Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Top Five Music Purchases of 2011

As someone who tends to buy a lot of music each year, I have to attest that this year was no different. However, I am starting to notice that, more than ever, physical product is becoming harder and harder to find in a box store. Thankfully, there’s still some great record stores in my area. Sadly, they don’t always carry the exact title I’m after and I’m forced to just find it online via Amazon. Either way, I have decided upon a few titles which rank high among the totem pole of all I bought in 2011. I wouldn't say this list is in any particular order or rank, however. Just the five titles released this year I've gotten the most enjoyment out of.

The Bangles – Sweetheart of The Sun
Model Music Group/Fontana/Down Kiddie Records

As a big Bangles fan, any new music from them is welcome. That’s why it was so exciting to hear that they decided to release a completely new album in 2011. While original bassist Michael Steele has not been involved with the band since the early 2000s thus rendering the group a trio, their well-developed sound is still the familiar mix of pretty harmonies over a bed of rocking 12-string guitars. Susanna Hoffs brought in her Sid ‘N’ Susie partner Matthew Sweet to co-produce and engineer most of the album. While the album is not without it’s weak moments, it’s a fine addition to the group’s catalog. It instantly reminded me of their first album for Columbia Records, All Over The Place. Key tracks include “Mesmerized”, the torchy “I’ll Never Be Through With You” and the in-your-face psychedelic dreamscape of “Sweet and Tender Romance”. Seek it out if you haven’t already. 

Dr. Pants – The Trip: Side One/Side Two
Little Weasel

While this is technically two separate releases (the band is releasing their double album as a set of four EPs), they are attributed to the same artist (and album). So really, this is half of an entire album (which we will hopefully hear the conclusion of in 2012). It’s no secret how much I like this group and their quirk-filled, hook-driven brand of “nerd-power groove-rock”. Leader David Broyles went a few extra miles to ensure this release would stand out from their sometimes lo-fi  rootsy (and ever charming) previous work by enlisting the help of ‘little weasels’ everywhere.  Thanks to donations from friends and fans alike, they were able to up their usual budget and create a more textured and cohesive effort that was sure to please the masses while still remaining true to their loyal fan base. I can’t argue with the results; Broyles’ well-honed songwriting skills coupled with some of the tightest instrumental work the band has ever captured onto digital tape make for a consistently strong album (well, half-album anyway). Instant favorites include “Bowling With A Genius”, “Hipster Kid/Sexy Beards” and “Calling Chewbacca”.  If this is a sign of things to come, 2012 should be a good year. 

Wilco – The Whole Love

This is the group’s first release on their own record label. While I’ve never been the biggest fan of Wilco (always have been hit or miss with me), I picked up this album after hearing a few tracks on SiriusXM that I liked. Well, they’ve made a believer out of me. This is a fine album and definitely deserves the Grammy nom it picked up a few weeks ago. A few editions come with some great bonus tracks including a stellar cover of Nick Lowe’s “I Love My Label” (way to be tongue-in-cheek, Wilco).

The Mamas & The Papas – If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears [MONO]
Sundazed/Dunhill/Universal Music

For the first time in digital form, this classic album is able to be heard the way it was meant to be heard. As someone who loved the music but thought the stereo mixes left a lot to be desired, this release was a more than welcome addition to the Mamas & Papas slot in my music collection. Sundazed Records was able to come across a long lost tape copy of the highly regarded mono mixes for the group’s first album. Being able to hear “Monday Monday” and “California Dreamin’” in the mixes that were played on the radio back in the day (i.e. the “hit” mixes) is a real ear-opener. Music and vocals that once seemed naked and isolated are finally married together in a extraordinary cacophony that envelopes the listener. Here’s hoping the folks at Sundazed are able to find more mono Mamas and Papas tapes!

The Beach Boys -The SMiLE Sessions Box Set
Capitol/EMI /Brother Records

A no-brainer. My favorite group finally releases an official box set of their most famous unreleased album. This is the music that I devoured for years on crappy bootleg tapes, vinyl, CD-Rs and mp3s. Longtime Beach Boys/Brian Wilson camp members Mark Linnett and Alan Boyd compiled an assembly of an as-close-to-finished-as-possible SMiLE album using Wilson’s completed 2004 solo version as a guide. While it’s great to hear the songs assembled in such a fashion, I found myself getting lost in the other discs witin the set. Having jumped at the (more expensive) 5 disc CD with bonus vinyl box set, I spent a lot of time enjoying the fascinating sessions in the highest quality I’d ever heard. The packaging, complete with a huge book of photos, essays, interviews and other SMiLE paraphernalia  is everything I could have hoped for in an official release of this life changing music. It never ceases to give me chills down the spine. That’s the sign of a great work.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Every Line They Scrutinize: Michael Jackson & Janet Jackson - Scream

In some people's memory, in particular one nameless journalist whom appeared on one of those 'True Hollywood Story' television docs, "Scream", the 1995 collaboration between famous siblings Michael and Janet Jackson was a 'bomb'. True, it may not be as well remembered or loved as Michael's "Beat It" or Janet's "Rhythm Nation" by the mass public, but it was far from disaster.

In fact, "Scream" happens to be one of my all time favorite tracks by either Janet or Michael. The song had a lot of hype to live up to with two (then) megastar names collaborating on the lead off single to Michael's HIStory  album. While the term megastar doesn't carry much weight in these times, it would roughly be the equivalent of a duet between Lady Gaga & Madonna today. Some could even argue that it's the equivalent of a duet between Lady Gaga and Beyonce' today, which has happened... twice.

I, for one, believe that the track certainly lives up to said hype. It has a whole lot going for it. Michael and Janet's respective production teams joined forces and turned what could have easily turned into a banal piece of filler into a considerably edgy and catchy, danceable single. A careful listen through headphones reveals the multiple layers that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, alongside both Jackson siblings and Michael's resident engineer Bruce Swedian crafted to create the harsh, digital atmospheric sound scape. Without a doubt, the track still stands up as a production marvel and a lot of modern pop music sounds like an off-brand imitation of "Scream"'s searing beat.

sibling rivalry at its best

You can't breathe word of the song "Scream" without mentioning the eye-catching video. It too has a whole lot going for it:

  • Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson dancing their asses off
  • Groundbreaking, even by today's standards, special effects
  • Things being smashed
  • Pong
  • Janet Jackson giving the finger to correspond with the track's surprising "F Bomb"
  • All this and more takes place... IN S-P-A-C-E!!!! 
 In the years predating MJ's premature death, I could usually be caught defending the integrity of this song. Sadly, when an artist dies, everyone begins to appreciate their body of work as a whole a lot more, regardless of how they felt about it prior. Thus, it's really cool to like this track again.

However, for me, it was never uncool. I doubt Lady Gaga and Madonna's duet (if it ever happens) would even be able to touch it.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Compilation Nation: Elton John - Greatest Hits

Only one of the best album covers of all time!
When it comes down to bare essentials, this 1974 compilation of Elton's early 70s hits is about as bare and essential as it gets. Upon it's original pressing, it was graced with just 10 tracks. The US and the UK versions differed slightly, with "Candle in The Wind" replacing "Bennie and The Jets" on the latter. Even more puzzling was the omission of tracks from Elton's Madman Across The Water album such as "Levon" and "Tiny Dancer" in favor of "Border Song" from the Elton John LP.

Yet, as an album it is most definitely a strong and satisfying listen. In my opinion, these are Elton's strongest hits. This was when he was at the top of his game. Sure, he would become even more successful after this album, but from "Your Song" to the concluding "Crocodile Rock", this is the tops.

Presented in a non-chronological order, Greatest Hits flows remarkably well from track to track. Having grown up with the US version, I was surprised when I first purchased the CD incarnation years ago and found that "Candle in The Wind" had been added to the track list. While it was interesting to hear a track that I had previously only heard as a live cut on the Live In Australia with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra album, it did interrupt the flow for me. Therefore, I think the US version is tops while the UK version runs out of gas in the second half.

NOTE: "Candle In The Wind" was a hit in the UK and "Bennie and The Jets" was a hit in the US, hence the difference between the two countries.

Breif it may be, but it serves as the best introduction to the vast world of Elton John's music. Buy it for your kids. They'll thank you for it years later.
  1. Your Song
  2. Daniel
  3. Honky Cat
  4. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
  5. Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting
  6. Rocket Man
  7. Bennie & The Jets
  8. Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me
  9. Border Song
  10. Crocodile Rock

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Blogging With A Genius: Dr. Pants

Sincere apologies for the complete lack of updation within the past couple of months. Being a working musician, I have been a bit preoccupied with getting my first full length album recorded and mixed. Wanting to focus every last bit of creative energy into that pretty much meant that I did not have much thought about this blog during that time. However, I don’t want this baby to disappear into the black hole of cyber space. Therefore, ATKA? is back!

In honor of our (hopefully) welcome return, I would like to take an opportunity to talk about one of the better live bands I have ever had the pleasure to see. If you are into rock that doesn’t take it self far too seriously and have a flare for Zappa-esque ideology and They Might Be Giants-esque morals being preached by Weezer, there’s a chance you would love the hell out of Dr. Pants.

My introduction to the world of Dr. Pants happened as I was traveling around Oklahoma City in my (now totaled) white Chevy Aveo listening to the (now defunct) Spy FM station. A song came on that caught my attention right away. It was the kind of rock that I didn’t hear too much of in recent years. The lyrics were cute and poppy but were delivered with what seemed like a lot of heart. The riff was relentless and by the last chorus, I was singing along with the window rolled down for everyone to hear. The song was “Sarsaparilla Girl” by Dr. Pants. The lead-off track from their 2006 album, Gardening in A Tornado was enough to make me drive home as fast as legally possible in order to find out as much about the band as I could about this band.

Check out the "Sarsaparilla Girl" video here:

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they were a local Oklahoma City band and had been around off and on since the early 2000s. Their brand of “nerd power groove rock” has earned them a rather devoted following, myself now included.

Somewhere along the way, lead singer/songwriter/guitarist David Broyles and I became friends (coincidentally, David co-wrote one of the songs on my newly completed album) and, as the host of The Mixtape Jones Radio Show on JiveWired.com, he has shown a great deal of support for my music.

Therefore, I feel inclined to brag on Dr. Pants a little bit. Having recently been awarded the People's Choice Woody award by the Oklahoma Gazette, it seems I'm not alone.
Gardening In A Tornado released 2006 on Little Weasel Records

Since I have discovered them, I have made an effort to include at least one of their songs on each and every mix CD I have made for someone (and I make quite a few). In addition to “Sarsaparilla Girl”, the ‘Gardening...’ album also offers such tasty rock treats as “Doppelganger Rock” and “Away From This” to the delightful white boy rap about “Donuts”.

With each album and EP release, their musical growth becomes more and more evident. 2008‘s Cusack/Loggins EP has taken up a lot of space in their current live setlists with crowd favorites  “If I Were John Cusack”, “Bootyfest”, and the irresistible “Kenny Loggins” (a song actually centered around a somewhat inside joke regarding the title of a long lost Loggins album).

Most recently, Broyles and company have taken on the task of releasing a complete album as four separate EPs, the first of which is appearing within the following months. Already, insiders are claiming that this shall be the best work that the band has done yet. Having heard some of the new material in demo and live form, I can vouch for them.

Rock on, indeed.

For more info on Dr. Pants or to join their mailing list, just CLICK HERE! 

I feel obligated to inform the readers that when I said The Spy FM was defunct, I only meant the actual FM station. The Spy is still available on the world wide web and they still play Dr. Pants religiously. Check it out HERE.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Grammys 2011

I usually try to tune in to the travesty that is known as the Recording Academy's award show each and every year. When I was a kid, it was a great chance to see all my favorite artists of new and old together on the same show being rewarded for their work. Things and times have changed and I can't blame the Grammy folks for wanting to appeal to the youngsters and get good ratings. Once I realized the awards I really cared about (such as best engineered recording) would most likely be preempted by a Justin Bieber performance, I just sat back and tried to find the good in what was shown.

For me, the highlight of the entire evening was Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers and Bob Dylan's all killer no filler performance. In regards to Dylan's voice... that's how he sounds. That's how he sounded when I saw him in concert back in November of 2010. Nothing out of the ordinary. Very raspy and most, if not all, the songs were pretty much talked with a hint of a melody thrown in somewhere. He seems to fancy himself an Elvis-inspired preacher now, judging by the way he stands at the mic and recites his lyrics. I was into it.

Cee-Low was great. I like Gwenyth Paltrow, but just because her Glee version of "(The Song Otherwise Know As) Forget You" was downloaded just as much as the original version doesn't mean she should have been there. She could have at least worn a Big Bird costume to match the rest of the performers on stage.

The disappointment for me was Lady' Gaga's performance. Firstly, I was unimpressed with the "Born This Way" single. Like most listeners, I was quick to point out it's similarity in chord structure and melody to Madonna's "Express Yourself". While this is no surprise as far as the current music industry (isn't that Lady Antebellum song just The Alan Parsons Project's "Eye In The Sky" in a higher key?), I was surprised that she would pick it for the lead off single and the title track for her next album. Her actual performance of it at the Grammys wasn't bad and I applaud her for not lip-syncing (at least 97% of her vocals appeared to be live), but it was a let down when compared to usual stage shows. Extended pipe organ solos and pointed prosthetic shoulders won't make a bad song any better. I hope her new album delivers something better or equal to the material on The Fame Monster.

I was also turned off by the fact that very few awards were actually given out during the broadcast. Honestly, how many times do I need to watch and hear Muse perform "Uprising"? Also, the time allotted for speeches keeps getting shorter and shorter.

I was, however, impressed by the sound engineering. Really nice mix for a live event. It's rare to find someone who can really mix live sound (especially when mixing them with pre-recorded tracks) but the vocals and the music was blended really well. There was some great natural sounding reverb happening too. Better than usual in that department.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Upcoming releases to be excited about!

Here's a shortlist of what will have me rushing to the download and/or physical product store in 2011:

The Cars [TBA]Blondie [TBA]
Sixpence None The Richer [TBA]
Death Cab For Cutie [Spring 2011]
Fiona Apple [Spring 2011]
Blink 182 [TBA]
R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now [Spring 2011]
Nicole Atkins - Mondo Amore [January 25th]
PJ Harvey - Let England Shake [February 14th]
Bright Eyes - The People's Key [February 15th]
The Strokes [March 22nd]

And I believe Amy Winehouse is supposed to have something out this month. We'll see how that one goes. I quite enjoyed "Back To Black". Hope she has some more great songs under that beehive of hers.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Compilation Nation - Ace’s Charbusters USA series

I would like to take this moment to present the first installment of the ‘Compilation Nation’ section of The Kids Are Alright. In this section, I will offer my thoughts and insights on a few choice compilations of music. Some will be various artists releases like soundtracks and such; others will be single-artist affairs.

Volume 2 issued in 2002

For the inaugural edition, I chose to highlight one of my favorite series put together by the amazing Ace label. The guys at Ace don’t skimp on the details. They always make sure that you get your money’s worth. The great lengths they go to in order to appease the listener is extremely evident in the Chartbusters USA series.

The premise of this collection of 1960s pop hits is unique. Instead of the mundane mix of tunes you get on most run-of-the-mill compilations, Chartbusters USA presents a novel idea; British compilers hand picking their favorite American artist’s hits (the producers make it a point to include only one British artist per volume).

These collections were released sporadically from 2001 to 2009. Each volume contains roughly 30 tracks on one disc (remember what I said about getting your money’s worth?).

The track selection ranges from the familiar (The Turtles’ “Happy Together” kicks off the most recent volume, a special edition dedicated to Sunshine Pop) to the relatively obscure (The Tokens ‘flop’ entitled “She Lets Her Hair Down” is found later on the very same disc).

Mastering is good for the most part, though once in a while, I’m sad to say this series didn’t always live up to the great reputation Ace has made for themselves. Granted, the songs are transferred from the best possible sources, there seems to be more audible processing than I personally desire. Volume 2 contains a slight tape drag error right on the beginning of Classic IV’s “Spooky” and most of the Sunshine Pop collection is so maximized that your ears might ring from too many repeated listens. This is fairly small criticism and generally, the pros outweigh the cons by a mile.

A truly eclectic range of musical styles are represented. Motown. Garage rock. Country. Jazz. Bubblegum. Folk rock. You name it... it's there. As a bonus, you’ll get mono or stereo mixes that aren’t too common with a few of these tracks. The Neon Philharmonic’s “Morning Girl” in mono is something to be experienced. I could not get enough listens in.

If this collection is unfamiliar to you and you are intrigued, I urge you to check them out for yourself. I got all mine off of Amazon but you might be lucky enough to find them elsewhere.
If you are wanting to dive deeper into the magic that was the music of the 1960s, this is a great starter kit for your journey.