Brandon’s Tips: June 12, 2007

A big week on tap, kids: two of my favorite people ever are releasing new projects this week, and though I recently got my heart broken by my beloved Tori Amos and her bizarro doll posse, for which I held gargantuan expectations, I still see no reason to believe that either of these new records won’t be genuine album of the year material. At the very least, they’re going to lead to what will almost certainly be the best-yet iTunes playlist (for which I sat down at work this morning and scrawled out a design over a bowl of Rice Krispies, when I should have been performing more relevant tasks).

But first, a little housekeeping:

— A has been bien triste that his name hasn’t been mentioned in the last few tipsheets, so to remedy that, a story: I was actually quite proud of last week’s playlist, but alas, with him, it hit a brick wall (to my credit, it was first of the six playlists from which he found nothing that struck him, so I’m quite proud of that, too, but still). As I gently reminded him in a weekend email, he has this instant (and defiantly maddening) predisposition to reject any song which prominently features an electric guitar (hence, the inclusion of the acoustic version of “Plush,” which I had hoped he would latch onto as a drowning man would a liferaft). Even without firsthand knowledge of the subtext and backstory behind a few of those songs (in the way that he has utterly no clue what Nirvana’s version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sounds like, and in the way he could almost certainly never pick Kurt Cobain out of a lineup, he truly is like a fresh lump of soft, moist clay waiting to be molded into perfection, and I say that in the most loving way humanly possible) to give him proper perspective, each of those six tracks taken individually are terrific songs, and my high hopes for a breakthrough here were eminently dashed. (I haven’t spoken to him in the last few days, so I’m not sure which one he decided to buy; however, he did tell me in his email, and I quote directly, “if I had to get one with a gun put to my head, I’d go with ‘Hunger Strike.'” So while I’m saddened that it would indeed take the threat of bodily harm, I’m heartened that at least he would have the sense to pick the right song; after the Lisa Stansfield debacle of several weeks back, that’s progress on any yardstick.)

— isn’t it hilarious and divinely just that, for the last four weeks, the most-played track at top 40 radio has been Pink’s deliciously electrifying “U + Ur Hand”? Didn’t I write in last fall’s mixtape that “Hand” was the one of the most obvious smash hits I’ve ever heard, and wasn’t LaFace stupidly insisting at the time that they had no plans to release it as a single? Heavily edited though it is, it’s still a genuine thrill when that I that song pops up during drive time, and its triumphant success must stand as further proof that if I were listened to more often, this world would be an infinitely brighter place to inhabit. With Pink, one of the great megastar mavericks of our generation, firmly back in the game, we’re already well on our way toward that very goal.

— A has been hounding me incessantly this week for my thoughts on the new Paul McCartney record, and here they are: thumbs way up. I dug almost every song except for (big surprise here) the single, the slightly whiny “Ever Present Past.” The album’s opener, a sensationally simple ditty called “Dance Tonight” (which totally shoulda been the track they took to radio), is a sure contender for summer’s best song. McCartney is obviously feeling more pensive as the years progress, but he’s still thankfully got the strong pop sensibilities to bookend the heavy stuff with lighter fare, something his last few aimless albums haven’t been able to claim. Without question, one of the year’s pleasant surprises.

As for this week’s releases, that blustery buffoon Toby Keith is back with a new record, Big Dog Daddy. Title says it all, yeah? (As bad as his favorite sparring partner Natalie Maines unfailingly irks me, he manages to drive me just a little more batshit, and that’s quite a feat.)

You’ll be on much steadier ground if you stick with Rhino Records this week, and their latest re-release is an all-out stunner: Collection, a two-disc set comprising the two stellar albums recorded by supergroup Traveling Wilburys at the end of the ’80s. If you’re not familiar with any of this music — the result of an on-a-whim collaboration between five guys whose last names (Harrison, Dylan, Orbison, Petty, and Lynne, natch) are responsible for roughly a jillion legendary songs between them — by all means, track this one down. You’ll not be sorry.

Also of interest this week: Instant Karma — The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur, a new Ono-approved two-disc collection of John Lennon covers by a handful of today’s best and brightest. I’m always dubious about these covers projects, especially when the songs involved are as famous and indelible as these (and this record contains two versions of “Imagine,” one by that hopeless Avril Lavigne and the other by Jack Johnson, whom my best friend Sherry has the most comically inexplicable crush on), but the talent involved here is undeniable: most of us watched Green Day tackle “Working Class Hero” to spectacular effect on “American Idol’s” bloated finale a few weeks back, and R.E.M.’s graceful cover of “#9 Dream” (featuring original drummer Bill Berry, to boot) has been available at iTunes since March. As for the rest of it, I can’t wait to hear what Snow Patrol does with “Isolation” (a very tough song to wrap even a nimble voice around), and if I can’t have Lennon’s tough, weary voice singing “Instant Karma!” to me, then I suppose Bono’s will do. Jackson Browne, Corinne Bailey Rae, and that unbearably goofy Regina Spektor also make appearances.

And that brings us to the week’s two tentpoles, from two artists we’ve seen far too little of since their breakthroughs exactly ten years ago. It was a decade ago this summer that Sarah McLachlan’s revolutionary Lilith Fair concert tour hit the music industry with the force of a hydrogen bomb, and it was the sumptuous, fearlessly brilliant voice of Paula Cole that lit the fuse. With her second record, the amazing This Fire, and its twin smashes “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” and “I Don’t Want to Wait,” she single-handedly ushered to the fore a literal cavalcade of previously-unheard female talent and hauled home a boatload of Grammys for her trouble. (True, Alanis did her share of laying the groundwork, as did the arrivals of Jewel and Fiona Apple in the fall of ’96, so don’t think I’m going all revisionist on you, people.) By the time she reappeared in 1999 with her follow-up record Amen, the uprising had long faded, and after its ridiculously outrageous failure to connect, so too did she. Cole reappeared last year with a sparkling best-of collection (which, incidentally, contained my pick for 2006’s best album track, a momentous six-minute story song called “Tomorrow I Will Be Yours”), and this week, she’s finally ready to try again with a new album, Courage. The first single, “14,” went up at iTunes a few weeks ago, and it’s certainly not as instantly memorable as “Cowboys” was back in the day, but her voice is stronger than ever, and I honestly can’t wait to hear what she’s been up to in her endless eight-year absence. (Better news: The Barnes and Noble version of Courage contains bonus material, which makes the question “Who’ll be stopping into his local bookseller tomorrow?” a fairly easy one to answer confidently.)

One of those aforementioned females whose dinghy got lifted by the Lilith tide was that endearingly wacky Austinite Abra Moore, who also struck gold with her second album, a fun, rockin’ masterwork called Strangest Places, in the summer of ’97. Led by the joyous “Four Leaf Clover” (easily one of its decade’s twenty best singles, and one of those tunes that never fails to put me in a good mood), Moore’s impossible-to-pigeonhole voice and sound — funny and then sultry and then angelic and then angry and then broken — seemed so certain to become massive that Clive Davis launched an entire offshoot of Arista Records called Arista/Austin to promote her and to foster more homegrown talent like her (hi, Robert Earl Keen and Sister 7). After several fruitless stabs at superstardom, she emerged seven years later emotionally battered but musically strong, with one of 2004’s stunning albums, the wrenching Everything Changed. And she continues on her path this week, with a new record called On the Way. This one’s an indie release and might be difficult to track down, but take it from me: this lady’s a genuine original, and you won’t regret the effort.

And that leads us excitedly to this week’s playlist, which I’ve been over-the-top excited about since I first discovered last month that two of my favorite women were releasing new records on the very same day. Those months in the wake of the advent of Lilith Fair ten years ago made up one of the most exciting times to be a music fan that I’ve ever experienced. (Straight up, the only times I’ve more enjoyed popular music as a whole were the entirety of 1984 — the heyday of Culture Club, Cyndi Lauper, and Wham! — and the spring of 1988 — with Faith and “Heaven is a Place on Earth” and the Dirty Dancing soundtrack laying everyone flat.) I just discovered that Strangest Places isn’t available on iTunes, which I find criminally outrageous, so if you’re wondering why “Four Leaf Clover” isn’t on the forthcoming playlist, let Steve Jobs himself know how inhumanely pissed you are at this oversight. (That’s the next letter I’ll be writing, trust.) However, there are plenty of other terrific estrogen-elevated tunes from the summer of ’97 to set our hearts aflutter anew, and I’m so thrilled to present you with a sampler of same:

1. “Kiss the Rain” — Billie Myers (from Growing, Pains) — this is gonna sound insane, but for the longest time, I honestly wasn’t sure if this was being sung by a man or a woman. The pulse-pounding intensity of the chorus’ back half — “keep in mind / we’re under the same sky / and the night’s as empty / for me as for you” — still grabs you by the throat. (Anybody else remember the boffo video for this song, with that impossibly gorgeous guy with the most pronounced cheekbones I’ve ever laid eyes on and abs that you could literally see through his (admittedly wet) dress shirt?)

2. “Green Apples” — Chantal Kreviazuk (from Under These Rocks and Stones) — wholly in spite of the fact that I actively promoted her throughout the entire eighteen months we dated, A has suddenly become enchanted by Ms. Kreviazuk. With that in mind, I now direct his attention to her sterling debut record, and to one of its centerpieces. One of the coolest love songs I’ve ever heard; toward the end, when she gently begs, “Introduce me / to the place you are from,” I literally get all warm and fuzzy inside. And I’m gay!

3. “Surrounded” — Chantal Kreviazuk (from Under These Rocks and Stones) — focused though it is on the aftermath of her best friend’s suicide, this incredibly moving piece of music becomes cathartic and even uplifting by the final verse.

4. “Ballad of Cleo and Joe” — Cyndi Lauper (from Sisters of Avalon) — I speak with serene surety when I tell you this is easily the coolest song about a working stiff by day, drag queen by night ever written

5. “Got ’til It’s Gone” — Janet Jackson featuring Q-Tip and Joni Mitchell (from The Velvet Rope) — yeah, it’s cheating a little bit, since this really didn’t have much to do with the Lilith revolution. This shimmering, splendid track — built brilliantly around a piece of Mitchell’s classic “Big Yellow Taxi,” and easily the best four minutes of music Jackson’s ever been responisble for — blended right in anyhow.

6. “Caramel” — Suzanne Vega (from Nine Objects of Desire) — also one of the standout selections on the marvelous soundtrack for The Truth About Cats and Dogs, Entertainment Weekly proclaimed that this killer song was sexy enough to persuade Pat Robertson to commit adultery. Works for me.