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Popular Music - Part 38 - November, 2000

Graham Vine

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"All by Myself - The Best of Eric Carmen"

Eric Carmen

BMG; 74321 709072

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I can hear echoes of The Beach Boys, Dr Hook, Bloodstone, Elton John, Rod Stewart, and even The Rolling Stones as I listen to this recently-released "Best of..." from Eric Carmen. Not all on the same tracks, but a good sign of the variety in songs and arrangements put together by Eric. But I'm getting ahead of myself as I really should start with a confession.

This album nestles in my collection purely because of track 1. Having kept an eye open for "All By Myself", the single, appearing on other compilations, I am now delighted that the track was held back for Eric's own compilation. Otherwise, I would have missed this assembled mass of superb music.

So what is so special about track 1 that would make me squander the price of an album on it? Being based upon Rachmaninoff's 2nd Concerto for Piano is an excellent starting point, and his lyric seems to match impeccably. There are tempo changes, instrumental breaks, and exciting dynamics which make it one of the most perfect pop-songs ever.

The remaining 16 songs on this 76 minute CD reach up to this high plateau and do not fall far short of it. The Beach Boys style of close harmonies on several of the tracks are particularly pleasing and show a lot of skill in their construction and execution. For sheer fun, how about "Take It Or Leave It" illustrating how the Stones' "Brown Sugar" might have sounded by Rod Stewart? And if Brian Wilson had got hold of "Natural High", it might have turned out like track 14, "Someday".

The songs use a nice selection of backings - lush strings where needed, rock-guitar for a sharp edge, and invariably, a piano tinkling away somewhere in there. The whole lot holds together with a clearly outlined lead vocal from Eric, the harmonies being a backing group, in the main, rather than pairing-up with the lead. The album is a lot to get through in one sitting, but now I wouldn't dream of just playing that solitary track I initially chose.

For reference, complete track listing:

1. All By Myself

2. Never Gonna Fall In Love Again

3. Hey Deanie

4. Make Me Lose Control

5. Change Of Heart

6. She Did It

7. It Hurts Too Much

8. No Hard Feelings

9. Boats Against The Current

10. Sunrise

11. I Think I Found Myself

12. Nowhere To Hide

13. Take It Or Leave It

14. Someday

15. Love Is All That Matters

16. Last Night

17. Run Away

- GV -

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"Ryde or Die: Vol II"

Ruff Ryders

Interscope; 490 625-2

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The album is only 2 lines into its first track when the language gets so bad that the rest of that track gets skipped in the hope of finding some material of merit later on in the CD. At least the cover is labelled 'Parental Advisory Explicit Content'. Shocking is a valid artistic technique but only if there is some skill in use or some deep message burning to be communicated. It is, therefore, open to analysis as to whether this is a serious creative endeavor or simply taking a gullible public for a 'ryde'.

"Ryde Or Die Vol II" is hard-core rap, and there is very little variety to temper the depressingly incessant grind of a beat. Hey, lighten-up, guys! Maybe even try some music! The backing to the rap is comprised of some sampling but generally a thumping beat with (I presume) synthesizer chords thrown in. There is nothing by way of dynamics and negligible use of tempo change to create some interest.

Track 8 is exceptional in having no backing music or beat, just a supposed telephone conversation. It is revealing in its language and its message, as per the title. The danger is that the hate feeds on itself, with profiteering record companies happy to provide the fuel. 

The only track that held my attention was #12. It is a little faster tempo than the rest and has some actual chord sequences. But the message does seem to communicate some compassion and therefore shows some hope. Apart from that small light in the distance, I found nothing on this album to admire and far less, enjoy.

For reference, complete track listing:

1. WW III

2. Two Tears In A Bucket

3. Got It All

4. Ryde Or Die Boyz

5. It's A Holiday

6. Holiday

7. Weed, Hoes, Dough

8. F@@@ Da Haters

9. Fright Night

10. My Name Is Kiss

11. Twisted Heat

12. Go Head

- GV -

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"The Lead and How to Swing It

Tom Jones

MCA; 492 498-2

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Apparently, this album was released a few years back, making absolutely zero impact on this listener due to lack of exposure. Now re-released, perhaps I will redress the balance to some extent. Since I am not really a Tom Jones fan, this work had an uphill struggle ahead of it. I am pleased to report success!

For international readers who might not be familiar with British colloquialisms, the expression 'to swing the lead' comes from sea-farers pretending to work to hide their laziness. By no stretch of the imagination is there any sign of a lack of effort on this album. Tom has lungs like blacksmith's bellows and knows how to put them to good use. By the way, 'lead' has other connotations which are best left unwritten. 

In general the tracks err on the funky-soul side of pop. There are exceptions, but it is interesting to hear the trend taken even to the extent of some spoken segments. Not exactly rap but a nod in that direction. Then again, the use of trumpet/saxophone stabs takes us back to some of the roots of soul music. With a rhythm similar to Simply Red's "Fairground", track 7 latches on to a very successful trend. But "I'm Ready" has some nasty 'twizzle-wizzle' noises on top of a weak song that make it a permanent 'skip' for me. And track 8 drones on in a simply aggravating way. 

My favorites are Jeff Lynne's "Lift Me Up", following reasonably closely the original from "Armchair Theatre", and a lovely balad in "I Wanna Get Back With You", showing sensitivity I've never heard before from Tom Jones. The former has Jeff as producer and features regular collaborator Jim Horn on saxophone. "I Wanna..." receives a helping-hand from Tori Amos.  

There is much to enjoy in "The Lead and How To Swing It" - for me about three-quarters of the songs. The voice is as strong as ever, and the conclusion has to be yes, Tom does know 'how to swing it'. 

For reference, complete track listing:

1. If I Only Knew

2. A Girl Like You

3. I Wanna Get Back With You

4. Situation

5. Something For Your Head

6. Fly Away

7. Love Is On Our Side

8. I Don't Think So

9. Lift Me Up

10. Show Me

11. I'm Ready

12. Changes


 - GV -

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"ModernRock.compilation"

Various Artists

ModernRock.com; HSV 12386

 
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The temptation to go out and buy 12 CDs from the acts featured in ModernRock.compilation is very strong. So, as a marketting ploy, this sampler hits the target spot-on. I was familiar with a couple of the tracks: those from Paul Cote and Big Honey. Please see reviews numbers 35 and 37 respectively for comments on those, but suffice to say they were well received. So what of the rest? I think my opening remark answers this one. 

The album opener is quite funky though with a light backing, augmented by plenty of percussion in the form of bongos as well as drums. Like several of the songs on the album, vocals are semi-whispered in parts, with other sections having a deliberate distortion, giving a contrast to emphasize certain sections of the well-written and nicely ironic lyric. Track 2 moves into a slowish punk or maybe grunge style - here the contrast is between the female singer whispering and suddenly shouting. 

My personal favorite is Pedastool. The meaningful lyric leads you to empathize with this man, expressing his adoration for his girlfriend. She makes him feel 'on top of the world'. The way the verse and middle-eight lead into the chorus is totally natural, and Rocketscience must be very proud of their husky-voiced lead singer.  The Irresponsibles have an interesting way with modulations, and each verse builds from a 'harmless'-sounding twangy guitar into a crescendo of a chorus. There is more whispering on track 5, which is pleasant enough, but when we reach Big Atomic, we are definitely in 'Rock Classic' territory. That chorus could have come from Toto, Foreigner, or Boston. Great. Track 7 was a little disappointing to me, though there are some nice contrasts in the instrumental passages.

The album finishes off with the vocalist in Exit 57 sounding a lot like Katrina from Katrina & The Waves (and that's no bad thing), and a Corrs type of song/arrangement to end. All in all a very rewarding listen. If these songs are typical of the artists they represent, and my experiences over tracks 8 and 10 suggest they are, then there is a lot of success just around the corner for these acts. 

For reference, complete track listing:

1. Scarecrow Adams: The Jesus Game

2. Jucifer: Superman

3. Rocketscience: Pedastool

4. Irresponsibles: Tales of An Unfortunate Psycho

5. Track One A. B.: Reverie

6. Big Atomic: Breathe

7. Voodoomen: If I Die Or Live

8. Paul Cote: Jet Fighter

9. Channeling Owen: Spice Line Vision

10. Big Honey: Long Haul

11. Exit 57: Staged

12. Alison Pipitone: Something About The Truth

- GV -

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"Fear of Flying"

Mya

Interscope; 490 640-2

 
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With an artist like Mya appearing on the scene of this particular reviewer without any provenance, I can listen, absorb, appreciate, and write down my findings without any pre-conceptions. That the experience was, on the whole, enjoyable is therefore a true reflection of how this lady performs now rather than a verdict reached from, and based upon, any reputation. Apparently Mya's previous outings on the pop scene have been reliant on an earlier persona of teen-girl. "Fear Of Flying" is to be judged as the work of a woman, albeit a youthful one. 

Dance rhythms, and there are some interestingly complex beats, form the backdrop to these tracks. A gentle vocal style with plenty of delightful close-harmonies provide the main communication. A helpful, clearly printed set of sleeve-notes allow the listener to follow all the words, though truthfully, they are generally clear enough as input through the ears. 

Several of the tracks feature a quiet, softly-spoken part; too gentle to be categorized with the bulk of the harsh rap that is all too prevalent. The male/female mix works very well, suggesting the build-up of relationships that the womanly Mya is working on. And here the songs work on at least two different levels. For a younger, more innocent audience, the beat and choral singing provide a nice soundtrack whilst growing up. For the more mature listener, the deeper stirrings are obvious enough.

The album is cleverly put together, tapping into modern grooves and concerns, and no trouble has been spared in producing just what was intended. Chances are, the various cross-sections of the record-buying public want it too. 

For reference, complete track listing:

1. Turn It Up (Intro)

2. Case Of The Ex

3. Ride & Shake

4. That's Why I Wanna Fight

5. Pussycats

6. The Best Of Me feat. Jadakiss

7. Lie Detector feat. Beenie Man

8. How You Gonna Tell Me

9. Grandma Says (skit)

10. Takin' Me Over feat. Left Eye

11. Now Or Never

12. Fear Of Flying

13. Flying (Interlude)

14. Can't Believe

15. No Tears On My Pillow

16. For The First Time

17. Man In My Life

18. Get Over (Outro)

- GV -

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"Room in a Basement

Lindsey Thompson

Keystone; KS 070 40012

 
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There are too many divisions in this world, and the rift between the dance and rock branches of pop music is one that should be bridged as often as possible. The song arrangements on this album do much to cross the divide, and a great deal of the credit for this must go to Rob Derbyshire and John Conlon, rhythm artists with Lindsey. Some of the drums are programmed, while some of them are live. I admit to finding it impossible to distinguish between them; the only exception I noticed was a thunderous crash of a snare during the chorus of "Got To Give".

The song arrangements are fantastic. They really make the most of the melodies - and these are strong tunes. The mixture and variety that are in there prove that the instrumentalists have plenty of scope. This skill has allowed the producers to draw on the style that suits, resulting in no two tracks sounding alike. There are acoustic guitars, electric and bass guitars, strings, and superb use of keyboards, worthy of the great Richard Tandy. One of my favorite passages in the CD is at the end of track 2. Extra keyboards, possibly the Wurlitzer mentioned, are introduced immediately after the chorus-repeats near the end of the track. All the other instruments fade, leaving just that sound, an improvisation on the chord sequence for the final 20 seconds. Absolute spine-tingling stuff.

And so to the vocal. Lindsey has a powerful voice - little by way of vibrato, so nothing to annoy there. I found no straying from the correct pitch, and even fast sections with range-testing leaps are executed to perfection. But for this listener, there is something wrong which I have tried hard to analyze. My verdict is that Lindsey's voice is so strong that to place it as high in the mix as on "Room In A Basement", the album, is denying the subtlety that should result from having that voice at one's disposal. In consequence, by the end of the CD, I was finding it just too piercing to enjoy anymore. It also meant that the diction that I would hope to be sharper is highlighted too much.

The album so nearly makes it that I have to give high marks - any other reviewer may give it 10 out of 10. For the future, I would recommend Lindsey use more of her dynamic range, bringing out the quieter qualities and giving the producer even more freedom to balance the whole thing with extra timbre available. 

For reference, complete track listing:

1. I'm Waiting

2. A Woman Who Can Be

3. Charlie

4. Room In A Basement

5. So He Said

6. Got To Give

7. What's Wrong With That

8. I Say Nothing

9. A Little Melancholy

10. Pure White Satin

11. Common Knowledge

12. Time Won't Wait


 - GV -

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"Vavoom!"

The Brian Setzer Orchestra

Interscope; 490 733-2

 
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Pop music takes a twist now and again, and this time it's a revival of big-band swing. It is given an up-to-date treatment and led by (of all things) an electric guitar. Brian Setzer did a similar trick throughout the '80s when he fronted the Stray Cats and rocked up the charts world-wide. This particular marriage, like the last one, works in the context of both the old and new genres. It had me rushing for some original Glenn Miller to check on a few details. Brian's lead-guitar work is incredibly skillful, matching original arrangements for trumpets and trombones impeccably. 

As you might expect from the inclusion of some old favorites, a different approach was needed from that of the originals, and Brian gives it one. These are high-energy tracks and somewhat fatiguing to listen to over an extended period. Fine for a single play-through, though. Words are much in evidence on all tracks except "Caravan" - many have been 'augmented' or specially-written for the Brian Setzer Orchestra. I always thought that "In The Mood" was an instrumental. Elsewhere, we find a very excited party going on!

This is a long way from the updating performed by Jive Bunny, but even they had the much-admired John Anderson Band to provide the standard versions of the Miller favorites. That, to me, is preferable to Brian's remakes, but anyone feeling the need to get on down and jitterbug should give Vavoom! a listen. 

For reference, complete track listing: 

1. Pennsylvania 6-5000

2. Jumpin' East of Java

3. Americano

4. If You Can't Rock Me

5. Gettin' In The Mood

6. Drive Like Lightning (Crash Like Thunder)

7. Mack The Knife - as near as perfect to the Bobby Darin version

8. Caravan

9. The Footloose Doll

10. From Here To Eternity

11. That's The Kind of Sugar Papa Likes

12. '49 Mercury Blues

13. Jukebox

14. Gloria

- GV -

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"Off the Hook"

Various Artists

25 Records; 25F024

 
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Is there a severe lack of vocal talent around these days? Not a complaint I had thought of raising up 'til now, but unavoidable after listening through all 19 tracks by 19 acts on the new "25 Records" compilation "Off The Hook".

All of the songs are well-written with good instrumentation, well mixed, and interesting. The division of tracks between those I would want to hear again and again , and those I could happily permanently delete, is solely down to the vocal.

Track 1 is a portent with its vocal being a bit weak and shaky. Blaze fare rather better, and the 'all I need is a miracle' quote is very welcome. Note this isn't the Mike & The Mechanics song. The pretend newsreader was not very convincing - more like an eye-in-the-sky reporter than an authoritative newsreader. X-Hail's "Hang On To Your Happiness" has one of the best vocals on the album, sounding tight and well-controlled - just what the song needs. But track 4 does even better. It starts quietly and moodily, then bursts forth in verse 2 with a loud, loud sequence. Not a new trick, but it works here, and the song is very catchy too. 

Tracks 5 and 6 again suffer the vocal-malaise.  Despite a lovely evocative backing, The Gladys' vocal is terrible. Shiver Slinky's is not that well in touch with the melody.  Track 7 grew on me after a few playings. Starting off with some nice '70s disco effects, the half-spoken, half-sung lyric didn't fit particularly well, but I got used to it. Oli-Pop: that just burbles on.  "Core" is quite a weak song, but here the heavy rock treatment and the vocals save it, turning it into a highlight of the compilation. Track 10 by The Chimes (surely not the 'UK, male/female vocal/instrumental group of the late '80s/early '90s?) is probably the best track on the album. It starts off like "Something In The Air" and then builds with some delicious lead and rhythm guitar. The vocal is quite endearing, and the backing is great. Interstate also do themselves justice with a reminiscence of Billy Idol's "White Wedding" in track 11. The organ sounds excellent, and I particularly enjoyed their vocal harmonies.  

Track 12 came as something of an anticlimax with its slightly folksie sound and child-like lyric. Tantrum came in with a heavier sound, and the vocals are OK but a bit whiney. Roundwound's were not OK, because they were out of tune. Dallas Prison belt in with a very fast song, pretty well sung and a good catchy chorus. And "Always" is a really attractive song, well performed by Calmer. Now track 17 sounds a bit 'Beatly' to me in its songwriting and instrumentation. Unfortunately, the singing is more like Oasis. The vocals on "Stream Of Consciousness" sounds like it's got that slight quiver at the end of held notes, in a Marc Bolan sort of way. Finally, there is Parkstone Dub Foundation with their very worthy message, but who is going to struggle to listen to that badly spoken passage under a mound of distortion?

So a waste of a lot of material on this album leaving me thinking that if they have something to say - a message in the song - they should at least state it clearly. That's reasonable, isn't it?

For reference, complete track listing:

1. Osmosis: Luv Buzz

2. Blaze: Step In

3. X-Hail: Hang On To Your Happiness

4. Car-Crane: Liam Is Cool

5. The Gladys: 89/99

6. Shiver Slinky: Sourdine

7. Red Ash And The Love Commandos: Nothing

8. Oli-Pop: Don't You Just Love It

9. Bluster: Core

10. The Chimes: Shake The Shelter

11. Interstate: Throw It Away

12. Ascension: Everything In Nature Cries

13. Tantrum: The Girl With Two Faces

14. Roundwound: Dirty Ol' Money

15. Dallas Prison: It's OK

16. Calmer: Always

17. Maldune: Under The Sea

18. Dr Jan (Guru): Stream Of Consciousness

19. Parkstone Dub Foundation: Women's Rights.

- GV -

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"Travis Pickle

Travis Pickle

Lunsea; 30699

 
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It is very difficult to pin down the style of Travis Pickle, and that pleases me no end. They cannot be stereotyped, because no two tracks on their album are alike. It's full of good ideas, but no tricks and techniques stand out like the proverbial 'sore thumb' because they are totally integrated into the shape of each individual track. The music is on the rock side of pop, but please, let me illustrate how such a varied and interesting set of 13 songs comes together.

For a start-off, then, I was floored by the vocals of Carla Capretto. This voice is the smooooothest I have heard in, well, probably, forever. Even on fairly fast songs like "Motorcycle Man", that quality is not compromised by the verbal dexterity demanded. And the close miking on "Mr Boyfriend" works so well that there are times when the voice, at full level in the mix, must have been so quiet that Carla's vocal chords were only just barely operating. Incredible. 

There are some great harmonies sung by Travis Pickle. Pete Min takes some of the lead vocals, and not just the songs with heavier guitar work. His voice is good with a clear tone and a twang to it that spices up all his songs. 

For instrumentation, contrast if you will the backing track of "Better" in its "Working My Way Back To You" style with the fuzz guitar on "Cheesehead" and "One More Time". Then, with that in your head, try and grasp the 'avant-garde' fumblings just asking to be accompanied by a light show on "Misery". I liked the way the lyric in "Sound Of Sleep" is taken at its word in the time signature. The song moves along in a straightforward common-time sort of way, and then, just as the words say 'Shall I change', it does! A smooth changeover to 3/4 time for that sequence, and then it gently transitions back to 4/4. 

I would recommend a visit to the band's website at: www.travispickle.com because their album has been a revelation to this reviewer. I fear the name might get muddled with 'Travis' by some, but then there have been similar sounding group names in the past, and we must just be clear in the record stores when we say 'Travis Pickle, yes that's Travis Pickle'.

For reference, complete track listing:

1. Motorcycle Man

2. Misery

3. Better

4. Cheesehead

5. Born Again

6. Mr. Boyfriend

7. Sound Of Sleep

8. You Always

9. It's Not U It's Me

10. One More Time

11. 13 x's A Day

12. Silver Spoon

13. Deaf Dumb And Blind


 - GV -

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Copyright 2000 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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