Monthly Archives: February 2009

55. Ben Folds – “Songs for Silverman”

This was fancily packaged CD was purchased in the afterglow of one of Benny boy’s rousing sologigs. The new tunes he played on the evening in question were sufficiently memorable and engaging to prompt acquisition.


Much of the rambunctiousness of his earlier incarnation has faded, replaced by a somewhat jazzier Joe Jackson/Billy Joel piano-man feel. While I own nothing from those two gentleman (but I am a fan of JJ’s Real Men and Is She really Going Out With Him) it is an ideal format to explore human emotion etc. Of course, it can also be a domain prone to lyrical self-indulgence and keyboard trickery.

Folds delivers some quality songs on this – Trusted, Landed, and Bastard – all break-up tracks yet again. I guess that’s sure to be a common source of inspiration when you keep churning through partners like BF does! Several others are too pedestrian or cringe-worthy – like his ode to his little daughter (Gracie).

I also bought a 7″ off this album in pursuit of one of his live classics – a Dr.Dre cover that is unlikely to be suitable for your workplace (excessive swearing but much hilarity ensues):

File under: Satisfying solo sojourn

Note: The alpabetically inclined among you may be pondering the “B” status of this CD.  It should be in “F”, but is kept alongside his earlier banded incarnation for convenience’s sake.

54. Ben Folds Five – “Whatever & Ever Amen”

And so we depart the tea-sipping world of Belle and Sebastian for the somewhat more raucous world of Ben Folds and his buddies.

ben-folds-five-whatever-ever-amen-album-coverBack  in 1996, one (or both) of my housemates owned BF5’s debut album and we went close to wearing the disc out as we jumped around to Underground and Julianne.  The piano-driven rock was infectious and the lyrics erudite.  I caught them live and it translated very well to stage.

Somehow I never got around to buying that CD.  When I hooked up years later with my now wife, it was great to discover she owned their follow up release.  Even better, it is a more consistent set of tunes. 

The big ‘hit’ here was Brick, a cleverly ambiguous abortion saga.  Folds nails a couple of breakup tunes, one soppy (Smoke), the other hilarious (Song for the Dumped). This album only has a couple of dud efforts, and otherwise contains most of my faves from his songbook.

Ben Folds constructs rousing, diverse and durable songs. He is perhaps the international artist for whom I have the highest ratio of gigs-seen-to-albums-owned.  This album is ample justification for going along each time.

File under: Plonky piano pleasure

53. Belle and Sebastian – “The Life Pursuit”

I’m a sucker for overly packaged CDs. Bonus tracks, an extra disc (be it CD or DVD), or a fancy booklet are sure to catch my eye in the visual chaos of your typical music bazaar.

belle-and-sebastian-the-life-pursuit-album-coverThis release delivers on three fronts- with a cardboard faux hardcover-book, extensive liner notes (including Q&A with the band) and a six track DVD performed live in a BBC studio. How can one not feel sated with such a smorgasbord of offerings?

Of course, these sundries are fleeting in their appeal and impact. The DVD gets one viewing. The Q&As are giggled at while watching the clips but forgotten. And the damn packaging becomes a nuisance as it hogs the CD rack. So inevitably we return to the actual music.

The tunes are hit and miss. The band has mastered the poppy up-tempo single, with White Collar Boy and Funny Little Frog showing out as go-to tracks. Alas the remainder of the album is rather forgettable slower numbers. Strangely, what was once the group’s core competency – the melancholy and dark ballad – has become their weak-spot. Their attempts on that front struggle here (except Act of the Apostle II). Anyway, time to move on for us…

File Under: Mutton dressed as lamb

52. Belle and Sebastian – “Dear Catastrophe Waitress”

You can indeed teach an elderly canine new tricks. Clearly responding with incredible foresight to my criticisms of yesterday, Belle and Sebastian pulled a whole new rabbit out of their dusty headwear with this release back in late-2003.

belle-and-sebastian-dear-catastrophe-waitress-album-coverThe band adopt a substantially more upbeat, poppy, and occasionally bliss-filled, approach on this album. Thumping tom-beats drive a few songs into the genuinely danceable domain, and the harmonies are almost Beach-Boys-esque, at least on the opening track.

B&S pull out all stops to engage and excite the listener. There is genuine diversity from track-to-track. There is a strong sense of fun. That opener is built wonderfully around a range of almost single entendres, and the delightful Step Into My Office catchphrase. In my fantasy world the cardie wearers in this band are closet fans of Harland Williams’ Something about Mary performance below and are paying homage to his final line:

Perhaps my favourite B&S tune appears here too – the novella-quality Piazza, New York Catcher, and followed up with the ultra-light I’m a Cuckoo.

The album is not perfect.  There is some encroaching dullness as the album drags on…

But bless them for taking risks.

File under: Inventive and intoxicating

51. Belle and Sebastian – “Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant”

As an academic, and an empiricist, I have a strong tendency to seek out patterns in phenomena. Listening to this 4th outing from the Belle and Sebastian, two hypotheses bear pondering.

belle-and-sebastian-fold-your-hands-child-peasant-album-cover1. Might it be possible that bands regress rather than advance in terms of the quality of their output over their career?

2. While there may be little relationship between the number of words in an album title and it’s quality (my top 10 includes a considerable range), perhaps titles of extreme length (>6 words?) are indicative of desperation on an act’s behalf.

My suspicion is that my Decline hypotheses only holds when firms refuse to adapt and therefore lose the ‘spark’ that once made them intriguing. We have, of course, already seen several acts who, through innovativeness, were reinvigorated.

B&S are treading a very fine line on this release. They are ‘burdened’ with a unique sound – a style requiring considerable concentration (by listeners) to discern nuance.

They are trying hard to mix it up. Female lead vocals add some diversity. Several tracks are poppier with Murdoch’s voice more prominent. Much is melancholic. All in all, it still doesn’t reach the heights of their debut, but is still a competent effort.

File under: Workman-like but not wow-worthy

50 done…

So I have listened to and pontificated about 50 albums thus far, and thought I’d take this weekend to rest and to ponder the lessons from 10,000 words of reviewing:

  1. That this whole project is going to take a hell of a long time. Since it started I’ve already added about 8 more albums to the “to be reviewed” pile.
  2. That the front end of my collection is not very representative of my broader listening habits. It has been noticeably under-rock for example.
  3. That I am harsh on those acts of whom I have strong expectations.
  4. That I bore easily when faced with multiple output from a given performer.
  5. That compilation albums are not a great idea (yet shuffle on the iPod is)
  6. That the world is littered with a lot of filler.

But overall I’ve relished the experience (and the feedback from you all). And I will persist. I was delighted to inspire one reader to embark upon a much better music blog idea. And it triggered me to think about the music biz more generally (and blog about it on my other blog).

OK, back to the listening…

50. Belle and Sebastian – “The Boy with the Arab Strap”

Hmmm, I thought the B&S folks were on to a winning formula, yet this release is a little underwhelming. The rich field alluded to in yesterday’s review is starting to feel a little less fertile.

belle-and-sebastian-the-boy-with-the-arab-strap-album-coverI struggle to explain what lets the album down. Perhaps I’m losing the energy to listen closely enough to the vocals. And I’m craving a bit more diversity in sound.

The band is trying a few new things, like letting folks other than Murdoch sing. There is some relief in hearing a less capable singer on Seymour Stein and Chickfactor, although neither track is particularly strong. Isobel Campbell’s outing is more engaging if almost a little too ethereal. And the spoken word space tune is just rubbish… other than for showcasing a wonderful brogue.

This is in no way a terrible album. The highpoints are still pretty irresistible. The opening song It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career almost outdoes The Smiths in terms of witty melancholia – songs lamenting strokes in young adults will do that. Similarly Ease Your Feet in the Seas and The Summer Wasted are the songs in the B&S catalogue that most justify the oft-made Lucksmiths comparisons.

File under: Band democracy isn’t a good thing

49. Belle and Sebastian – “If You’re Feeling Sinister”

My favourite sport is what we in Australia call ‘athletics’. As such, any recording that opens with a tune titled Stars of Track and Field was bound to win my heart.

belle-and-sebastian-if-youre-feeling-sinister-album-coverThat song is indeed a gem on this sophmoric outing, lauding as it does discus adventures in “terry underwear”.

The Hibernian ensemble plough the same rich field of clever lyrics and lush orchestrations as on their impressive debut. The album is ever so slightly more hit and miss however, and the vocals start to wear a little thin as they swirl in very familiar fashion from one track to the next.

The very best pieces are highly memorable and catchy, such as Judy and the Dream of Horses, Me and the Major, the title track and the aforementioned athletic anthem. Murdoch continues to impress with his unique take on sardonic adolescence (think Holden Caufield with a stonger melodic sense).

Of course, the trap with second albums is that they simply don’t surprise as much. I’ve never found this CD as engaging as their first. It would benefit from a bit more variety in style. It is still very strong however, and equally well-suited to lolling contemplation.

File under: Sweet yet caustic

48. Belle and Sebastian – “Tigermilk”

I lack the following habits/attributes: a strong fondness for cardigans; pasty skin; floppy hair; an effete demeanour; vegetarianism. Nevertheless, I am partial to the work of this Scottish troupe.

belle-and-sebastian-tigermilk-album-coverOccasionally debut releases see a band hit the ground running very fast. They emerge from some cocoon fully-formed and with a unique sound or unparallelled level of competence. B&S do this in spades.

The vibe here is library-ensconced (i.e. literary), witty and dry, all wrapped up in a luscious sound. In many ways, B&S’s tweeness have been overstated. They are really just a pop band with high levels of musical nous. They are not afraid to experiment with instrumentation, and can sound like a less-miserable Joy Division (see Electric Renaissance), the Go-Betweens (I Don’t Love Anyone), or like no one else.

This isn’t an album you’d put on to get the room up dancing (well maybe swaying). Rather it is more suited for lounging around alone contemplating dust motes in the sunshine or rain upon the window. Having the opportunity to listen closely to Stuart Murdoch’s delightfully subversive lyrics is a must.

File under: Delectable debut

47. Beck – “The Information”

This album came with a rather nifty little package whereby the album cover is really just a sheet of graph paper and you can thus design your own unique cover by applying the accompanying set of stickers. Below on the left is my rather uninspired effort.

beck-the-information-album-cover-stickersbeck information graph album coverAfter listening to the album in the context of my week-long Beckfest, on the right is an album cover he might have also considered…

Put simply this is Beck on cruise-control. He has added nothing to his arsenal. He wanders rather aimlessly through a raft of highly forgettable tunes. He doesn’t seem committed to much at all here. There is limited sampling, no latin rhythms, no anti-folk ballads. It’s just plain dull.

I challenge anyone to listen to this album and identify a memorable effort beyond the single Nausea. Said song, which sees him sounding almost Cave-esque in the verses, rescues this album from complete oblivion.

This album did come with a DVD featuring videos for each track. They are equally shoddy and bland.

I haven’t bothered to buy Beck’s follow-up outing “Modern Guilt”. Perhaps he rode his career-curve back up…

File under: Shark-jumping misinformation