Friday, December 21, 2007

--2007's Compilations, Reissues, EPs, Soundtracks, Etc.

10) Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Columbia)
Writer-director Judd Apatow (remember that name loyal reader) tackles the deluge of Oscar-hopeful musical biopics of recent times with his latest flick Walk Hard. I think the film is probably the funniest movie of the year, but I haven’t seen it yet as the list goes to press. (I always wanted to write that.) If the film is as half as funny as these songs, I think my gut feeling will be dead on. John C. Reilly showed his vocal chops a few years ago in the movie version of Chicago and he’s a revelation as the pipes of Dewey Cox. Reilly has no problems mimicking or paying tribute the styles of (get ready for this list) Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Bob Dylan, The Beatles—and ’70s disco singers? (You have to hear the disco remake of David Bowie’s “Starman.”) For me the highlights of the album are the back-to-back spot-on parodies of protest folkies like Phil Ochs. “Dear Mr. President” is the most patently offensive political song ever written, where Dewey stands up for “the injun all hopped up on booze” and “the cripple who lives in my street in a box.” And “Let Me Hold You (Little Man)” made me cackle so loudly on the subway one evening that every single person in the car turned and looked at me. How could anyone not laugh at lines such as these:

“All the elevator buttons
All so incredibly high
I stand today for the midget
Half the size of a regular guy
Let me hold you little man
As the parade passes by
Let me hold you little man
We’ll make believe you can fly
You shout for me to put you down
But I’m marching today for your cause
I’m banging the drum
Your big day will come
When they remake the Wizard of Oz.”

It took me 20 minutes to transcribe those lyrics because I kept laughing and would lose my place. Is it wrong to like a song about midgets that much?

9) Bridging the Distance: A Portland, OR Covers Compilation (Arena Rock Recording Company)
Bridging the Distance isn’t a tribute album per se, yet it what makes it so appealing is exactly what makes a tribute album worthwhile. Almost all of the 22 artists aren’t afraid to take the song’s original structure and reinvent it in their own style. The Minus 5’s take on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “That Smell” focuses in on the dark lyrics away and strips away the muscle-bound riffs that somewhat diluted the original’s impact. Lackthereof reimagine the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” as an OMD-styled synth pop groove. (I think Michael McDonald might approve it’s so well done.) Spoon’s Britt Daniel makes Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home” an example of how shakers, handclaps and tambourines can carry a song all by themselves. The only close-to-the-source covers come from the two best known artists on the album, The Decemberists (Fleetwood Mac’s “Think About Me”) and Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla (Jimmy Hates Jazz’s “Shattered Dreams”). And even those remakes are pretty decent. It seems like Portland has more going for it these days than just rose gardens and well planned-public transportation.

8) Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 - Sex, Food, Death and Tarantulas EP (Yep Roc)
On this mostly live EP The Venus 3 (a.k.a. 60% of the R.E.M. touring lineup) prove yet again that they’re the best band Robyn Hitchcock has worked with since his days in The Soft Boys. Peter Buck’s chiming Rickenbacker intertwines perfectly with Hitchcock’s always masterful playing, while Scott McCaughey’s melodic McCartney-like bass playing and sweet harmony vocals shine on take on the Soft Boys classics “The Queen of Eyes” and “Give to the Soft Boys” as well as “A Man’s Got to Know His Limitations (Briggs)” from 2006’s Ole Tarantula. The two studio tracks included on the EP, “Luckiness” and “Copper Kettle,” show that this band also knows how to bring out the best of Hitchcock’s acoustic side. R.E.M. has a new album due out in 2008 (which I am cautiously optimistic about) yet I hope they find time to explore more of what could come out of this fine collaboration.

7) Elliott Smith - New Moon (Kill Rock Stars)
The second posthumous from the incredibly talented yet troubled Smith focuses on his time on the Kill Rock Stars label from 1994 and 1997. These unreleased tracks, demos and radio recordings show his songs in their most basic form—just Smith’s voice (with some help from his haunting double-tracked vocals), a lone acoustic or electric guitar and some occasional percussion. (That being said, “New Monkey” rocks as much as anything on his last two studio albums.) Knowing his tragic end, it’s hard not to listen a bit closer to Smith’s lyrics and look for clues. Overall, the songs are depressing yet have a bit of lightness that is missing from Figure 8 and From a Basement on a Hill. The final version of the Oscar-nominated “Miss Misery” ends with the line “Do you miss me, miss misery like you say you do?” In this original version Smith hints at a different ending. “’Cause it's all right, some enchanted night I’ll be with you.” There’s a tiny window of hope in that last line, something that seems to run through many of these songs that was lacking later in his career. One more highlight worth mentioning is the cover of Big Star’s “Thirteen” that was recorded in a DJ’s basement and later played back on the air. It’s the best cover of this song I’ve ever heard. Smith’s vocal captures the aching innocence of adolescence that every 13 year old has ever gone through.

6) Guster - Satellite EP (Reprise)
Guster obviously hit a new creative peak when they were recording Ganging Up on the Sun if they felt like they could leave the three unreleased tracks on this EP on the cutting room floor. “G Major,” “Rise & Shine” and “Timothy Leary” are three of the catchiest songs this band has recorded and all of them were stuck in my head after a couple of listens. However, I can see why the band had a hard time figuring out where these tracks would fit into Ganging Up on the Sun’s sequence. “I’m Through” is also an unreleased track, sort of. It shares a similar form and melody during the verses as “C’mon” from the album. And while the band obviously took what they thought was the best parts of the track and reshaped it into something different and stronger, “I’m Through” is still a decent song. The EP’s title track appears in a remixed form that isn’t exactly my travel mug of iced tea. (I don’t drink cups of hot tea.) I can wholeheartedly support the two covers that follow—The Beatles’ “Two of Us” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” That last track is “sung” by drummer Brian Rosenworcel (if you heard it you’d know why I used quotes around sung), it’s nothing sort of a classic that obviously is the highlight of the night for the audience in Portland, Maine. And hearing Brian’s voice go over that well makes me think I’ve got a chance of having a hit band in Maine.

5) The Foxboro Hot Tubs - Stop Drop and Roll (
The Hot Tubs are a trio from the Bay Area who obviously have listened to a truckload of great rock from the ’60s. This six song EP (available for free from their website) echoes songs from the great Nuggets collection, early period Kinks and The Who and—at one point—The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love.” The guitars on “Highway 1” capture that gritty sound that came back into vogue when garage rock was the new trend for 15 minutes. And the healthy dose of farfisa in half of these songs is a sound that’s welcome in my iPod anytime. Oh, almost forget to mention that you’ve heard of this band when they play as their side project—Green Day. Yup, Billie Joe Armstrong and company took a vacation from themselves to create (and give away) an EP that would leave many fans of American Idiot and Dookie puzzled. It’s obvious that guys are just letting off some steam with the pressure of following-up an album that’s sold almost six-million copies hanging over their heads. And while I’m sure Green Day would never admit to being the Foxboro Hot Tubs, they should be proud of creating a stellar tribute to a style of music from the 60s that never got its proper respect from mainstream America.

4) Forever Changing: The Golden Age of Elektra Records 1963-1973 (Elektra/Rhino)
Forever Changing: The Golden Age of Elektra Records 1963-1973 surveys a decade of releases from the label that brought us everyone from Judy Collins to The Doors and Carly Simon to The MC5. This five CD set is packed with some so-so folk songs, some so-so early ’70s singer-songwriter tracks and a whole bunch of weird shit. One night while doing some laundry I listened to the second and third CD discs and I had to look down to make sure my iPod hadn’t suddenly tuned in WFMU. (For those outside NYC, WFMU is the great community station based out of Jersey City that serves up some of the best garage rock and other oddities put down on wax.) One great '60s gem after another made for perhaps the best night of laundry ever. I have to point out one specific band and song on this box that blew me away—Earth Opera’s “The Red Sox Are Winning.” The liner notes say this Boston band got caught up the “Bosstown Sound’ hype of the mid-to-late ’60s. I just think these once and soon-to-be-again bluegrass musicians just got their hands on some great drugs to make this tracks. There's a xylophone solo, weird lyrics about wars and arranging hair while looking in a mirror, a bridge that sounds stolen from a Gershwin tune and a hook about the 1967 Sox “Impossible Dream” team. Whew, it's almost too much for a brain unaddled by drugs to take. I suppose I shouldn't have been shocked to find that one of the main forces behind Earth Opera's everything but the mushroom-filled-kitchen sink sound was David Grisman, who later went on to make bluegrass recordings with Jerry Garcia. Oh, and did I forget the over-the-top lyrics at the end of the song? Here you go:

“Let’s make Boston America’s number-one baseball city. Kill the hippies! Kill the hippies!”

Wow. I’m glad I was born in the '60s, but even gladder I wasn't old enough to be aware of anything until 1973.

3) The Figgs - Continue to Enjoy The Figgs Volume Two (Stomper Music)
This disc makes me want to paraphrase a line from a Herman’s Hermits’ song: “Second volume, great as the first.” Recorded over Labor Day weekend 2005 at guitarist Mike Gent’s Providence, Rhode Island home in front of friends and family, Continue to Enjoy the Figgs Volume Two, like its predecessor, captures everything that makes a Figgs live show one of the only things that keeps me going on this planet. It’s got one of their best unreleased tunes is finally captured (“Who’s Your Mother Out With Tonight?”), aggressive jamming within their tightly focused pop tunes (“One Hit Wonder”), proof that their great drummer is also a great songwriter (“Je T’Adore,” “Come On Tonight”) and some laugh out loud funny moments (especially when Gent starts singing “How do you play this song?” when he’s trying to figure out the chord progression to “Gonna Get Out” and then he starts playing a guitar line that he mimics with his vocal and sings “you’re busting out with some George Benson shit.”) Continue to Enjoy The Figgs Volume Two, like Volume One, is essential for any Figgs fan, and is a great place to start for the uninitiated. Now pardon me, as I have to go listen to it for the third time today.

2) I’m Not There Soundtrack (Columbia)
I’ve heard widely divergent opinions on this film where six different actors portray Bob Dylan’s life. (I have a feeling that Cate Blachett probably does a kick ass mid-’60s Dylan.) In the end, it doesn’t matter how good the film is since it inspired perhaps the best Dylan tribute ever. There are some truly masterful performances in this two disc set. Ex-Pavement singer Stephen Malkmus is a revelation as an interpreter of Dylan material as his takes on “Ballad of Thin Man” and “Maggie’s Farm” are as passionate and bile-filled as the originals. It also helps that Malkmus (and four other vocalists) is backed by the Million Dollar Bashers, an all-star band that captures the essence of Dylan’s work on Highway 61 Revisited without doing an exact copy. As much as I don’t need to hear yet another version of “All Along the Watchtower” their version backing Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder is pretty damn good, with three guitarists (Nels Cline, Smokey Hormel and Tom Verlaine) trading great yet contrasting solos. Calexico serve as another house band for this album, and their distinctive sound produces great results with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James (“Goin’ to Acapulco”), Iron and Wine’s Sam Bean (a radically rearranged “Dark Eyes”) and Willie Nelson. Their take on “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” is so good that I’d suggest Nelson get into the studio with Calexico and cut an album as soon as possible. Finally, what makes I’m Not There a fitting tribute is that like the man’s career there are some absolute clunkers worth hearing once and never listening to again. So if you pick up this album, think of John Doe and Tom Veraline’s vocal contributions as I’m Not There’s Self Portrait or Down in the Groove.

1) Neil Young - Live at Massey Hall (Reprise)
In the late spring I thought I knew what would be at number-one on this reissues, etc list—Neil Young’s Archives Vol. 1. There were full articles online and in print about exactly what the set would contain. Young himself said that this was the year it was coming out. Even Reprise, Young’s long-time label, set up a website with a trailer promoting the release in the fall. I was practically drooling on my keyboard with anticipating. The 20 year wait was over! Then good ol’ unpredictable Neil decided to make a sequel to an album that was never officially released using an all-star lineup drawn from his various backing bands over the past four decades and release it two months later.


Chrome Dreams II isn’t as good as the original Chrome Dreams. (This, honestly, would be a major achievement in itself. That album contained five genuine Young classics that ended up as highlights of five other albums.) The sequel is average Young album. The best track, the epic “Ordinary People,” had been sitting in Young’s vaults for 20 years and would have been a centerpiece of the second Archives set. On Chrome Dreams II, it’s a great song that sticks out like my gut after Thanksgiving dinner. Fortunately not all was lost in this fan’s never ending pursuit of unreleased material. Live at Massey Hall is an incredible document of Young playing solo during two really good nights in Toronto. Recorded between After the Gold Rush and Harvest, it presents a fascinating look at Young before he’s fully crafted the songs that would be his biggest commercial success. “A Man Needs a Maid” had different lyrics and then segues into what would become the first verse and chorus of “Heart of Gold.” “See the Sky About to Rain” wouldn’t be released until three years later as part of On the Beach and this solo take just might be better than the recorded version. Oh, and there are three songs that never made it to any album and Young cracks a bunch of jokes about himself and the songs. Taken with last year’s Live at Fillmore East, I can’t help but think everything in those tape vaults must be of mind-blowing quality. Alright, now I am really, really, truly am ready for the Archives Neil. Please, please, keep to the spring 2008 date. Please?

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