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The Singles 1992 – 2003

Posted : 8 years, 10 months ago on 24 November 2009 07:39 (A review of The Singles 1992-2003)

Even more so than Rock Steady, The Singles 1992 – 2003 proves that No Doubt are my generation’s version of and answer to Blondie’s legacy. They’ve got the same downtown glamour (this time it’s California instead of New York), genre-hopping skills, and songwriting muscle. At times they even resemble the Police or English Beat, some of the greatest New Wave groups to ever come along.

I would have preferred for the song selection to have been in chronological order, which would have highlighted the band’s development and muscular growth over the years, and for the inclusion of the rest of the singles from No Doubt and any of the singles from The Beacon Street Collection, but what is here are all of the biggest hits. From the opening Devo-like guitar intro of “Just a Girl” to the closing overly-caffeinated third-wave ska of “Trapped in a Box” not a major radio hit is missing. 

The non-chronological order does make the second half very ballad heavy. The first ballad doesn’t appear until eight songs in, and it’s the mid-tempo bouncy ska of “Underneath It All,” and there are only fifteen tracks. While "Underneath It All" is a lovely reggae song, an insecure love poem with a guest toast from Lady Saw, it's presence at the halfway mark throws the flow of the album out of joint. After this, the tracklist alternates between a rave-up and a ballad, culminating in the back-to-back appearance of "Don't Speak" and "Simple Kind of Life" at the close. But the presence of extensive liner notes and the gorgeous silver, black and white color scheme make the entire package highly attractive.

The lone new song, a cover of Talk Talk’s 1984 hit “It’s My Life,” follows that band’s original version almost to the hilt. Very little is added to make the track more distinctive, but Gwen’s breathy sighs and confident vocal delivery make it a charming cover none the less. The playful video didn’t hurt things either. I love their cover, but still prefer the original. While they were lumped in with the short lived mid-90s ska craze, No Doubt was always a New Wave band at heart. The delicate music box of “Running,” the hard-driving “Hella Good,” the rockabilly swagger of “Excuse Me Mr.” and the robotically assembled rocker “New” all point towards first generation New Wave acts like Blondie, Elvis Costello or the Police as reference points. Not to say that the squealing vocals and reggae bounce of songs like “Sunday Morning” or “Spiderwebs” don’t point towards the Specials or Madness, but the band has always been rooted in New Wave as an entire movement which encompassed the punks, the ska kids, the New Wavers, and the rockabilly kids.

If you’re not interested in getting any of No Doubt’s studio albums and only want their most well known songs then this will do the exact trick. Otherwise, this works as a great introduction to the band. After this I suggest checking out Everything in Time to hear what didn’t make their biggest albums, and checking out everything from Beacon Street on. Some of their best songs weren’t the singles. DOWNLOAD: “It’s My Life,” “Bathwater,” “Trapped in a Box”

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Most of All -- The Best Of

Posted : 8 years, 10 months ago on 24 November 2009 07:36 (A review of Most Of All - The Best Of)

Most of All: The Best of Deborah Harry delivers on the title’s promise, the only problem is that Debbie Harry’s solo output was wildly uneven on a good day. So while with one or two exceptions, where’s “Liar Liar”?, this is the best collection of her biggest solo singles and appearances.

The first three songs are pure dance-pop magic. “I Want That Man” is just as kitschy and pure fun as when it first came out. “French Kissin’ in the USA” retains its cutesy New Wave synth-pop core. It’s also slightly hypnotic in its laid back and mellowed vocal delivery. “Brite Side” is the closest thing to a ballad on this collection, and it’s a great slice of late-80s/early-90s pop. After that the rest of the compilation starts to dip in quality. “Feel the Spin,” “The Jam Was Moving” and “Rush Rush” remain great fun, even slightly naughty and subversive, but the some of it is just too anemic to be great dance music. Which is a problem since this music was obviously targeted at the club-minded audience.

Although a few of the tracks prove that she could have gone into different, possibly more fruitful paths. “Well Did You Evah” from the Red Hot + Blue AIDS benefit is a good time to be had by all. Iggy Pop, one of the greatest and most underappreciated elder statesmen of alternative rock, duets with Harry on a Cole Porter song. You can practically hear them cracking up at each other in the studio. Perhaps Debbie Harry should have tried to sing the American songbook and add her own downtown glamour to the recordings. There’s a great cover of “Stormy Weather” from a different compilation that proves she’s got the muscle and attitude to do something surprising with it. “Rock Bird” is a rocking synth-pop song. Maybe Harry should have played around more in the trashy New Wave which she helped pioneer, create and bring to the mainstream with Blondie. Whereas Blondie was all glamour, chic and sophisticated, “Rock Bird” has more in common with her spiritual offspring like Berlin or Missing Persons. This isn’t a bad thing since Harry can do it with more brains, sass and vocal talent.

I love Debbie Harry. No other musical icon has entertained me, thrilled me or influenced me quite as much as she has. I fully admit that her solo career as a singer is difficult to support, but her work with Blondie and influence on the music industry cannot be challenged. There’s much to love and admire about this collection, even if you have to sit through some duds to get to it. DOWNLOAD: “Rush Rush,” “I Want That Man,” “Feel the Spin”

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Posted : 8 years, 11 months ago on 19 November 2009 09:54 (A review of Trampin')

Trampin’ is the first album that Patti Smith cut for Columbia, and it’s by turns just like the good ol’ Patti and a bit of a generic letdown. The album that this has the most in common with is Dream of Life. It’s not a vivid and wild declaration of her artistry, influence and might, but a simple waving of her hand to show that she’s still around.

Trampin’ does have its moments though. “Gandhi” is the kind of insane, nearly spoken word poetic narrative over noisy rock guitars that she's known for. (In this case, it’s either a biography or an extended metaphor, possibly a combination of both?) “Trespasses” is a beautifully performed, written and sung ballad. “My Blakean Year” marries her love of rock with her penchant for self-mythologizing and love of poetry. “My Blakean Year” comes closest to achieving her rock as revolution and spiritual revelation ideology. And “Peaceable Kingdom” which is largely acoustic and free-flowing thoughts about politics, war, Utopian ideals and dreams, it’s an exquisite piece of music and it is continually growing and changing throughout its five minutes.

Opening tracks “Jubilee” and “Mother Rose” are lyrically great, but musically flat. They’re stuck in melodies and productions that are nothing but generic. They deserve better. But, like her spiritual poet-rockers Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, she often overreaches yet you respect her for trying. I would rather hear one of them experiment wildly and create something decent, for them, than the latest auto-tuned pop tart. This is real music performed by a real musician.

On Dream of Life Patti Smith sang that “People have the power,” but it’s really Patti who’s got the power. The power to move, create, to make you think, to confound and challenge you. She is a remarkable artist. Yes, even when she creates something that doesn’t excite me the way Horses, Easter, Gone Again or Gung Ho do. Every album by her is worth, at least, one listen. DOWNLOAD: “My Blakean Year”

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The Ronettes: The Early Years

Posted : 8 years, 11 months ago on 19 November 2009 09:54 (A review of The Ronettes: The Early Years)

The Early Years doesn’t feature any songs that rival anything the Ronettes cut with Phil Spector, but they do showcase the foundations of their sound and them working out the kinks. If anything, it’s worth a few spins just to hear Ronnie Spector belt it out. At times they sound like the Chiffons or the Exciters, but Ronnie’s voice makes them more distinct and individual. While these might not be as great as “Be My Baby,” “Walking in the Rain” or “Baby I Love You,” they are no less necessary to the mystique, glamour and legend behind the Ronettes. It’s always interesting and revealing to hear the origins and growing pains of any musical icon. DOWNLOAD: “I’m Gonna Quit While I’m Ahead”

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Confessions on a Dancefloor

Posted : 8 years, 11 months ago on 16 November 2009 08:02 (A review of Confessions on a Dance Floor)

With American Life having been a stateside failure, Madonna did what any smart businesswoman or politician would do: cut her losses and appealed to her constituency. In this case, that would be the (mostly gay) clubs that got her started way back in the late 70s/early 80s. Confessions on a Dancefloor isn’t just a fluffy piece of disco-pop. While it’s not quite at the level of Like a Prayer or Ray of Light, it is just a tiny bit below Music. To phrase that in non-fan terms: it’s a great album from the reigning Queen of Pop.

The opening shot of “Hung Up” remains one of her greatest moments as an artist. From that ABBA sample to those sassy lyrics, the Madonna from the 80s made a comeback and there’s no denying her. And “I Love New York” has a almost-Stooges flavor, if, you know, the Stooges had layered synthesizers upon their hard-hitting guitars. It’s a return of the Madonna brassiness that made her a superstar in the first place, don’t try and over think it, just go with her. “Future Lovers” with it’s Donna Summer sample and spoken-word segments sounds like an instructional video for the kind of dance-inspired spirituality she’s been talking about for the past few years.

“Get Together” and “Forbidden Love” move along on slinky ambient electronic grooves which reference her past, past dance hits and other artists in the electronic field when she first appeared on the scene. And “Like It Or Not” works as the album’s closer simply because it sounds like Madonna’s philosophy for living, even if it is a string of clichés. Her vocal performance and attitude make it work. While “How High” and the sublimely beautiful “Isaac,” which sounds to me like the story of Isaac from the Bible and not the Kabbalist icon, create a Middle Eastern disco genre that create two of the best moments on the album. Madonna’s best moments are always when she explores spirituality through the transitive power and nature of music, dance and love. Confessions is full of these kind of moments.

I absolutely loved Confessions when it first came out, and I still do. It’s definitely one of my favorite Madonna albums. It’s a delicious mixture of Donna Summer inspired disco and ABBA-licious good times. DOWNLOAD: “Hung Up”

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Knock Knock Knock

Posted : 8 years, 11 months ago on 16 November 2009 08:01 (A review of Knock Knock Knock)

Hot Hot Heat’s five song EP Knock Knock Knock is as quirky and jittery a neo-New Wave alternative dance party as Make Up the Breakdown. In fact, these songs wouldn’t sound out of place wedged onto the end of Breakdown. Bays’ nasal brat-punk voice is tailor made for music like this. “Have a Good Sleep” owes an obvious debt to Gang of Four (guitars), Elvis Costello (lyrics) and the Police (the almost ragga-like keyboards). “5 Times Out of 100” jerks back and forth between energetic party song and a dark, chaotic mid-tempo breather. And the metallic boot stomp intro to “Touch You Touch You” sounds like pure Devo-esque nerdy art-punk New Wave. While Hot Hot Heat never sound like they’re biting the style and posing as these bands, they do sound like they’re merging their references with their own point-of-view to make something new and fresh. DOWNLOAD: “Have a Good Sleep”

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Absolute Garbage

Posted : 8 years, 11 months ago on 16 November 2009 08:01 (A review of Absolute Garbage)

Garbage’s greatest hits plays like the assembly line of sounds and textures of the 80s and 90s alternative rock scenes. Shirley Manson is the perfect voice and image for this kind of music: all brass attitude, smoking-in-the-girls-room sass, yet there’s a thinly veiled romanticism and vulnerability. She’s essentially the updated form of Debbie Harry, Chrissie Hynde, Siouxsie Sioux or Patti Smith depending on her mood, or the song. I’ve always found it absolutely thrilling.

Garbage and Version 2.0 provide the vast majority of the sixteen singles present on the album, which is both expected and slightly frustrating. Beautifulgarbage and Bleed Like Me weren’t slouches for great singles and album tracks, but they didn’t quite capture the ears of the public like the first two albums. Which is also a shame. But what is here is a flat out great assortment of songs.

Early singles like “Vow” and “Queer” represent the mild flirtation with fetishistic and kinky sex that Garbage would bring to bigger and badder life on later releases. “Special” and “When I Grow Up” show that Garbage was, above all things, a neo New Wave act with a fondness for electronic bleeps and burps. While “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!)” showcased Manson’s impressive range and the band’s willingness to experiment with different pop and alternative rock textures. “Cherry Lips” is also the best Debbie Harry impression I’ve heard from anyone. But it’s ballads like “Bleed Like Me,” “You Look So Fine” and the mid-tempo swinging 60s British pop of the newly recorded “Tell Me Where It Hurts” that prove Garbage have always been the Pretenders 2.0, that’s not a dig against them since I love them more than the Pretenders. The other new track, a remixed version of the Bleed Like Me album track “It’s All Over But the Crying,” actually improves upon the original.

Absolute Garbage, despite being the cleverest named Garbage album ever, is far from the essential Garbage recording though. Well, if you’re a fan like I am, then it’s not. Although the previous unreleased and soundtrack only songs, like “No. 1 Crush” and “The World Is Not Enough,” make it a damn fine purchase. If you’re looking for the band’s best moments and don’t feel like getting an actual album then this will work like gangbusters. DOWNLOAD: “Tell Me Where It Hurts,” “No. 1 Crush,” “The World Is Not Enough”

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Posted : 8 years, 11 months ago on 14 November 2009 05:21 (A review of Celebration )

It should speak volumes that Celebration, Madonna’s third greatest hits compilation and most comprehensive, can actually be criticized for not being long enough and excluding too many great songs. While this effectively works like gang busters to introduce the unconverted or new recruits to the Immaculate Church of the Divine Madge, for diehards the only need to get this would be to obtain the two (three depending on where it was purchased) new tracks.

Generally, I think that this is as solid a collection of infectious and groundbreaking dance confections as has ever been assembled, but it is slightly problematic. The biggest problem is that the track listing is arranged so slapdash that there’s no sense of career, vocal, artistic or personal growth. There’s a string of 80s club hits, a few modern era hits, a string of ballads here, and a new song there. Instead of the modern neo-classics “Hung Up,” truly one of her most glorious and greatest achievements, “Music” and “4 Minutes” opening the first disc, it should have gone something like this: the minimalist disco of “Everybody,” the joyous “Holiday” and the disco-punk of “Burning Up.” Chronological order is always the best kind of order for any compilation album. “Vogue” shouldn’t have been wedged between “Music” and “4 Minutes,” it loses some of its fierce deep throbbing house feel sandwiched between a Euro-disc art-trash pop single and the latest beat that Timbaland threw together in five minutes.

The string of ballads on the second disc would have also been avoided which slow down the set way too much. Individually “Crazy for You,” “Frozen,” “Miles Away,” “Take a Bow” and “Live to Tell” are all fantastic songs, but when heard one after the other they make you want to relax, not celebrate. The first disc should have started with “Everybody” and ended with “Vogue” or “Justify My Love” allowing for the second disc to pick up with everything from Erotica on, ending with new single “Celebration” .

The other problem is the omissions. I would have traded the trashy quasi-Latin rhythms of “Who’s That Girl” for the dark electronica of “Bedtime Story.” I also would have traded “Miles Away” for either the introspective “Drowned World/Substitute for Love” or the sapphic “What It Feels Like For a Girl.” And where is “Deeper and Deeper”? Mercifully, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” got removed this time around. And “Dress You Up,” “Everybody” and “Burning Up” finally got added. As for the new songs, they’re decent and nice reminders of the fun that Madonna can inspire. “Revolver,” and it’s hilariously twisted sexual metaphors is my favorite, but the Euro-ready “Celebration” and “It’s So Cool” aren’t bad by any means.

These problems aside, this is as close to pop perfection from the reigning queen as one can get. Celebration would have been better if it was a three CD boxset with a DVD set of her music videos, which would probably have pushed the set to five discs overall. But that truly would have been cause to celebrate! If you’re looking for an introduction into Madonna’s dance party, this is a new place to start. If you already own The Immaculate Collection and GHV2 just download the three new songs and save the money. Oh, and for the record, I love the deliciously trashy sub-Warhol Pop Art cover. DOWNLOAD: “Revolver,” “Celebration (Benny Benassi Remix),” “It’s So Cool”

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Necessary Evil

Posted : 8 years, 11 months ago on 14 November 2009 05:20 (A review of Necessary Evil)

Deborah Harry is my absolute favorite icon ever. Regardless of gender, for me, she’s the coolest, hippest and greatest person to ever step up to a microphone and make music. I’ve always been intrigued by her combination of supermodel pretty looks and patent refusal to be anything close to safe or innocent. With Blondie, she’s always been an avant-garde ironist making perfect hybrid pop singles. Her solo career is an entirely different matter. While she’s always been experimental, without the reign of Chris Stein, Clem Burke and Jimmy Destri behind her she’s too wild and weird. While I’m normally down with it, there’s a limit. Necessary Evil is no different.

“Two Times Blue,” the first single and album opener, is a gorgeous little dance-pop song, “School for Scandal” is a fun punk-dance song and “If I Had You” is a pretty little ballad. These are the first three songs on the album, so everything seems to be going fine until you hit “Live With Vengeance” a song that sounds ultimately like a rejected James Bond theme and a generically produced hip-hop inspired dance-pop song. It’s awful. This song is just a symptom of the overriding issue with the entire album: it’s too generically produced, too insistent on hip-hop lite beats and posturing, too long and indulgent. If more songs had been like the trashy Strokes-ish “You’re Too Hot” and “Two Times Blue” this would have been a much better release. As it stands it’s not awful, but it’s nothing spectacular either. So, while she’s made solid, and numerous classic, albums with Blondie, Harry has yet to make a consistent solo album. DOWNLOAD: “Two Times Blue,” “White Out,” “You’re Too Hot”

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Pretenders II

Posted : 8 years, 11 months ago on 12 November 2009 11:19 (A review of Pretenders II)

Chrissie Hynde is a great frontwoman. There’s no need in arguing with that, and while the Pretenders have become nothing more than a vehicle for her artistic explorations, they were once a fantastic band. While Pretenders II is not as groundbreaking, rollicking or hard-edged are their debut album, it is a great album from front to back.

She still jerks back and forth from tough girl (“Bad Boys Get Spanked”) to achingly tender (“I Go to Sleep”), but that’s always been part of her charm. And this first incarnation of the band remains the same. Their first two albums play like a two-disc greatest hits collection (and I would make the argument that Learning to Crawl acts as a third disc). From the tough girl with a soft heart sass of “Message of Love” onwards, Chrissie has got you hooked with her steely but melodic voice. She even makes like a spiritual daughter of Patti Smith on “Pack It Up,” which is a good thing. But my favorite moment is the sweet, but never saccharine, British Invasion-era pop of “Talk of the Town.” From the poetic lyrics to the way that Hynde sings “You’ve changed…your place in this world,” this is truly one of their greatest moments. DOWNLOAD: “Talk of the Town”

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