Saturday, October 29, 2016

The B-52's, Mother Feather and Iridesense

It was Denise's birthday this week. This makes me happy, because it means that she and I are the same age again. My birthday is in March, so every March I have a birthday and become one year older than her. Then, in October, she has a birthday and catches up. Now she'll tell you that she never catches up, that no matter what, I'll always be 6 months older than her. Well pish posh! Everyone knows you round birthdays down, and you don't turn that next age until your next birthday. So we're the same age again -- both 26 years old. <cough, cough>.

Now Denise's 3 favorite musical artists of all time would be probably be David Bowie, Blondie and The B-52's. (Not a surprise if you ever saw her old band The Slant, which was heavily influenced by both Blondie and the B's). Neither of us has ever seen Bowie, and of course, sadly, now we never will. We have seen Blondie. (In fact, I've seen more of Blondie than I probably ever expected to, since she accidentally flashed her butt at me due to her unfamiliarity with the revolving stage at The Westbury Music Fair). But we've seen The B-52's a number of times, and they always put on a great show. So for her birthday, I got her tickets to see The B-52's for their Halloween Scream show at The Space in Westbury.

I'd never been to The Space before (was really bummed that we missed Garbage there last year), so I was looking forward to checking out the venue. And before the show, we got two nice surprises. The first was about a week before the event, when I found out that Iridesense was going to be playing downstairs in the venue's lounge before the show that night. Iridesense is one of my favorite local bands of all time. I loved them so much that back in the '90s, I briefly formed a record company, Rock Diva Records, where their album Cool Dream Tomorrow was one of 3 CDs I put out (along with The Slant's Try This and Soundings and Fathoms by Blue Abyss). We haven't seen them perform in several years, because over the last few years while our kids were growing up, we didn't get out much. So I was totally psyched to see them again.

The second pleasant surprise was that the opening act upstairs turned out to be a band I was familiar with, New York City's own Mother Feather. Based on a recommendation from Alternative Press magazine, I had picked up their new self-titled CD earlier in the year, and both Denise and I enjoyed it (which doesn't always happen), listening in the car this summer on our way upstate and back.

The lounge at The Space turned out to be a comfy place to see a band. As we got there, Iridesense was scurrying around to set up for a hard 7:15 starting time, as many of their longtime fans shuffled into the room.

If you're not familiar with them, Iridesense features the sister/brother team of Tara and Rick Eberle, with Tara singing most of the leads these days, and Rick providing the harmonies. Rick plays rhythm guitar, Tara plays bass, with Tara's husband Rich Drouin on drums, and Rob Viccari on lead guitar. They are one of the primary proponents of what they call "popcore", cutting-edge pop rock with an emphasis on hooks and catchy tunes.

Iridesense didn't disappoint. The band took me through many of my favorites over the years, including songs like "History in the Making", "Got It Good", "Gasoline", and their contribution (if I can ever get it all together) to my planned jukebox musical Eyeball Eaters From Outer Space, "Star". (I'll tell you more about my masteriece sometime soon). They also performed their newest song "The Line". The two highlights of their set were, "Dangerous Game" (my favorite Iridesense song of all time, and the one that I blew my voice out on last night by singing along), and the funky and fun "Round and Round". They closed a very successful performnce with another old favorite "Holiday".

After their set, Denise and I scooted inside to our balcony seats (because at 26 years old <cough, cough>, I'm too damned old to spend the night standing on the main floor). Overall, my impressions of The Space were pretty positive. It's a converted old movie theater, and from what I hear, it was a bit of a horror show back in the day. (Our friend Bill once set the girls behind the candy counter into fits of hysterical screaming when he showed them that the candy they had sold him was infested with bugs). But it's all been redone, and it's looking pretty good. Compared to The Paramount, they're a little less greedy on their drink and snack prices, but because the balcony is so far from the stage, they could really use a couple of big screens like The Paramount has, so I guess it evens out. The sound was unfortunately not that great for Mother Feather, although it was better for The B's.

Mother Feather turned out to be a really good fit to open for the B's. Like the B's, they're a very LGBT friendly band (their singer Ann Courtney and backup vocalist/keyboard player Elizabeth Carena are a couple), and even more to the point, like The B-52's, they're fucking weird (in a good way!) I'm not even going to describe what Courtney was wearing for this show, but it looked a little like a swan-styled wedding dress. Carena wore a tux.

Now if there's one thing Denise likes as much as The B-52's, it's all things Egyptian, so Mother Feather got on her good side right away by opening with their song "Egyptology", where they sing about "Me and my man Tuttankhamun" and some of their other buddies like Cleopatra and Osiris. It's silly, raucous party rock, which is pretty much what the crowd was looking for. Some other highlights of their set included "Trampoline" (one of my favorites from their album), "747", which Courtney and Carena performed with their arms straight up in the air on the chorus, as they waved the planes safely home like the air traffic controllers they were singing about, and "Awesome", a new song they wrote about how great it felt to be invited to open the B-52's Halloween show.

I was a little disappointed they didn't perform my favorite song from their album, "Beach House", which I think has single potential for them, but it's one of their more laid back songs, and laid back was clearly not what they were going for last night. Anyway, Denise was up on social media earlier today, and from what she read to me, it sounds like Mother Feather made themselves a bunch of new fans last night with the B-52's' crowd.

After a much-too-long break between sets, The B's hit the stage at about 9:20. Naturally, they were dressed up for Halloween, with Cindy Wilson dressed like one of those angels from that godawful new Corey Feldman band, Kate Pierson dressed as some sort of purple-haired space goddess, and Fred Schneider wearing a dress and blonde wig. Now you've got to hand it to Fred -- when most guys dress in drag, even for Halloween, they go for glamour. Not Fred. In  a sight I'll never quite get it out of my brain, he went more for the Midwestern-granny-in-a-house-smock look. I'll never be able to burn those skinny legs out of my memory! Oh well.

Unsurprisingly, The B's did their usual great set, which included highlights like "Roam", "Whammy Kiss", "Dance This Mess Around", "Channel Z", "Mesopotamia", and a relatively newer song I especially like "Is That You, Modean?" At one point, someone in the crowd requested "Monster in My Pants" from Fred's solo album, but he laughed it off, saying "Not dressed like this!" They did perform two of my top favorites, "Private Idaho" and "Deadbeat Club", although at one point, Kate and Cindy accidentally wound up singing at cross purposes on that one. But it was all good.

The B's closed their set with their first big hit "Rock Lobster", then came back for an encore of "Planet Claire" and, of course, "Love Shack".

Considering how apathetic I was feeling about music earlier in the year, this show really satisfied my appetite. So Happy Birthday, Denise! Glad we got to celebrate being the same age again. :)

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Review of Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe's "Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music web site earlier this evening.



Even today, Yes is a relatively popular band. If you go to their Sputnik Music page, every Yes studio album has at least 175 ratings votes, and Close to the Edge, the highest-rated Yes album as of this writing, has over 1,900 ratings votes. Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe is the forgotten Yes album. Alone on its own page, currently with fewer than 20 ratings votes, it's the Yes album that time forgot.

That it is, in fact, a Yes album in all but official name is beyond dispute. Most Yes fans consider the classic Yes lineup to be Jon Anderson on vocals, Steve Howe on guitar, Rick Wakeman on keyboards, Chris Squire on bass, and either Bill Bruford or Alan White on percussion. As the band and album name implies, Anderson, Howe, Wakeman and Bruford are all here, this time with virtuoso Tony Levin handling the bass duties. Plus, the cover art for the album comes from a pair of paintings by Roger Dean, who designed most of Yes's album covers in the '70s.

The only reason ABWH wasn't called a Yes album is that Squire is the one who actually owned the legal name to the band and his version of Yes was still in existence at the time, featuring himself, Alan White, keyboardist Tony Kaye and guitarist Trevor Rabin. Hence, the new band had to settle for calling itself Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, although they advertised each show on their supporting tour as "An Evening of Yes Music Plus."

Now, the question is, is ABWH a good Yes album? And the answer is definitely -- wait for it -- Yes! It's actually an excellent album, and one that any fan of the classic Yes sound would enjoy.

The biggest difference between this and previous Yes albums is that here, besides the rock infused with classical music sound that bands like Yes are famous for, several of the numbers feature more of a world music (Brazilian?) sound. Although all four of the former Yes members received writing credits, the songs here were all basically written by Anderson and Howe. However, for me at least, the sounds of Wakeman's keyboards and Bruford's drums seem to dominate most of the songs, while Howe's guitar work is more subtle and in the background.

Several tracks stand out here. The one that received the most FM radio airplay was the three-part suite "Brother of Mine". It features typically upbeat Jon Anderson lyrics ("Just hear your voice in all the songs of the earth/Nothing can come between us, you're a brother of mine"), and one of his best vocals. It goes from slow-to-mid-tempo in the first two parts of the song to a faster, more exciting pace for the concluding section.

"The Meeting" is a slow, beautiful song that features a simple but sincere vocal by Anderson. It also benefits from some of Wakeman's most exquisite piano work.

"Teakbois" seems to be one of those songs that Yes enthusiasts either love or hate. I'm solidly in the "love" camp. Although there are references throughout the lyrics to reggae artist Bobby Dread, the song actually mixes Jamaican, South American and Calypso influences for a sound that is unlike any previous Yes song. I've been unable to find any definition for the word "teakbois" -- it's probably a word that Anderson made up -- but whatever it is, the lyrics of the song assure us that "teakbois is everywhere." And judging by the happy, upbeat nature of the song, this is a good thing. 

Probably the most imposing song on ABWH is the 9-minute-plus, 4-part opus, "Order of the Universe". It's also the most traditionally Yes song on the album, as the band returns to their progressive rock roots in a big way here. There's a grand dominating Wakeman synthesizer theme, filled in nicely by Howe's guitar and Bruford's percussion, that starts the song off, and which the band triumphantly returns to at the end. Sandwiched in between is one of Anderson's more raucous vocals, as he sings about some of the positive attributes of rock music, accompanied by some funky keyboard work. It's almost as if after the more mainstream pop direction of Yes's prior two albums 90125 and Big Generator, Anderson is screaming "Yes is back, bitches!" Except of course that he's too positive, too polite and too ... well, British! ... to ever say it that way.

In any event, with the release of Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, Yes was back as a progressive rock band. The album was successful enough to lead to a merging of the two estranged branches of Yes, which led to the successful Union Tour (and the much less successful Union album) that followed, and also led Yes back to their roots. It's a shame that for many, ABWH has become the forgotten Yes album. I'm hoping that Yes fans and progressive rock lovers who read this review will give it a fresh listen.


Rating: 4/5 stars

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Review of 'Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry"

I posted this review about 30 minutes ago on SputnikMusic.com.


For some reason, it seems like many people look down upon 'Til Tuesday. I think maybe people see photos of the band during their heyday, and they see Aimee Mann's bleached, feathered hair and guitarist Robert Holmes' Carrot Top red curls, and it makes them not take the band seriously. Or maybe the excessive airplay given to their hit single "Voices Carry" makes people look back and think the band was a one trick pony. Given that Mann has gone on to become a very respected solo artist, you'd think perhaps they would rethink their initial impressions of 'Til Tuesday. Regardless, I'm here to tell you that not only is 'Til Tuesday deserving of your respect, but thatVoices Carry was actually one of the best and most underrated new wave albums of the '80s.

It's not that there's anything particularly complicated about the album. There isn't. All of the band members are competent at their given instruments, but none of them are doing anything especially striking or difficult. Mann's vocals are strong, but this being her first album as a singer, she's given at times to little vocal affectations that an older, more experienced Mann grew confident enough to let go of. The one standout element of Voices Carry is the consistency of the songwriting. All of the songs on the album are credited to Mann for lyrics and to the full band for music, so it's not really clear who wrote what. But certainly someone knew what they were doing.

The song everyone knows is the title track, and deservedly so. "Voices Carry" reached number eight on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and the video for the song was in heavy rotation at MTV. It's supposedly based on Mann's breakup with 'Til Tuesday drummer Michael Hausman. It details an emotionally abusive relationship wherein the singer is constantly stifled by her lover, who shuts her down whenever she tries to express her feelings to him with the famous refrain "Hush hush, keep it down now/Voices carry." At the end of the video, she wigs out on him in the middle of a concert at Carnegie Hall as he tries futilely to calm her down. It's a memorable song, and to the best of my knowledge, it's the only 'Til Tuesday song that Mann occasionally still performs at her live shows.

"Love in a Vacuum", the first song on the album, was originally supposed to be the first single. An early demo for it won a contest on Boston's WBCN radio and received significant airplay on the station, which is what led to the band getting signed by Epic Records. This is another song about a failing relationship, as the singer accuses the boyfriend who used to open every door for her of becoming distant and reclusive. Like "Voices Carry", it's another mid-tempo number that opens with a slow, chunky baseline and is carried largely by Mann's emotive singing, this time aided by some nice vocal harmonies thrown in on the chorus.

"You Know the Rest" is one of my favorite songs on the album. It's powered by a slightly mawkish but effective synthesizer line, as Mann tries to explain to the lover she tried unsuccessfully to warn off what a mess she is, even as she realizes that he already knows. It's a simple song, but a poignant one.

Other highlights of Voices Carry include "Maybe Monday", one of the few faster songs in evidence here, and "Don't Watch Me Bleed", which is perhaps the bitterest breakup song on the album, with a chorus of "So don't just kiss me goodbye/That's not what I need/Don't just kiss me goodbye/Don't watch me bleed."

The '80s was a decade full of one-hit wonders and albums that contained a good song or two plus a lot of filler material. Looking back, Voices Carry stands out for me as one of the few albums by a new wave band that is worthwhile from front to back.


Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Squeeze, Yes and Keith Emerson

Figured it was about time for me to post something again besides one of my album reviews I already posted on Sputnik Music.

Finally got out for some live music on Sunday night. Denise and I saw The English Beat and Squeeze at The Paramount in Huntington. Now that the kids are older, we can actually sneak out for a show once in awhile. (The kids stayed home and had a movie night together, ordering Chinese food and watching Sharknado 4. I think they had at least as good a time as we had).

First off, to focus on the club for a minute, I like the ambience of The Paramount. I like the brick walls -- it reminds me of something, maybe of The Bronze in Buffy the Vampire Slayer? The club is a little greedy, though -- $8 for a pretzel, etc. But that's not unusual these days. Two other things are more problematic. First, the sound there has always been so-so. And second, those hip-hugger seats have to go. Overall, though, it's a decent venue, although I actually prefer The Boulton Center and the NYCB Theater at Westbury (or, as I'll always think of it, The Westbury Music Fair). For this particular show, the Paramount was as packed as I've ever seen it.

The English Beat were smoking. I'd never seen them live before, and while they're not one of my very favorite '80s bands, they're worth catching. My favorite songs of theirs are "Save It for Later" and their cover of "Tears of a Clown", and they did a great job on both. Denise was bopping for their whole set.

Squeeze is one of my favorite '80s band. They were quite good, although I think they were a little better the one other time I saw them, about 8 years ago in Westbury. Part of it was me -- I worked some overnights recently, and my sleep schedule is screwed. So unfortunately, I could hardly keep my eyes open for the last hour of the show. But part of it was also that this time out, they played five or six songs from their most recent album, Cradle to the Grave, and it's not that strong an album. Consequently, they didn't have time to play some of their best songs, like "Annie Get Your Gun" or "Vicky Verky".

I'm quibbling, though. They did all their other best stuff, and they really went into overdrive when they played "Another Nail in My Heart", "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)" and "Up the Junction" back-to-back-to-back right before the encore.

It was nice to get out for some live music again. I've got a few other shows coming up, and I'll tell you about them afterwards. (I'd tell you which ones, but I just know one of you guys would rob my house while I was out).

One recent show I was disappointed to miss was last Friday's Blackmore's Night performance at The Patchogue Theater (another great place to see a show). I didn't find out about it until the last minute, and I just wasn't able to work it out to attend. Sucks because I've been waiting for them to play Long Island again.

On the not-quite-so-live music front, I've been enjoying a DVD called Yes -- The Director's Cut over the last few days. It features a pair of concerts from Yes's 35th Anniversary World Tour with the classic lineup of Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, Chris Squire and Alan White. The band is really on for these shows, and in addition to playing most of the stuff you'd expect, they sneak in some other numbers like the rarely-heard-live "We Have Heaven" and the underrated "Magnification". I'd definitely recommend the DVD to any Yes fan. Makes me sad that we lost Chris Squire last year.

Speaking of musicians we lost, I wrote earlier in the year about the deaths of David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Paul Kantner, and about the demise of Prince, but one person I neglected to write about was Keith Emerson. I think that's because his passing made me particularly sad, not so much because he's gone -- let's face it, at this point, a lot of the rock idols of the '70s are reaching that age where they're going to be joining the choir fantastic sooner rather than later.

But for Emerson to go out by suicide seems particularly tragic. According to reports, he had become very depressed because nerve damage was hampering his playing, and with a tour upcoming, he was afraid of embarrassing himself in front of his fans. This is a guy who was a friggin' virtuoso, probably one of the two most dominant rock synth players of his time (along with Rick Wakeman), and it's a shame that instead of looking back with satisfaction at all he'd accomplished in his life, he felt so desperate and depressed that he saw no other way out other than taking his own life.

In the unlikely event one of you older rock gods should ever be reading this blog, I just want to say, don't worry about we fans. You did more than enough to bring us pleasure in your day. Just sit back and enjoy your "golden years", and don't torture yourself over not being able to do all the things you did in the past.

Keith Emerson, rest in peace buddy. You've earned it.


Friday, October 14, 2016

Review of Nine Days' "Snapshots"

I posted this on the Sputnik Music website earlier this afternoon.



To really tell you the story of this album, I have to start at the end and work my way backwards. That's because the last song is a slightly reworked version of "Absolutely (Story of a Girl)", Nine Days' big hit single from their 2000 album, The Madding Crowd. "Absolutely" was huge, hitting #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and #1 on Billboard's Mainstream Top 40 chart. The song appeared on the Dawson's Creek TV show, a popular show with teenagers at the time, where I think many people associated it with the Katie Holmes character Joey Potter. As a Long Islander, I can remember being in Las Vegas at the height of the song's popularity and being proud to hear a local Long Island band played repeatedly all over the country.

In a way, it was a good idea to include the song on the album. The plan, I'm sure, was that it might serve as an extra incentive for potential new fans who don't own the song to pick up the album and get the band's new material and their biggest hit at the same time. The problem is, as soon as those first few notes kick in, it smacks you in the face what's been missing from the rest of the album. If I had the ability to say exactly what it is that makes a hit single, I could probably teach it to bands and make a ton of money. But whatever it is, that extra special something, "Absolutely" had, and still has it. Don't get me wrong, Snapshots is a solid album. It totally has the classic Nine Days sound, and if you've liked the band at all in the past, you're definitely going to find this album enjoyable. But I don't hear an "Absolutely" here, or even necessarily an "If I Am" (the second single off of The Madding Crowd).

"Greenlight" is the song that I think the band is pushing as their new single. It's a song about making the most of the present moment. The song has been growing on me, but to be honest, it's not one of the ones that first jumped out.

If there's a general theme on Snapshots, it's the theme of aging and looking back. And each of the songs that did jump out at me shares in that theme in one way or another.

"Obsolete" is the first song on the album, and it's the one I like best. It has various references to things that are now out of date, like putting a "needle on the record", watching black and white films, sending faxes, and other things that are currently outmoded, as the singer swears to his lover that his love for her is the one thing that will "never be obsolete." The song gets extra credit for the very deliberate synthesizer riffs that give a nod to The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," and for amusing lyrics such as "Superman lost Lois Lane/Because he couldn't find a place to change."

Two other highlights of the album are the title song "Snapshots" and another number called "Conspiracy." "Snapshots" is a song about looking back at your life and remembering the highlights by looking through photographs. "Conspiracy" is another song with clever lyrics, as the singer compares his lost lover to other people who are no longer with us, or who've gone missing, such as Michael Jackson, Jimmy Hoffa, D.B. Cooper and "skinny Elvis".

"Star" is the song that gives away the band's fondest hopes. Here, singer John Hampson laments that while he has a great wife and two kids, and he should be happy, he's not because he still has the dream to be a big rock star. At the end of the song, he tries to bring it back and say that real happiness is that he still gets to play music and at least he's a star to his family. But somehow the lament of those first couple of verses is just a little too real to completely buy the "but it's all good" verse.

I hope I'm wrong about the hit single thing. I've always liked this band, and as a Long Islander, I've always been proud of all they accomplished, and sorry that the record industry kind of screwed them over. In any event, even if they haven't captured that lightning in a bottle again that they did with "Absolutely", Snapshots is a decent and enjoyable album, and I hope that some of you give it a listen.


Rating: 3/5 stars

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Review of The Go-Go's' "Talk Show"

I posted this on the Sputnik Music website earlier today.


Let me start by saying that Talk Show is my favorite album of the '80s. I know, for most people, it's not even their favorite Go-Go's album - 1981's Beauty and the Beat is by far their best-selling album, and even the relatively disappointing Vacation charted higher. But I consider Talk Show to be an underappreciated jewel, and I also consider it an album that in many ways is a perfect standard bearer for the decade.

For me, the '80s was about getting back to basics. After a decade that began with increasing complexity in rock music, complete with concept albums, rock operas and various fusions of rock with jazz and/or classical music, followed by the punk rock movement towards simplified songs and the DIY ethic at the end of the decade, much of the '80s was about bringing pop music and melodic hooks back to rock.

The Go-Go's were emblematic of many '80s bands. Much like Blondie before them, they blended punk and pop together to create a sound that was edgier than pop but more melodic than punk. The fact that they were an all-female band and the first of their kind to write their own songs, play their own instruments and reach number one on the Billboard album charts (and number two on the Billboard singles charts) adds to their historical significance.

Talk Show was the band's third studio album (they only ever made four), and artistically, if not financially, I think it was the high point in their career. 

How do I describe what I love about the album? Should I talk about Belinda Carlisle's throaty vocals? The driving rhythms? The strong vocal harmonies? All of these are important, but in the end, I think it's mostly about the songs. There are definite highlights here, but there's also a consistency of quality throughout that I think was lacking in the first two albums.

"Head Over Heels" is the standout. It starts the album out on an exciting note, as a burst of initial double piano notes is suddenly joined first by the full band and then by Carlisle, as she breathlessly sings "Been running so long/I've nearly lost all track of time." It's a strong opening number for an album, and not surprisingly it went on to frequently become the opening number for the band's live show as well.

Other highlights of Talk Show include the Jane Wiedlin-penned "Forget That Day", a classic love-gone-wrong song that ended Side One on the original vinyl release, "I'm With You", a slower number that highlights Carlisle's husky voice, and "Turn to You," another fast, rocky number that contains one of my favorite lyrics on the album, as the singer complains to her would-be lover "You think falling in love/Means falling to ruin."

I can't make the case that Talk Show is a complicated album - it's not. It takes a relatively simple style of music and just does it really well. We're talking 10 songs worth of delightful '80s pop punk that will as likely as not put a smile on your face. And for me, that's a pretty good thing.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Review of My Favorite's "Love at Absolute Zero"

I posted this on the Sputnik Music website this morning. It's a reworked version of a review I wrote for Good Times in 1999.

I first reviewed this album for a local Long Island music paper a number of years ago when it first came out. At that time I observed that one of the greatest joys in following a local music scene is to keep track of a band for a number of years, watching their growth and development, and then seeing them successfully capture the essence of what you liked about them in the first place on an LP. Love at Absolute Zero by the Long Island band My Favorite turned out to be the first of only two full-length albums ultimately produced by the band. It completely captured all of the promise of the young band I followed through live shows and previously released EPs. If you have any predisposition to like indie-pop, you’re sure to enjoy this album. You might even rank it as a CD for the ages. It’s really that good.

My Favorite consisted of Michael Grace Jr. on vocals, synthesizers, and piano, Andrea Vaughn on vocals and synthesizers, Darren Amadio on lead guitar and assorted other instruments, Gil Abad on bass, and Todbot on drums and percussion. The general sound here is sort of '60s mod meets '80s dance music. However, their songs are sophisticated and well written enough to make that description a gross oversimplification.

Vocally, the album is a sheer delight. Grace’s low, romantic crooning contrasts perfectly with Vaughn’s pure, sweet voice, as they trade leads both between and within songs. If you close your eyes, you might think you’re listening to a British '80s band, such as Human League – Grace even sounds British.

The songs themselves, however, are what really drive the album. The pace varies nicely between upbeat sing-along anthems such as “Let’s Stay Alive”, “Go Kid Go” and the “Informers”, and slow, dreamy synth-songs such as “Party Crashers” and “Between Cafes”. Meanwhile, the lyrics somehow manage to blend a sort of sad, world-weary cynicism with an unexpected optimism and love of life. When you listen to these songs, and to the way that Grace and Vaughn sing them, you can’t help but feel their sincerity. These are people who really like and empathize with their audience.

From a critical point of view, there are few flaws to mention. It might be somewhat disappointing to the band’s followers that popular favorites such as "Cult Hero, Come Home", and “Detectives Of Suburbia” were excluded from the album, and one could pose the argument that the older 7" single version of “Working Class Jacket” was a superior mix to the album version. Really, though, these points are trivial compared to the enormity of what My Favorite achieved on this album – a very complete fulfillment of the promise of their early years.

If you have any love at all for catchy pop tunes, do yourself a favor -- dig this album up and give it a listen.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Review of Future Bible Heroes' "Memories of Love"

This was posted on the Sputnik Music website on October 5:

Memories of Love is an album I've recommended to many friends who are lovers of '80s new wave music, and every one of them has come to back to me and thanked me for it. As for myself, it's my favorite album of the 1990s, even though most people have never heard of it. 

Future Bible Heroes is one of the several musical projects of Stephin Merritt, best known as the main creative force behind the band The Magnetic Fields. The rest of FBH consists of Chris Ewen of the band Figures on a Beach on keyboards and strange electronic loops, and Merritt's lifelong friend/manager/social director Claudia Gonson on electronic drums and vocals.

It's hard to describe the sound of the album. I've recommended the requisite four "similar albums" requested with a Sputnik review, but while each shares something in common with Memories of Love, sometimes that commonality is more spiritual than sonic, with the exception of Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, which I find to be more sparse soundwise. I think the difference between those two bands' sound has to do largely with Ewen's synthesizers and the little electronic bits of weirdness he inserts to fill in the aural gaps. The Future Bible Heroes sound has been described variously as indiepop, synthpop and possibly most accurately by Wikipedia as "electronica-based disco." There are things in their sound that remind me of such '80s bands as Thompson Twins and The Human League, but those bands' synths flow a little more smoothly, while Ewen's and Gonson's electronic sounds tend to pulse.

As opposed to later FBH albums, where Gonson performs most of the vocals, here the leads are evenly split between her and Merritt, which keeps the sound constantly fresh. There's something a little nasal about Gonson's voice, but in spite of that, I find it kind of beautiful. Merritt has one of those really low voices in the range of Tom Smith of Editors or Matt Berninger of The National. It's probably an acquired taste for some, but I think it works well with his own material.

As for the songwriting, Merritt's lyrics are clever and funny at the same time they're often hopeless and despairing. He's more in the tradition of Morrissey or Boy George than of most happy new wave music, but with a real strain of some of the old moon/June-style songwriters of the '30s-'50s such as Sammy Cahn and Julie Styne (e.g., "You know why the lemmings fly from high terrain/You know why most flowers don't bloom/You know why sad children stay out in the rain/Sitting in your lonely room," from "And You're So Beautiful").

There are 11 songs on the album, and they range from stories in the tradition of '50s-style beach party sci-fi films ("She-Devils of the Deep") to humorous songs about lust and despair in a trailer park ("Hopeless"). 

This is the only album of the 1990s I've given a 5 rating too. If you're an admirer of '80s new wave, chances are you'll enjoy Memories of Love.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Review of They might Be Giants' "Phone Power"

Posted on the Sputnik Music Website on September 30:

I had it in my head that this was going to be kind of a throwaway album, but there's actually some pretty good stuff on here.

For the unfamiliar, They Might Be Giants are essentially the duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell. In the mid-'80s, one of the ways they promoted themselves was by setting up "Dial-A-Song", where they would record a new song every day on their answering machine, and people could call in and listen to the song for free. Over the years, the Dial-A-Song service evolved, first into a website, and then into podcasts, until it was eventually discontinued in 2008.

In 2015, the TMBG announced they were reviving the Dial-A-Song service for a full year. Ultimately, the songs on the new service were released as three separate albums, Glean and Why? in 2015, and Phone Power in 2016.

I have to admit, I haven't listened to Glean or Why?, but when I was looking for some new music to check out earlier this year, I decided to give Phone Power a try. I'm glad I did.

There are 18 tracks on the album, and I'd be lying if I said all of them good. But I'd say that at least half of them are decent, and a few are excellent.

My favorite so far is a strange number called "Trouble Awful Devil Evil". This is a slow, dreamy song with sweet-voiced vocals and some weird electronic pulsing going on, as the protagonist describes blissfully sinking into a bottomless pit and falling for 10,000 years, all of the while remaining oblivious to an armageddon going on around him. And haven't we all been there?

Two other strong tracks are "ECNALUBMA" and "I Love You for Psychological Reasons". I'd describe both of them as being in the same classic TMBG style as their 1988 single "Anna Ng", where the individual lines of the chorus went on way longer than lines usually do, all the while slithering and twisting off into unexpected musical directions. "ECNALUBMA" describes the sudden destructive impulses felt by the singer at the birth of the title character of the song, who seems to be a sort of demon or elder god of some kind. As for "I Love You for Psychological Reasons", it could be about insanity. Or a psychologically abusive relationship. Or both. Or neither. I have no idea, as the lyrics wind along in a dizzyingly and maybe directionless fashion. The one thing I do know is that I like it.

There's also a speeded up and rockier alternate version of "Black Ops", a song originally recorded on the band's 2013 Nanobots album. I think this one benefits greatly from the speeded up pace.

As you can tell, the album abounds with examples of TMBG's strange sense of humor, as people go back in time to thwart one another's assassins (but not really), characters wear Yoda masks and talk like Lou Ferrigno at a convention, and shape shifters take over the planet.

They Might Be Giants has never been everyone's cup of tea. But if you've enjoyed their past material, you'll like them here too. Dial-A-Song or not, this is definitely not a throwaway album.


Rating: 3/5 stars