Brandon’s Tips: March 2008

Blame the rodeo and its overwhelmingly ridiculous consumption of my time for the brief delay in Brandon’s Tips. (I barely had time to do my music shopping this month, much less wax ramblingly eloquent about it!) Nevertheless, I and my words are back and more than ready to train our discerning eyes on March and its packed release slate.

Hey, A, I’ve only been gone a month. The Black Crowes, on the other hand, have been dormant for better than seven years. (Puts it all in perspective, darling, yes?) To be fair, lead singer Chris Robinson has released a couple of shaky solo projects in the interim, but the band as a whole has been out of sight since 2001’s dark-hued Lions got swallowed whole in the post-9/11 shuffle. Their new album is called Warpaint, and while I haven’t had a chance to spend any time with it, I’ve long been a Robinson fan. True enough, he and his band have been dining out on the momentum created their debut smashes “Hard to Handle” (as unlikely — not to mention as oddly effective — an Otis Redding cover as when Michael Bolton took on “Dock of the Bay” just after his commercial breakthrough ) and “She Talks to Angels” (now and forever, one of rock radio’s great vocal triumphs) for most of two decades now. Big deal, that. Viable careers have been sustained on the fumes of farless. (“Wonderwall,” anyone? Anyone?)

An even longer hiatus has been enjoyed by those eternal fools, the B-52’s. Save for their appearance in 1994’s Flinstones film (not to mention their wacky rendition of the classic theme song) and the pair of new tracks they recorded for their 1998 hits collection, they’ve scarcely been heard from since “Love Shack” and “Roam” broke through big time in 1990. Yet, on Funplex, the band’s first full-length studio album in sixteen years, Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider still sound as timeless as ever. Go figure.

If you’ve happened across that ultra-bizarro techno cover of Rascal Flatts’ “What Hurts the Most” during a drive-time radio scan, you well know that those Eurotrashy dance whores Cascada are back on the prowl. Best known for their monster 2006 hit “Everytime We Touch” (which — and I swear I’m not making this up! — is one of A’s favorite songs, which I know because I helped him identify it the night he called me from the gym all breathless and enraptured by that brainless tripe!), they’re up with Perfect Day, yet another album chockablock with more club fodder whose twelve tracks are nearly indistinguishable from each other. (I’ll blatantly steal a sentiment from Rolling Stone’s brilliant Rob Sheffield, who once opined about Sade’s albums, “The songs change titles every three or four minutes, but no one thought to alert the drummer.” All I can add to that is, if you, like myself, had utterly no conception that Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply” could be refashioned into a thumpa-thumpa dancefloor staple with the lowest-rent four-on-the-floor beat this side of Haddaway, just wait ’til you hear how Natalie Horler and her band of fools demolish “Because the Night,” which is literally so revolting you’ll need a epsom salt bath afterward. Patti Smith and Natalie Merchant really oughta sue.)

Now that Rod Stewart has evidently been barred for life from singing original compositions, it seems as though the legendary Michael McDonald has chosen to grab an oar and join his British compadre in that same boat. Five years ago, McDonald saved his floundering career with his covers record Motown, which, with its terrific remakes of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Reflections” and a dozen other ’60s-era tunes pitched through McDonald’s inimitable timbre, became a surprise smash. Predictably enough, Motown Two followed a year later, and this month brings us Soul Speak, a third collection of classics. This latest project branches out a bit from the previous efforts’ narrow focus on Detroit soul; startlingly bold covers of Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” punctuate the set. Laugh if you must, but don’t be afraid to check this out. You might be surprised.

After bravely stepping way outside the box eighteen months ago with Like Red on a Rose, a stunningly intimate and impossibly sexy collaboration with Alison Krauss, Alan Jackson is back to producing straight-ahead, middle-of-the-road crunchy music with his latest, Good Time. Feh.

Another musically-inclined Jackson — this one no relation to Alan or to any of the Five — has seen a long-held dream finally come to fruition. Randy Jackson‘s Music Club, Vol. 1 finds the “American Idol” judge drafting a wide variety of performers to create a multi-genre musical melange in the vein of Quincy Jones’ famous compilations like Back on the Block and Q’s Jook Joint. Led by the set’s first single, Paula Abdul’s undeniably fun “Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow,” Music Club includes contributions from Joss Stone, Mariah Carey, Richie Sambora, Anthony Hamilton, the gorgeous Jon McLaughlin (in a duet with Van Hunt and Jason Mraz), and countless others. It’s all light as a feather, to be sure, but the effect — a pinch of pop, a dash of gospel, a kernel o’ country — is dazzling. (Also, the Wal-Mart version contains two bonus tracks: Brian McKnight’s take on “When I Fall in Love” and those irresistible tween sensations Aly and AJ, with a you-just-gotta-hear-it take on “We’re an American Band.”)

We’ve already discussed at length my profound dislike for this alarming new trend of releasing “deluxe editions” of relatively new albums in blatant attempts to dupe fans into buying the records twice. A pair of year-old records has just gotten the expanded treatment, and while one of them is a worthwhile and ambitious excursion, the other is just pure untethered greed in motion. The former effort belongs to The Bravery, whose sophomore release from last June has now been rechristened as The Sun and the Moon Complete, a two-disc set which features the original record as well as a second disc containing radically different uptempo arrangements of the original’s twelve tracks, the idea now being that you’ll have a double album with a Sun side (for playing in the light of day) and a Moon side (for all your nighttime endeavors).

As for the latter, I find it appalling that Sara Bareilles‘ lightweight debut album Little Voice is already getting the deluxe treatment mere weeks after reaching critical mass with the record-buying public. Sherry Ann forced me to buy this CD last summer when we ran across it in our favorite record shop, and while I didn’t hate it, neither did I love it. She’s obviously aiming at being the next Sheryl Crow, but she comes across as the second coming of Martika, and I absolutely refuse to purchase her album in its new expanded form, which now includes a live cd containing, among other things, a weak-kneed cover of Peter Gabriel’s classic “In Your Eyes” (which I snatched off iTunes). I’m already over her.

Another newcomer with whom I’m quickly losing patience is Kathleen Edwards, whose 2003 debut, the folk-tinged masterpiece Failer, was such a stunner we were all lining up to proclaim her the new Patty Griffin. Heady praise, indeed, and apparently way too much to live up to: her 2005 follow-up Back to Me was a crushing disappointment, lacking even the slightest hint of the tragic sass that made Edwards’ debut so unforgettable. She’s up again with her third effort, Asking for Flowers, and incomprehensibly, it’s even more bland and staid than anything that has preceded it. (Play Flowers alongside Tift Merritt’s sterling new album Another Country — a nonstop knockout, know it — and you really get a sense of how far in the wrong damn direction Edwards has traveled.)

Quick takes: If you’re intrigued by those new MacBook Air commercials that are running in an incessant loop on every damn television channel, and you’re wondering what the song is playing behind them, it’s “New Soul,” and it can be found on Israeli performer Yael Naim‘s debut disc — seems like just yesterday she was screaming “I hate you / so much right now!” in the chorus of her crazy first single (2000’s blistering “Caught Out There”), and all of a sudden, Kelis has apparently amassed enough hits to warrant her own best-of set (called, conveniently, The Hits). Fear not, “Milkshake” is front and center (to this day, I can be caught saying,“Damn right / it’s better than yours,” with an evil, knowing giggle) — following up 2006’s surprisingly successful Volume 1, the legendary Jackson Browne is back with Solo Acoustic, Volume 2, which features a stripped-down take on “The Night Inside Me” (my favorite among his more recent work) and a strangely haunting take on his classic “Somebody’s Baby” — Fleetwood Mac’s north star Lindsay Buckingham is up with Live at the Bass Performance Hall, documenting a 2007 Fort Worth concert in which he delved into both his solo work and his band’s classics; look out for a terrific reading of Rumours’ “Second Hand News” early in the disc.

A trio of new compilations is absolutely worth your dollars and sense. One of them, a soundtrack for NBC’s fantasy smash Heroes, is available online at all the major ports, but is exclusive to Best Buy in physical form. But don’t let that turn you away: new tuneage from Wilco, Death Cab for Cutie, The Jesus and Mary Chain (offering the sparkling “All Things Must Pass,” their first original recording in o’er a decade), and Panic at the Disco (who themselves this week follow up their platinum smash A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out with a new album, Pretty. Odd.) is well worth a trip to your favorite big box store.

Also up for grabs: those cheeky fools at Razor and Tie Records (the CD generation’s K-tel, yeah?) have assembled for us another crackerjack mixtape of modern rock classics. Entitled Buzz Cuts, it’s a ridiculously enjoyable compendium of songs from the likes of Stone Temple Pilots (2001’s “Sour Girl,” the hands-down best track Weiland and the boys ever wrote, “Plush” and its fans be damned), Hole (“Celebrity Skin,” a 1998 cut that was so propulsively brilliant it almost singlehandedly brought back grunge), the terrific Switchfoot (“Meant to Live,” their livid 2002 debut), Bush (2000’s “The Chemicals Between Us,” Gavin Rossdale’s last-gasp stab at reclaiming his band’s Sixteen Stoned glory), and fourteen others. There’s not a single song on this album that you shouldn’t already own, but seeing them all together in this particular configuration is too tempting to pass by. Or up.

A hundred times ditto for Now That’s What I Call the ’80s, most seriously one of the finest single-disc representations of the best decade popular music has ever seen. (I can say that with utmost authority, too, because I own umpteen hundred of these ’80s anthologies.) The latest offering from the inexhaustible Now series (which has produced compilations for Christmas music, dance tunes, and classic country, in addition to its mega-selling current hits sets) pulls together twenty cuts from the Me Decade, beginning with Michael Jackson’s still-haunting “Billie Jean” (and I’m almost certain this is the first time I’ve ever seen a Jackson song on one of these collections) and ending with Bonnie Tyler’s extraordinary “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (which the cloying Carly butchered on American Idol two nights ago). In between those two tentpoles lay a spectacular mix of both typical choices (The Police’s evergreen chestnut “Urry Breath You Take,” Cyndi Lauper’s monster breakthrough “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” and Duran Duran’s ageless “Hungry Like the Wolf”) and often-overlooked gems (Bob Seger’s last major hit “Shakedown,” Herbie Hancock’s bizarro “Rockit” — one of the earliest examples of MTV exposure creating a left-field radio hit — and Heart’s “What About Love?”) which work in perfect concert to present you with one stunning hell of a profoundly nostalgic listening experience. Don’t for a second think I’m exaggerating: right around Jacko’s third repetition of “who will dance / on the floor / in the round,” you realize you’re already lolling around in hog-ass heaven; seventy-some minutes later, as Miss Bonnie’s final, desperate roar (“forever’s / gonna start tonight!”) washes over your shuddering, battered body like a cleansing summer rain, you feel as though this album has just wrenched from your loins a soul-searing, mind-melting orgasm. (And that’s with “Total Eclipse’s” atrocious four minute radio edit, no less!) Believe it: Now ’80s is good enough for a post-listen cigarette.

(Speaking of the Now series, hits installment number 27 has also just been released, and while it contains a fair amount of disposable filler — for the love of Jesus, Taylor Swift, will you kindly go away? — it’s also a great way to catch up on some recent pearls — Alicia Keys’ thoroughly winning “No One” and OneRepublic’s pulse-pounding megasmash “Apologize,” to name but two — that may have gotten past you. Rectify it, folks!)

You may be thinking Now ’80s is this tipsheet’s marquee release (and incidentally, you may be dead on), but if any record released this month is going to trump it, you’ve gotta believe it’s Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, the fifth studio album from one of music’s most consistent bands, the marvelous Counting Crows, whom we just discussed a few weeks back to mark the re-release of August and Everything After, their momentous 1993 debut. Fifteen years later, Adam Duritz and his pals are still kicking ass and taking names; as its title indicates, the record is divided into two distinct halves, with six rollicking, percussive slices of pure debauchery, followed by eight pensive depictions of the morning after. I’m only on my second listen (in fact, the record is playing as I write these very words) and am not ready to deliver a definitive verdict, but I can say this: with five attempts over the past decade and a half, this band has yet to turn out a bad or even disappointing record. (Not even my forever queen Tori Amos can stake that claim!) They may not be the coolest kids in class, but they are damn fine musicians.

And since it’s playlist time, let’s take that opinion out on a test drive, shall we? Weeks ago, to celebrate and support the aforementioned re-release of August (which I’ll die insisting is one of the all-time great records), I cherry-picked five of that album’s standout tracks (which was strikingly akin to deciding which five of my ten toes I like best) and proudly presented them to A, completely confident that he would be as enraptured with these songs as I was lo those many years ago.

Well, that’s how it should have happened. I’ll let A himself tell you what did happen, via his email response to said tipsheet:

I found them a bit, oh what’s the right word, whiny?

(Especially in “Rain King” and “Sullivan Street.”) I don’t mindlyrical, ballad-like songs

at all, but these weren’t nearly as melodic as I usually like.

I’m thinking of a word. The word is dumbfounded.

1. “Mr. Jones” — Counting Crows (from August and Everything After) — Whiny, I’ll grudgingly accept. I’ll even take self-important and slightly pretentious. (I say a dab of healthy pretension never hurt anybody not named Gwyneth.) But I categorically and angrily reject calling this divine thunderbolt-of-a-song non-melodic.

2. “Angels of the Silences” — Counting Crows (from Recovering the Satellites) — their second album’s hard-driving lead single, which hilariously threw fans totally off balance and forcefully answered all the short-sighted snobs who instantly wrote Duritz off as a half-baked Dylan wannabe.

3. “Another Horsedreamer’s Blues” — Counting Crows (from Recovering the Satellites) — based on an obscure Sam Shepard play, a stunning, soulful story song about all the ways a person’s talent can be per- and subverted.

4. “Mr. Jones” — Counting Crows (from August and Everything After) — my God, Radiohead is non-melodic. Frickin’ Coldplay is non-melodic. This song is densely packed with so much damn melody that Gin Blossoms, Sister Hazel, Third Eye Blind, Smash Mouth, and three dozen other misbegotten bands spent the rest of the ’90s foolishly and futilely trying to recreate it.

5. “Hanginaround” — Counting Crows (from This Desert Life) — from the tail end of the millennium, an invigorating blast of pure pop — and dare I say melodic? — fun from a group of guys who must have needed to have some.

6. “Colorblind” — Counting Crows (from This Desert Life) — so, you don’t mind lyrical, ballad-like songs at all? Try this one — a gorgeous, dramatic marvel from the Cruel Intentions soundtrack — on for size.

7. “Mr. Jones [from VH1 Storytellers]” — Counting Crows (from Across a Wire: Live in New York) — perhaps you have to be intimately familiar with both the song itself and with Duritz’s story to truly appreciate this chilling reinvention. Or perhaps A will again knock me for a loop and love it straightaway.

8. “She Don’t Want Nobody Near” — Counting Crows (from Films About Ghosts: The Best of Counting Crows) — again, Duritz’s great talent is that he can make a song sound so fun and yet feel so sad simultaneously.

9. “Mr. Jones” — Counting Crows (from August and Everything After) — A, honey, if you don’t buy this song, you’re never allowed to sleep with me again. Ever.

Let’s head back to the ’80s for this week’s second playlist, wherein we’ll dig deeper into said decade and its peerless charms. The brazen ingenuity of the aforementioned Now ’80s compilation is beyond dispute, but no matter how brilliantly enjoyable, a twenty-song grab bag is hardly an adequate measure of what will most likely forever stand as the greatest ten-year period popular music shall ever witness. Which is not to say that the following ten songs substantially extend that scope; neither, however, would any of these tracks be out of place on the inevitable Volume 2.

1. 1980: “Brass in Pocket (I’m Special)” — The Pretenders (from The Singles) — the song that hammered the final nail in disco’s coffin and made the inimitable Chrissie Hynde an instant legend.

2. 1981: “Keep On Loving You” — REO Speedwagon (from The Essential REO Speedwagon) — when I decided to limit myself to one track per year, I had no idea that this would be the toughest year from which to snatch only one great song, but that’s how it worked out. Sherry Ann is no doubt gonna ask me how, from a twelve-month period that gave us both “Bette Davis Eyes” (my Kim Carnes impression still kills, whenever I whip it out) and “The Tide is High” (Debbie Harry, we hardly knew ye), I could elect as ’81’s ambassador this seemingly lightweight trifle. But wipe away your prejudices and listen closer, listen as Kevin Cronin’s commanding vocal practically invents the phrase “power ballad.”

3. 1982: “Gloria” — Laura Branigan (from The Best of Branigan) — Branigan (who died of brain cancer in 2004) is truly one of the all-time great performers, and it’s a cryin’ damn shame that — commercially, at least — the remainder of her too-short career never lived up to the glorious promise and potential on full display in her thrilling debut smash.

4. 1983: “Africa” — Toto (from The Essential Toto) — how educational was Pop-Up Video back in the day? That’s where I learned that literally no one in the whole damn band knew what the hell this song — as goofy a classic as you’ll ever love — was about.

5. 1984: “Caribbean Queen (No More Love on the Run)” — Billy Ocean (from Greatest Hits) — someday soon, we’ll have to devote an entire tipsheet to 1984, which I have long insisted is (and may well always be) the greatest year in popular music history, and my thesis supporting that has always been, it was the one year in which all the styles, all the trends, all the genres collided into one big majestic mosaic, in which to survive, all you had to do was be really, really good. It was the one year in which Prince could stand alongside Dolly Parton could stand alongside Boy George could stand alongside Huey Lewis and the News could stand alongside Van Halen could stand alongside Cyndi Lauper could stand alongside Duran Duran on the pop charts. It was the one year in which everybody was welcome (which doesn’t actually nail it as poignantly and as accurately as, nobody (good) was unwelcome). It was the one year where every rule about what makes a successful pop star got hurled out the window, the deck got irrevocably shuffled, and nobody emerged unscathed. It may have seemed like chaos from the outside — UK duo fronted by a proudly androgynous female? Check. British band fronted by an effeminate man so gorgeous he put all of that year’s women to shame? Check. Black man from Trinidad equipped with both Stevie Wonder’s talent and Barry White’s innate soul? Check. — but ’84’s barest truth was unqualified, unparalleled serenity.

6. 1985: “Crazy For You” — Madonna (from Something to Remember) — would you think me nuts if I admitted that, by a mile, I always thought this was the Material Girl’s very best song?

7. 1986: “West End Girls” — Pet Shop Boys (from Discography) — “who, when, why, what / how much have you got?” If you need more empirical proof that the ’80s have the ’90s beat ten ways from go, consider this: the former gave us these defiantly brilliant men, and the latter gave us Right Said Fred.

8. 1987: “(I Just) Died in Your Arms” — Cutting Crew (from Broadcast) — I dare you to claim you can’t feel Nick Van Eede’s warm, shallow breath trembling across the nape of your neck. The hottest one night stand track of this (and most likely any other) decade.

9. 1988: “Wishing Well” — Terence Trent D’arby (from Do You Love Me Like You Say?) — true enough, we ran him off before the year was even half over (after he landed himself on the cover of Rolling Stone with the hysterically brash claims that he was, in actual fact, the greatest musician alive). Prince, Michael Jackson, Bono, George Michael, and Sting promptly laughed him off the charts, and Bobby McFerrin, Michael Damian, and the Bangles barred the door to ensure that the dreadlocked doofus couldn’t get back in.

10. 1989: “The Look” — Roxette (from Look Sharp!) — funny, yes, how Per and Marie deftly managed with their riveting debut to foreshadow what was coming down the pike — pop and rock, in a fight to the death, four minutes at a time — as a new decade loomed?