The Weekend Review: October 2011 Report

By Chris Moore:


Is for Karaoke EP (Pt. 2) (Relient K)

Released: October 4, 2011

Rating: 2.5 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Interstate Love Song” (originally performed by Stone Temple Pilots) & “You’re the Inspiration” (originally performed by Chicago)

This is already the second time this year that a young band has performed a cover of the Wallflowers’ “One Headlight”: first by Parachute in concert and now here as the opener to Is for Karaoke Pt. 2.  My first thought on this is that this is suggestive of some communal desire, subconscious or otherwise, for more of the sort of music Jakob Dylan specializes in.  His band’s masterpiece Red Letter Days (2002) may have gone even more unnoticed than 2000’s Breach (as if that was possible), and Rebel, Sweetheart (2005) fared even worse, but perhaps the time is right for a new Wallflowers record.  I think I heard something about that being in the works…  But we’re here to examine Relient K’s second EP of covers this year.  This seems like an odd distribution plan, and though I downloaded both, I must admit that these might as well have been a set of individual downloads than two supposedly cohesive EPs.  The production quality of this second set of covers may be as high as the first seven (who could deny that after hearing their take on Cake’s “The Distance”?), yet the selection is decidedly less dynamic.  One of the standouts is their version of Chicago’s “You’re the Inspiration,” taking this epic love song into our decade, perhaps reminding some who have forgotten it.  (Though I’m not certain how expansive the market is for Relient K covers…)  The presence of certain tracks defies understanding; I have to wonder if they decided to tackle “Africa” simply because they stumbled across the same keyboard effect that Toto took for their own in the eighties.  Still, other tracks, like “Interstate Love Song,” are remarkably true to the original performances, and serve to further stretch Matt Thiessen’s range and show off his capabilities.  All told, I would download “Interstate Love Song” and “You’re the Inspiration,” maybe “Motorcycle Drive By” (originally by Third Eye Blind), return to Bringing Down the Horse (1996) for the Wallflowers version of “One Headlight,” and forget the rest.


People and Things (Jack’s Mannequin)

Producer: Jim Scott, Rob Cavallo, and Andrew McMahon

Released: October 4, 2011

Rating: 3.5 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Amy, I” & “10 Days Gone” (Amazon Bonus Track)

As with 2008’s The Glass Passenger – which, by the way, gets name-dropped in “Hey Hey Hey (We’re All Gonna Die)” – People and Things is eminently listenable: always energetic, accompanied with passionate vocals, and all upon a foundation of rock piano.  Andrew McMahon is like the poppier Ben Folds: using piano to characterize his somber and reflective tunes, yet more predictable and, specifically, more predictably pop/rock than the aforementioned Folds.  This familiar style of arrangement works against People and Things concerning repeated listens, but once in the mood to listen, the album rolls out one expansive, epic production after another.  Some blend into the mix, none really falter, and a few rise up from the median: the heavily rendered ballad “Amy, I,” the near –scream of “Release Me,” and the gorgeously layered “People, Running,” not to mention the outstanding bonus track “10 Days Gone” (how that didn’t make the final cut is a head-shaker at best).  Jack’s Mannequin is a band I want desperately to hate, to despise for churning out formulaic piano indie pop/rock, and yet… I’m taken by it, every time; if only for that reason, I must recognize their achievement.  And they seem to be one of the few acts today – with a few exceptions, like the Wallflowers (see: Rebel, Sweetheart) – that understand how to use a comma, so there’s that…


The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams (Various Artists)

Released: October 4, 2011

Rating: 3 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart?” (performed by Norah Jones) & “You Know That I Know” (performed by Jack White)

I can’t stomach modern country music.  I review a relatively wide range of popular music: generally, if there’s a guitar or piano or some bass or drums in the mix, if the track is at least performed by an artist who wrote the song, I’m willing to give it a shot.  I’ve recently expanded my reach into rap a bit.  But country…  Country…  I’ll save this rationale for another time, but suffice it to say that my distaste for country music is specifically for that of the modern variety; when it comes to Johnny Cash, I’m in awe.  Some of his peers and predecessors receive the same reprieve in my book, Hank Williams being one of them.  How could I not reserve such a space in my musical heart for a hero of Bob Dylan?  So big a space, in fact, that I’m willing to grant the Alan Jackson performance of “You’ve Been Lonesome, Too” a thumb’s up.  Norah Jones, Jack White, Jakob Dylan, and Sheryl Crow: who could ask for a better variety of popular artists to balance out the more straightforwardly country artists who perform the other half of the songs on The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams?  It’s a fascinating concept for a tribute album, really: take the lyrics to unfinished songs by Hank Williams, found with him after his death, and inject twelve new songwriting styles to put music to them.  What you end up with is a sort of collection of posthumous collaborations between Williams and contemporary artists.  Some have criticized the songs for being too flatly like Williams’ other originals, or too interpretive, strongly taking on the sound of the contemporary artist.  Regardless of your critical standpoint, it would be difficult to ignore this project as anything less than an interesting approach.  What would be the alternative: an album of covers?  Instead, curated by Bob Dylan and highlighting the second set of outstanding contributing performances by Norah Jones and Jack White this year, The Lost Notebooks is no Mermaid Avenue, but it’s almost on the level of Mermaid Avenue Volume II.  I would even recommend individual downloads for a more consistently enjoyable experience, but I wouldn’t suggest missing the liner notes that tie this project together.


The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective (Ben Folds)

Released: October 11, 2011

Rating: 5 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “House” (new Ben Folds Five recording) & “Rocky” (Ben Folds demo)

More than sixty songs, an additional five-song EP via free download, expansive and fittingly funny packaging, and all tied together with detailed liner notes by Ben Folds himself: The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective is, without argument, the best packaged Folds effort in a decade and perhaps ever.  Ever since the poorly designed barrage of EPs post-Rockin’ the Suburbs (2001), I’ve been hesitant about Folds’ non-album releases.  There have been more recent releases of questionable overall quality (the a cappella album, anyone?).  And yet, I had a good feeling about The Best Imitation of Myself, one that was confirmed in every conceivable way.  Whether you have loved his work since Ben Folds Five or have never heard of him before, I would strongly recommend picking up this set of essentials, live tracks, rare/unreleased songs, and three new Ben Folds Five recordings.  Speaking as someone who is not generally a fan of “best of” and “greatest hits” collections, I have no doubts that you won’t regret it. 


Bad As Me (Tom Waits)

Producer: Tom Waits & Kathleen Brennan

Released: October 21, 2011

Rating: 4.5 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “New Year’s Eve” & “Bad As Me”

Straight from the vocal chords that make modern-day Bob Dylan sound downright angelic comes an album from Tom Waits that, somehow without compromising his uniquely quirky – at times disturbing – sonic sensibilities, offers itself up as an immediately accessible work of artistic expression.  Its raw quality engineered by some of the best darkly folk musicians available, drawn together thematically by the failing state of the man, society, and morality in general, Bad As Me offers itself up to new realizations regarding vocals, instrumental performances, and perhaps most deeply through its lyrics with each listen.  The ramshackle stomp-rock of “Chicago” shakes the album to a start by riffing on escapist sentiments, “Raised Right Men” reinforces the reasons for leaving, and “Talking at the Same Time” adds a shockingly smooth quality to the mix, Waits’ voice rolling over the typically rough edges.  With nary a clunker in the set, all thirteen tracks of Bad As Me contribute hauntingly, fittingly to the stark culmination of the album in “New Year’s Eve.”

Mylo Xyloto (Coldplay)

Producer: Markus Dravs, Daniel Green, Rik Simpson, & Brian Eno

Released: October 24, 2011

Rating: 3 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Us Against the World” & “Hurts Like Heaven”

Mylo Xyloto isn’t a step forward from 2008’s Viva La Vida, or Death and All His Friends, but it would be overstatement to suggest that it denotes a regression.  Instead, it is the logical blending of the pre-Viva La Vida style exemplified on X&Y (2005) with their new big picture perspective on the album.  As such, the concept-level of Viva La Vida isn’t quite achieved here, but neither is the uniform pop soundscape that came to a head for Coldplay in 2005.  Here, there are instrumental pieces added to provide transitions at key moments, and there is a sense that Mylo Xyloto embodies an attempt at cohesion (stronger in the first third than thereafter), a mixture of art and consumption-ready pop, clearly weighted toward the latter.  This is, after all, the band that, for three consecutive albums, has hit number one in all eleven countries deemed worthy of recognition in their Wikipedia profile.  Not a number two to be seen.  Last time around, the band’s work seemed much more worthy of the aforementioned accolades than this latest record, but Mylo Xyloto is far from a throwaway effort.  Why the world at large seems incapable of balanced criticism of this band, tending instead toward either blind devotion or deeply felt disgust, I will most likely never fully understand.  Simply put, Mylo Xyloto is good: it isn’t bad, but it isn’t great.


In the Key of Disney (Brian Wilson)

Producer: Brian Wilson

Released: October 25, 2011

Rating: 3 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Colors of the Wind” & “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”

What, oh what, to write about an album of Disney covers…?  The eleven-track collection is surprisingly – or, given Brian Wilson’s legacy and recent track record, not surprisingly – In the Key of Disney is eminently listenable, adding maturity and characteristically Wilson-esque flairs to these children’s songs.  Some are transformed, as in the nearly perfect arrangement and performance of “Colors of the Wind” and the groovy rock version of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” while others offer greater resistance to assimilation into Wilson’s catalog at large, namely “The Bare Necessities” and, the admittedly typically brilliant vocal arrangements notwithstanding, the “Heigh-Ho / Whistle While You Work / Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)” medley.  For the hardcore fan, In the Key of Disney won’t shake your faith in the master, but it probably won’t distract you for long from the news of the new Beach Boys material to be recorded by the four surviving members in 2012 either.


Ceremonials (Florence & the Machine)

Producer: Paul Epworth, James Ford, Charlie Hugall, Ben Roulston, Isabella Summers, & Eg White

Released: October 28, 2011

Rating: 3.5 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Never Let Me Go” & “Breaking Down”

As promised by Florence Welch herself, Florence & the Machine’s sophomore effort Ceremonials offers up more in the way of beats this time around, adding vitality to her murky lead vocals and the deep intonations of her piano work.  There is a decidedly heavier, more epic feel to much of her work here that makes good on the potential she demonstrated on 2009’s Lungs.  There is still a certain dynamic quality lacking in even Ceremonials, but this album certainly suggests a significant step forward, a surging of confidence in the tenor and energy of tracks like “Shake It Out” and “Never Let Me Go,” as in the compositional ambition and vocal saturation apparent in “Breaking Down.”