful, so that’ll have to wait for a more prudent date. (Rest assured, however: I will sell him. Mark it.) That leaves me with two playlists to populate, and for that task, I turn to the two strongest musical voices on this week’s tipsheet.

I included a Hanson track in my guilty pleasures playlist a few weeks back, and A found himself curious about their music, so in the spirit of their terrific new record, let’s start there.

1. “MMMBop” (from Middle of Nowhere) — even ten years on, it’s still difficult to envision a more exhilarating piece of musical perfection. One of the great singles of all time; more staggering yet, the fact that it’s a debut single.

2. “This Time Around” (from This Time Around) — put your ear right next to the speaker, and you’ll catch not only an ingenious idea, but a marvelous execution of same: take the basic tenets of ’60s Brill Building soul, and graft them seamlessly onto the basic tenets of contemporary pop. (Eat your heart out, Ms. Winehouse.) One of the most noble failures ever.

3. “Runaway Run” (from This Time Around) — A wanted so badly to buy this song a few weeks ago when it appeared on the guilty pleasures playlist, but then he realized at the last possible second that it’s a killer track and caught himself. Propulsive and euphoric, this is Hanson at its absolute peak.

4. “Dancin’ in the Wind” (from Underneath) — it’s extremely difficult to pick a favorite song from this record, both because I love them all and because each song plays a distinct role in telling the album’s story. That said, this tune, with its slightly off-kilter chord structure and with Taylor’s slightly disquieting vocal, never fails to captivate.

5. “Great Divide” (from The Walk) — much like “The Long Way Around” from those goofy Dixie Chicks last year, this is one of the most obvious hit singles I’ve ever heard. No wonder top 40 radio, with its maddening reliance on blatant, unbearable horseshit running more rampant this summer than ever before — Fergie, babe, that’s you — won’t touch it.

My gut feeling is that this week’s other playlist will go over like a wooden enchilada with A, because its star is unabashedly crazy (and damn proud of it). Still, when I stated earlier that Prince, The Purple One himself, has given us throughout his career some of the great musical touchstones, I wasn’t just blowin’ smoke. As follows, the pudding proffers the proof:

1. “Little Red Corvette” (from 1999) — looking back at this 1983 classic — his first top 10 hit — all the signs that Prince was revving up to become that decade’s most prolific superstar were there on full display. I dare you to name me another artist whose raw, unfettered ambition was ever this close — close enough to taste — to his or her music’s surface.

2. “When Doves Cry” (from Purple Rain) — and then came the track that slammed into the music world (and, hell, the world period) with the hyper force of a hydrogen bomb. Even in a blissfully unkempt, uncensored music year which saw its men dressing up like women (“lovin’ would be easy / if your colors were like my dreams,” indeed) and its women dressing up like clown college castouts (“oh Daddy dear / you know you’re still number one,” no doubt), Prince managed to make 1984’s biggest splash simply by being himself. A masterpiece, ever.

3. “U Got the Look” (featuring the vastly underrated Sheena Easton) (from Sign o’ the Times) — years before the ridiculous Marilyn Manson made a complete mockery of the form, guess who took that guitar-driven industrial sound and totally made it his own? One of the savviest, funkiest jams ever put to record.

4. “Alphabet St.” (from The Very Best of Prince) — isn’t it silly how, despite the fact that this track was a huge hit in the spring of 1988, hardly anyone remembers it nowadays? Mind-blowing, from start to finish.

5. “Diamonds and Pearls” (from Diamonds and Pearls) — true enough, Rosie Gaines’ gut-busting solo in the middle totally makes this song worthwhile (“dee / to the eye / to the ay / to the emm,” and don’t even play like you were above singing that back in the day!); what’s truly amazing here is, this is quite possibly Prince’s only conventional love song.

6. “The Morning Papers” (from The Love Symbol Album) — alongside the dopey-yet-marvelous “7,” this was one of the precious few highlights from that unfortunate stretch of years when Prince went apeshit nuts and changed his name to that bizarro symbol.