Brandon’s Tips: June 19, 2007

The theme of this week’s Brandon’s Tips is “guilty pleasures,” and as would perfectly befit such a sprawling topic, I’m watching episodes from the third season of one of my favorite-ever television series, the all-time camp classic “Walker, Texas Ranger” (the long-awaited arrival of which on DVD has me positively drunk with joy) as I write this. There just flat aren’t words to describe the giddy sensations that pulse through me, the happiness that fills my heart, when the marvelous Chuck Norris gets good and pissed off and just goes to beating the shit out of people by any means available and/or necessary. (The absolute best were the later years, when the luscious Nia Peeples — forever a resident of my heart after her stint as host of the sadly-short-lived American version of “Top of the Pops” in the fall of 1987 —- joined the cast and proved that she, too, was neither afraid nor incapable of kicking some ass. Literally, watching her waylay drug lords and terrorists with nothing more than a perfectly-rendered bodyslam was like dying and waking up in gay heaven.) Our local UPN affiliate used to air reruns on Sunday nights, and it was a perfect way to unwind after a long day at work. Alas, those days are gone, but now thanks to these nifty box seven-disc box sets, I can relive the magic anytime I choose.

Guilty pleasures abound in this week’s music releases as well, starting with the latest entry from the and now for something completely different… file: one of the truly underappreciated contemporary soul divas is Deborah Cox, and — hot on the heels of a glowing, fun tribute to Ella Fitzgerald — she’s out this week with Destination Moon, a loving salute to the music of Dinah Washington. If that feels at first glance like an uneasy fit, don’t fail to recall that, prior to being remolded as this generation’s Donna Summer after Hex Hector’s massively successful 1998 remix of her hit “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” became one of the most played club tracks in history, Cox was quite the R&B singer. Check out the growl in her sultry voice on her 1996 breakthrough “Who Do U Love” and/or her 1999 smash “It’s Over Now” to erase any doubt that she’s got the chops (and the balls, natch) required to get this right. I for one can’t wait to hear the result. (It’s on sale for $9.99 this week at Circuit City, and their version contains an extra track.)

June’s Find ‘Em First campaign is in full swing at Best Buy this week, and among the discs you can pick up for $7.99 is Fables From a Mayfly: What I Tell You Three Times is True, the debut album from a Dallas band called Fair to Midland. The only thing I know about this band is they have the coolest name in the history of music (or do you have to be a Panhandle kid to truly appreciate that?), but at under eight bucks, you must know you have nothing to lose in giving this one a shot. (My standard Starbucks order — tall vanilla crème steamer with a slice of marble pound cake — costs more than that!) Also in that campaign: the breakthrough release from Mat Kearney, Nothing Left to Lose, which VH-1 has been plugging relentlessly for months and months. (It’s not a great album, but there are some decent songs here; I’m kinda partial to “Can’t Break Her Fall” as well as the title track.) And you could definitely do worse than offer a few moments of your time to Straylight Run, who are back this week with the eclectic, slightly emo-ish The Needles The Space. (An unexpected bonus: the Best Buy edition of either of the last two discs contains bonus material, which is akin to finding Hershey’s Kisses and Skittles and Yellow Peeps in your Easter basket, agreed?)

A pair of artists for whom I’ve scarcely had a hell of a lot of use are back this week with new efforts, and they each figure to stay as annoying as they ever were. A serious question: do singers get more irritating than that simpy doofus Brad Paisley? I’ve been sitting here trying to name one song from his eight-year career that I can even slightly abide, and the only title I’m coming up with is “Whiskey Lullaby,” his undeniably powerful 2004 duet with the invaluable Alison Krauss (whose mere presence has brightened more duds than you can shake three sticks at, believe it). Since that time, each of his albums has featured a similar such sappy collaboration (the last one was with Dolly Parton), and his new one, 5th Gear, finds current phenom Carrie Underwood lending her formidable talents to the waaaaay-beneath-her tune “Oh Love.” Do yourself a favor and skip all of this.

And speaking of irritating beyond the rational, here come The White Stripes with another stab at stardom, their bizarrely-titled new record Icky Thump. For reasons that still aren’t completely clear, I loved their 2002 breakthrough single “Hotel Yorba,” but I don’t kid when I say that everything they’ve released since then (even their trippy, almost-cool cover of Tegan and Sara’s “Walking With a Ghost”) has flown right past me. I’m totally on board with Jack White as a producer (witness Van Lear Rose, the triumphantly sparse miracle he crafted with Loretta Lynn a few years back), but not so much as a vocalist. This is totally one of those instances where the critics are falling over themselves hunting for superlatives, and I’m sitting in the back of the room going, “Whaaaaa?”

Those same snobby critics rarely ever hurl those same raves upon Jason Wade and Lifehouse, who suffer from being ridiculously photogenic (as well as having the canniest knack of writing and performing songs — see: the incredible “Breathing,” if you need a jumping-off point — that you can totally get laid to), and who return this week with their fourth record, Who We Are. Though I haven’t yet listened to the entire album, I’ve heard enough to know that while it’s not as good or sonically interesting as their sophomore record, 2002’s sharp, intense Stanley Climbfall, it’s leagues ahead of their last outing (which contained the monster smash “You and Me” followed by an unforgivable amount of forgettable filler). The leadoff single “First Time” is instantly catchy (and I’m at a loss to explain radio’s thus-far chilly reception, especially considering how much unbridled love they’ve previously shown to Wade’s dreamy voice, to say nothing of the bracing renaissance this brand of rock music is enjoying across the dial, due to the continuing success of Nickelback and the runaway megahit debut album from Daughtry), and let’s convene again in three months to see if “Broken” ended up being the love song of summer ’07. ‘Cause that’s the view from this aisle seat.

Of course, it may have a touch of competition in the unlikely form of Bon Jovi, who arrive this week brandishing the most buzzed-about album of the past few months, Lost Highway. Why is everyone suddenly talking about these proud Jersey boys again, a full two decades after they hit huge? Thank Highway’s spectacular first single, “(You Want to) Make a Memory,” from which springs a career-best vocal from Jon Bon Jovi, and around which quite a stir was created when, in the wake of the band’s hilariously flukish smash duet with Sugarland’s splendid Jennifer Nettles last year, Mercury decided to work the song at country radio instead of traditional top 40. I’m telling you, I’ve read more “Bon Jovi goes country” articles in the past two weeks than I have fingers and toes to count — A even sent me one from the Los Angeles Times! — so imagine my surprise when I popped in Lost Highway and heard… wait for it… yep… a regular ol’ Bon Jovi record. This new album is many things — and good stands chief among them — but country ain’t one of ’em. Straight up, you could play this CD in a shuffle with Slippery When Wet and have serious trouble identifying which song belongs to which decade. Even the obligatory duet with LeAnn Rimes, “‘Til We Ain’t Strangers Anymore,” is as blatant a pop ballad as you’ll hear all summer!

And that brings us to this week’s marquee attraction, and having already listened to it three full times (it is Thursday, after all), I can tell you with breathless sincerity that it more than lives up to that billing. You’re gonna laugh when I tell you this, I can feel it, but — and remember that this week’s tipsheet is focused on guilty pleasures for a reason — the brave, brilliant Mandy Moore has written and performed what may well stand as my favorite record of the summer (if not the year), the sparkling Wild Hope. If all you know of Moore the musician is her asinine stint as the squeaky-clean princess of teen pop (and her atrocious signature song from that era, “Candy”), trust me when I break it to you: you know nothing. After a three-album run of completely bland, disposable music (highlighted only by that great song from the film Center Stage, “I Wanna Be With You”), she got her foot in the door with her contributions (particularly her duet with Switchfoot’s Jonathan Foreman on the old New Radicals classic “Someday We’ll Know”) to the 2002 soundtrack for A Walk to Remember , and she blew the damn thing off its hinges eighteen months later with the remarkably ambitious Coverage, a collection of classic songs — from no less imposing talents than Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Joe Jackson, Debbie Harry, need I go on? — that were almost all written and established classics before she was even born. Listening to Coverage, it’s quite clear that she was too naïve to be frightened, a fact that totally works in her favor: her take on Carly Simon’s “Anticipation” is almost as enjoyable as the original (is it sacrilege to even think that?); her version of “Moonshadow” far surpasses Cat Stevens’ wimpy original; and her flawlessly hysterical riff on Joan Armatrading’s “Drop the Pilot” — again, almost certainly the coolest song ever written about trying to persuade someone to turn lesbian — is a milestone in musical interpretation. This single album catapulted Moore onto my list of favorite artists, although I had serious fears that she wouldn’t be able to duplicate with original material what she managed to pull off with the classics.

Those fears quickly vanished three songs into Wild Hope, the songs for which Moore co-wrote with a few handpicked peeps whose names — The Weepies, Rachael Yamagata, Lori McKenna (who also gave Faith Hill’s last album its hands-down best material), and A’s new girlfriend Chantal Kreviazuk — you either do know or should. It’s a sensational record, flowing with fun, folky vibe and chock full of gleaming, easy hooks — check out track 7, “Looking Forward to Looking Back,” if you need convincin’ — that are perfectly matched to Moore’s strengthening, marinated-in-honey timbre. Target has this on sale for $11.99, and you need to buy this record there, because their version has two bonus tracks, and one of them, “Could Have Been Watching You,” is my favorite song on the whole record. Remember who told ya: if you let this one pass you by, you’re just being needlessly foolish.

And that brings us to this week’s playlist, but before we get there, I’m pleased to report that after the disastrous grunge outing of two weeks ago (with which A’s complete failure to connect continues to sting), last week’s Lilith-pimped playlist was an enormous success: A hit the iTunes store and walked away with three — the ones by Billie Myers, Suzanne Vega, and Cyndi Lauper, in case you’re curious — of those six songs. That may not sound like much, but that boy hasn’t willingly purchased three songs in rapid-fire succession… umm, ever. (You’re quite seriously more likely to watch my pal Christianne attack a big ol’ ketchup-slathered T-bone.) So do you know how thrilled I am to be carrying a five hundred batting average into this week’s list? Some might wilt under the massive pressure, but I feel nothing short of emboldened — dare I say that I’m tingling? — by this invigorating burst of music-centric momentum.

We’re talking up guilty pleasures this week, so I’m more than pleased to present you with a handful of my own, though, as a general caveat, I don’t particularly enjoy or respect affixing the term “guilty pleasure” to anything music-related. One likes what one likes, and in an increasingly morbid climate in which the music bidness seems to be irrevocably dying on the vine, it seems ultimately pointless to feel, of all things, guilty about any music that offers you even the slightest pleasure. (Yes, A, the Black Eyed Peas are most defiantly and permanently grandfathered out of that caveat, and so are Gnarls Barkley.) At any rate, even though I fully understand that I’m among friends in this forum, I’d most likely make sure to know who was in earshot before I admitted to loving what follows.

1. “So Yesterday” — Hilary Duff (from Metamorphosis) — if you had told me back in the day that the little girl who played television’s Lizzie McGuire would end up being one of the decade’s most enduring, endearing pop stars, or that her very first single would have been a soaring, masterful blast, I’d have bust a gut. Say what you need to, but it’s true: we’ll still think this is cool when we’re eighty. Least, I will.

2. “Every Other Time” — LFO (from Life is Good) — how gratifying to discover that what worked in the ’60s — a refrain that consists of nothing more than “na na na na na” — still works in present times.

3. “I Think We’re Alone Now” — Tiffany (from Tiffany) — with nothing more than the simplest (yet grooviest) fake drum beat an ’80s synthesizer ever created, and the goofiest in-song hand claps this side of Billy Idol, this girl threatened for about half a minute to become bigger than Madonna. I submit to you all that if Britney had been given material this undyingly cool, she wouldn’t have ended up going apeshit crazy and shaving her head to the scalp.

4. “Runaway Run” — Hanson (from This Time Around) — we’ll go much more in depth about these boys next month, when they release their fourth studio album The Walk. Just bear in mind as you listen to this driving stunner that these young men write, sing, play, produce, mix, and release every note of their music themselves.

5. “Jungle Love” — The Time (from Ice Cream Castle) — one of the enduring classic musical souvenirs from that magical period in music history when Prince had the Midas touch (and the run of the industry, natch). Morris Day’s adventurous, kinky vocal performance, and Jesse Johnson’s left-field guitar solo, make for a touchstone in ’80s funk.